Thursday, October 13, 2011

"Easily Embarrassed"

Maybe we just have too many social scientists with too much time on their hands. Or maybe we have all been lured into a cult to expertise where all aspects of human behavior have been subjected to serious scientific study.

A couple of days ago Vicky Ward wrote that that enough is enough. Enough with all the studies.

In her words: “You don't need expensive studies to tell you what common sense does.”

But then again, how many people really trust their common sense. Doesn’t it make you “common” when you trust your common sense?

Ward refers to a new study that purports to show you whether or not your child has the recently-discovered selfish gene.

When mothers see this kind of study on the cover of a magazine, they drop everything to read the latest scientific judgment about their children. Concerned mothers want to know whether their children have a selfish gene.

Of course, we like to hope that they did not need a magazine article to learn about their children’s moral character.

It turns out that the study merely reports the obvious; some children are slightly more likely to want to share than others. Most seem to be generous.

Any mother knows this, Ward explains. It is not earth-shattering.

But why do mothers allow themselves to be manipulated into following the edicts from social scientists when bringing up their children?

Peer pressure mixed with cultural pressure, I would say.

When a mother, think of Tiger Mom Amy Chua, decides to bring up her children as she thinks best, relying not on the latest scientific “discovery” but on thousands of years of tradition, the matriarchy rises up in  outrage and accuses her of child abuse.

After all, these mothers have all read the studies. They have all followed the letter of these studies. And thus, they have suffered the consequences.

Relying on experts undermines our trust in ourselves and in our judgment. It is the enemy of common sense.

By dictating the right and wrong ways to behave, expert studies risk depriving us of our freedom, to say nothing of our moral compass.

Of course, that’s the point. The more we rely on serious studies the less we trust our common sense, our own good judgment. Even if you tend to trust your own judgment, how many studies will it take before you start losing confidence?

How can we overcome this pernicious cult to expertise? Clearly, some few courageous individuals will risk opprobrium to disobey expert edicts. Beyond that, we need studies that refute the studies. We need new studies that counterbalance the customs and mores that have been foisted on us by the therapy culture.

Everyone knows that the therapy culture has been waging war on shame. Given its promotion of open and honest, free and mindless self-expression, the therapy culture must militate against modesty and humility, your sense of shame or embarrassment.

(For the record, I see the difference between shame and embarrassment as one of degree, not of kind. Embarrassment means that you blush, turn your look away and down. Shame involves hiding under the table. In both cases you have lost face, a little or a lot. Still, both emotions are about losing face.)

For some time now the therapy culture has been an exercise in shamelessness.

It has taught young people that if they do not let it all hang out that can only mean that they are ashamed of their bodies.

It has taught the world that restraint and self-control are tantamount to repression.

And it has claimed, in many specious studies, that repression makes you sick, emotionally and physically.

The therapy culture has made a fetish of non-conformity. It has taught people to make their lives into works of art, that is, into permanent psychodramas.

It has told people that it is bad to adopt everyone else’s customs and manners. It has induced and enticed them to express their unique individuality through their dress, their language, and their behavior.

And then therapists cannot figure out why the younger generation contains so many asocial, amoral narcissists.

Many of us have done our best to undermine this so-called expert opinion. But given the prevailing mood, it is good to have some studies to buttress our point.

Social psychologists at Berkeley have just published a study that, in many ways, reinvents the ethical wheel.

Hopefully, most people knew it already, but still, it’s worth reading this, from social psychologist Robb Willer: “Embarrassment is one emotional signature of a person to whom you can entrust valuable resources. It’s part of the social glue that fosters trust and cooperation in everyday life.”

Better yet, when people show a capacity for embarrassment they are judged as being more “pro-social.” People want to associate and affiliate with them more. They are showing better character and people will naturally trust them more.

This suggests that people who have overcome their feelings of shame and embarrassment to the point where they are willing to wear their hearts on their sleeves or are ready, willing, and able to indulge the next hookup  will be less likely to form durable relationships.
The Berkeley studies also imply that excessive confidence tends to push people away. Who knew that arrogance was a repulsive while humility was attractive?

When people are confident they allow their actions to speak for them. If they have to shout from the rooftops how great they are, our moral sensors tell us to stay away.


David Foster said...

There is a lot of interesting & worthwhile social science research...often, though, when you actually read the papers rather than the media summary, the correlation coefficients or other indicators of the importance of the relationship between factors are pretty low. (And very often it's not even possible to get access to the actual paper without paying $35 or so to some publisher--this practice really needs to be suppressed for publicly-supported research)

Stuart Schneiderman said...

You are right that the high price of admission puts many of these papers off limits for most readers.

Much of the research is interesting and I try to draw attention to it when I can. But I think that Ward makes a good point... a lot of what is thrown at mothers in the name of research seems to be an effort to exploit their insecurities and to tell them to mistrust their own judgment about how to bring up their children.

Then the same thinking takes control in the school system and you produce things like the self-esteem movement.