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Egotism and Awe

I'm in awe of my ego.

I’m in awe of my ego.

Are egotism and awe inversely related? As one goes up, does the other go down? Could egotism and awe be two ends of the same spectrum?

Let’s start with egotism. Is it going up or down? Are our kids more egotistic than we were at the same age? Are we more self-centered than our parents were?

There’s growing evidence that egotism is on the rise. William Chopik and his colleagues, for instance, researched long-term trends in egotism by analyzing every State of the Union address from 1790 to 2012. They counted the words and analyzed the number that showed self-interest (“me’, “mine” “I”, “our”) compared to the number that showed interest in others (“you”, “your”, “his”, “theirs”). The ratio between the two became the “egocentricity index”.

Up until 1900, other-focused words dominated, outnumbering self-focused words every year. In 1920, however, the trend reversed and self-focused words have outnumbered other-focused words ever since. Though the trend is inexorably upward, there are peaks and valleys. For instance, the index spikes after economic booms and slides during recessions. (The research article is here. A less academic summary is here.)

Why would we grow more egocentric over time? Perhaps the economy accentuates the trend. From 1960 to the present, American GNP per capita has roughly tripled. The egocentricity index hasn’t grown quite so quickly but it has accelerated compared to pre-1960 levels – just as the economy has.

Emily Bianchi’s research lends credence to this thought. Bianchi measured the narcissism of over 32,000 people aged 18 to 83. She found that those who had come of age (aged 18 to 25) during recessions were less likely to be narcissistic later in life compared to those who came of age in boom times. (The research article is here. A less academic summary is here).

A number of other articles (for instance here, here, and here) suggest that egocentrism has increased significantly over the past 40 years or so.

And while egotism has been on the rise, what’s been happening to awe? According to Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, it’s on the decline. And we should be worried about it.

Piff and Keltner argue that awe is a collective emotion “that motivates people to do things that enhance the greater good.” The authors have done a number of studies (here and here, for instance) that induce awe in research subjects and measure the effects. Those who experienced more awe were also more likely to help strangers, lend a hand after an accident, and share more resources.

Writing in the New York Times, Piff and Keltner suggest that our culture is “awe-deprived”. People spend less time staring at the stars, watching the Northern lights, camping out, or even just visiting art museums. Indeed, when was the last time you got awe-induced goose bumps?

The authors suggest that the overall reduction in awe is linked to a “broad societal shift” over the last 50 years. “People have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected to others.”

Did the rise in egocentrism cause the decline in awe? If so, could we reduce egocentrism by increasing awe in our culture? It’s hard to say but it’s certainly worth a try. Let’s head for the hills.

Persuasion and Self-Interest

Persuasive speakers often appeal to your self-interest. But which is more persuasive: appealing to your short-term or your long-term self-interest?

I’ve always guessed that the most persuasive arguments appeal to your short-term interests. I want results now … and I assume that most other people do, too. It just seems like common sense. But I haven’t had much empirical evidence to back up my position until I noticed an article on fitness and exercise by Jane Brody in today’s New York Times. (You can find it here).

The article purports to be about exercise but it’s really about persuasion. How do you persuade people to take up exercise and stick with it? Traditionally we have “pitched” exercise either as a long-term benefit (“you’ll live longer”) or as a punishment (“you’re overweight; you have to work out”). As Brody points out, such messages are often sufficient to get people off the couch but rarely sufficient to keep them exercising long term.

Brody sums up the the need to focus on short-term benefits with a quote from Michelle Segar of the Univeristy of Michigan: “Immediate rewards are more motivating than distant ones. Feeling happy and less stressed is more motivating than not getting heart disease or cancer, maybe, some day in the future.”

So how does this affect your persuasive techniques? We’ve all experienced the difficulty of persuading people based on long-term interests. Perhaps you’ve tried to convince your children to study or save for the future. Or argued the politics of long-term environmental dangers. Or debated the future of programs like Social Security or Medicare. You’ll be more persuasive if you can focus your arguments on short-term benefits (and emotions) rather than long-term abstractions.

This may mean that you’ll leaven your argument with feelings and emotions more than facts and data. For instance, if you’re trying to persuade your children to save for the future, you might argue that, “If you save a little each day, your future will be secure.” That’s factual, future-oriented, and long-term. It’s also very abstract and fuzzy, especially to a young person. So you might try a different tack: “You’ll worry less and feel better if you know that your future is secure.” It’s more emotional and more immediate. It’s also more persuasive.

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