Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Be your conformist, approval seeking, self

People recommend that one another 'be themselves' rather than being influenced by outside expectations and norms. Nobody suggests others should try harder to follow the crowd. They needn't anyway; we seem fairly motivated by impressing others and fitting in. Few seem interested in 'being themselves' in the sense of behaving as they would if nobody was ever watching. The 'individuality' we celebrate usually seems designed for observers. What do people do when there's only themselves to care? Fart louder and leave their dirty cups around. This striving for unadulterated selfhood is not praised. Yes, it seems in most cases you can get more approval if you tailor your actions to getting approval. So why do we so commonly offer this same advice, that we don't follow, and don't approve of any real manifestation of?

8 comments:

Jacob Wintersmith said...

Conformist behavior is a very common way to seek approval, but conformism and approval seeking are not the same things. I think that individuality design for outside observers still deserves the title.


Regarding farts and dirty dishes, I suspect our behavior is usually better understood as a Coasian bargain than as approval seeking. Each of us is much more annoyed by other peoples' messes than by our own. Consequentially, when people live together everyone is best off if each person picks up their own messes. This remains true even if no one cares about anyone else's approval.

If picking up our messes and farting quietly is driven primarily by approval-seeking, then there should exist a better equilibrium where everyone stops wasting energy seeking approval in this manner and simply accepts the farts and messes of others.

A person who reacts to the messes of their roomates by saying "Oh, thank goodness! Now I don't need to worry so much about my own messes." is driven by approval seeking. But if most people do not react in this way, then that supports the Coasian bargain hypothesis.

Katja Grace said...

Didn't mean to imply they are the same - they both fit in higher category of behavior chosen for others' responses.

You might be right that cleanliness is a bargain rather than wasteful signaling. My point still holds though. What people say and how they act in public is generally different from in private. The direction of change is toward more embarrassing, less impressive behavior. What people don't do more when nobody sees or will care is dress with unique style, put effort into devising original opinions, be impressively quirky and memorable, etc.

Anonymous said...

I think it's because "being an individual," in the way it's conventionally used, means to be: confident, lack of self-consciousness, internally approve actions, non-needy, self-value not outcome-dependent and self-actualized. These are all traits that individualist societies (as opposed to communal ones) value in a person.

This doesn't mean that no signaling is happening. Confidence and high self-esteem are reliable signals of high status.

Katja Grace said...

So individualism is about people doing individualistic things that the group wants them to do rather than communal things?

It seems when people rave about being yourself this is not what they mean. Am I wrong?

Anonymous said...

When people say "just be yourself" they are, in most cases, giving the person advice. They sense they are sending off the wrong signals and suggest they try "being themselves" in correction. I think that the cases where they do give this advice, the advice-target is communicated something that is externally validated e.g., trying to impress a group of schoolmates by dressing like a rapper.

Someone who is blatantly using externally validated signals can sometimes be a sign of low self-esteem and the other things I described in my previous comment.

In communal societies, externally validated signals are more signs of loyalty and conformity rather than low self-esteem and low status.

shagbark said...

Good observation - but I think this is a culture-specific thing. Australia and the US are extremely individualistic societies. I doubt people advocate "being yourself" in China or Japan.

lawjk said...

I've viewed "be yourself" as one of the most meaningless statement ever. Again, not a new idea nor one unique to me, but isn't everything I already do is "being myself" thus "be yourself" doesn't change anything. If it means "disregard societal norms" then wouldn't that be the best way to lose friends and alienate people?

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