Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Are we more self-absorbed than previous generations, or just more self-aware?

By Claude Fischer

For several years some psychologists have been arguing that Americans (especially American youth) of the modern era are more self-absorbed and self-interested than were Americans of an earlier era. (“Earlier” can mean pre-21st century, or pre-1960s, or pre-20th century, or whenever.) Much of the evidence they offer – heavily debated – come from compilations of personality surveys taken by college students. More recently, some researchers have offered evidence based on counting word types. The latest instance is an April paper in the journal Personality and Individual Differences (h/t Robb Willer) that codes and tabulates words in presidential State of the Union addresses to make the same point. This paper is, frankly, a trifle. But it does provide an occasion for commenting on the general thesis and for extracting the serious and in some ways valid thread in this line of work.

The authors of the recent paper take the texts of State of the Union (SOTU) addresses from 1790 to 2012 and calculate an “Egocentricity Index” based on how often the texts include first-person singular pronouns (“I,” “me,” “mine”), first-person plural pronouns (“we,” “us,” “our”), and mentions of family – indicators of presidents’ “self-centeredness” – versus how often they include other-person pronouns and mentions of friends – indicators of presidents’ other-centeredness. Over time, presidential SOTUs became more egocentric, shifting from high other-centered to high self-centered counts, suggesting that we Americans became more egocentric.

Aside from basic questions, such as how representative presidents (or their speech-writers) are, and technical questions, such the coding rules for the pronouns, this historical analysis – like some other efforts to describe historical change with word counts (see here and here) – is remarkably innocent of actual history. As Wikipedia, no esoteric source, points out: “During most of the country’s first century [1801-1912], the President primarily just submitted a written report to Congress. With the advent of radio and television, the address [called, until FDR, “the President's Annual Message to Congress”] is now broadcast live across the country on most networks.” Coolidge delivered the first radio version, Truman the first TV version, LBJ the first prime-time address, and Reagan first called out celebrities and heroes in the SOTU audience. In sum, to compare early 19th-century SOTU reports to 21st-century SOTU media carnivals is a bit like comparing annual fiscal reports from corporate CEOs to episodes of American Idol.

Then, there is the issue that content and style and vocabulary changed, independent of self- versus other-centeredness. Let’s take the starts and ends of two texts – Thomas Jefferson’s first Annual Message in 1801, the first one delivered in writing, and George W. Bush’s first SOTU, two centuries later:

Fellow Citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives: It is a circumstance of sincere gratification to me that on meeting the great council of our nation, I am able to announce to them, on the grounds of reasonable certainty, that the wars and troubles which have for so many years afflicted our sister nations have at length come to an end . . .

I indulge the pleasing persuasion that the great body of our citizens will cordially concur in honest and disinterested efforts, which have for their object to preserve the general and State governments in their constitutional form and equilibrium; to maintain peace abroad, and order and obedience to the laws at home; to establish principles and practices of administration favorable to the security of liberty and prosperity, and to reduce expenses to what is necessary for the useful purposes of government.


Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of Congress: It is a great privilege to be here to outline a new budget and a new approach for governing our great country. I thank you for your invitation to speak here tonight. I know Congress had to formally invite me and it could have been a close vote. [laughter] So, Mr. Vice President, I appreciate you being here to break the tie….

We all came here for a reason. We all have things we want to accomplish and promises to keep. Juntos podemos, together we can. We can make Americans proud of their government. Together we can share in the credit of making our country more prosperous and generous and just, and earn from our conscience and from our fellow citizens, the highest possible praise: well done, good and faithful servants. Thank you all. Good night. And God bless. [applause]

There’s a lot more change here than pronoun shifts.

To the serious issue of whether contemporary Americans have become more self-interested or even selfish than in earlier eras: There may well be something in this claim, but in large part the argument is a matter of spin.

It is true (I argue in Made in America, Ch. 6) that over the last couple of hundred years or so, more and more Americans attended more to their “selves,” to examining who they are and what they want and how to achieve their personal ends. In large measure, this reflects the broadening scope of individual autonomy. In the era of John Adams, slaves and servants and women and youth and the poor were not fully, if at all, autonomous. Most, governed by white male heads of households and local gentry, did not have the notion, much less the time, to examine, nurture, and “actualize” their inner selves. By George W. Bush’s era, as the vast shelves of self-exploration, self-help, and self-therapy books, along with comparable television programs, testify, “knowing thyself” had become a democratic pursuit. It is not that Americans of an earlier era didn’t indulge in self-absorption. Indeed, many of the elite left detailed accounts of their self-examinations – who was more narcissistic than Ben Franklin? – but self-analysis became a much more democratic pursuit.

(Trends toward gender equality can be understood precisely in this sense, as increasing permission for women to ask, What do I want?)

Clinton SOTU, 2000

One can argue that not only did the breadth of self-absorption expand, but so did its depth. One way was the development and popularization of psychology in the last century-plus. Average Americans of today are equipped with a large toolkit of concepts and vocabulary for engaging in self-exploration. Also, Americans increasingly accepted the idea that everyone ought to think independently, for themselves, and not simply succumb to authority, tradition, or group opinion. In this vein, over the last three or four generations, fewer Americans told survey interviewers that children ought to be taught obedience and politeness, and more told interviewers that children ought to taught to think for themselves. (The work of Duane Alwin is central; e.,g, here.)

When researchers write about increasing attention to the self, they can describe it in negative terms – as self-absorption, self-interest, selfishness – or in positive terms – as self-exploration, self-esteem, self-development. Maybe, it is all of these.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer's Made in America blog