What are we most addicted to? “We are addicted to one another, to the affirmation of our value—our very being—that comes from other human beings,” suggests Alan Jacobs for Comment. “We are addicted to being validated by our peers.”
Election years make this addiction profoundly obvious: all politicians seek the favor and accolades of their constituents, but none more fervently or self-consciously than the presidential candidate. And no other presidential candidate has sought this more incessantly and blatantly, one could argue, than Donald Trump. When he isn’t bragging about poll numbers or past approbations, he’s on Twitter: trolling, bragging, and posturing, hunting for affirmation from the vast sea of followers the internet provides.
I thought of Trump when reading about a new study on the self-delusion often evident in selfie-taking. Pacific Standard reports that we think we look more appealing in our self-portraits than we actually are: “participants who habitually take selfies perceived themselves as ‘more attractive and likable in their selfies than in others’ photos.'”
But in reality, “external raters actually perceived the targets’ selfies to look less attractive and less likable than the photos taken by others,” said the study’s creators. For those who regularly take them, selfies apparently “produce the photographic equivalent of a meta-perceptual blind spot.”
Our “meta-perceptual blind spot” needn’t be induced by taking selfies, and it needn’t be relegated to the realm of physical appearance. Social media is full of self-curation, honing a particular image or “brand” that we broadcast to the world. And it seems altogether too likely that the picture of the self we’re putting forward is less appealing than we think it is.
Trump (if he is who he appears to be) reveals the worst tendencies and temptations of our nature: a desire for praise and followers, a need to always be right and never have to ask forgiveness; but most of all, perhaps, he displays the dangers of constantly putting a curated persona on display, without pausing for self-reflection or examination. Who knows whether the belligerent, rough comments we see on Twitter via @realDonaldTrump are always truly indicative of the real Donald Trump—or whether, like a poorly-postured selfie, Trump is just showing us what he thinks we want to see.
One could argue that much of this culture-wide obsession with others’ favor, and corresponding discrepancy between real and broadcasted selves, stems from the mediums we use. Facebook/Twitter/Instagram make us do it. But perhaps our addiction has more to do with what we aren’t doing than with what we are.
Teddy Wayne suggests for the New York Times that we’re suffering from the loss of the contemplative mind: “There are many moments throughout my average day that… were once occupied by thinking or observing my surroundings,” he writes. “Walking or waiting somewhere, riding the subway, lying in bed unable to sleep or before mustering the energy to get up. Now, though, I often find myself in these situations picking up my phone…”
This is something Louis C.K. has brilliantly commented on in the past—in one of his comedy acts, he explains why he won’t let his children have cell phones. He suggests that it impedes their ability to be alone, to be still, and thus to be aware of the world around them. Jacobs summarizes the skit well:
He described a day when he was driving along as an emotionally intense Bruce Springsteen song came on the radio, and he started to feel a certain melancholy welling up in him, and his instant response to that melancholy was to want to grab his phone and text someone. “People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own, because they don’t want to be alone for a second,” he said.
But on that day when, in his car, Louie felt the melancholy welling up, he resisted the temptation to grab his phone. As the sadness grew, he had to pull over to the side of the road to weep. And after the weeping came an equally strong joy and gratitude for his life. But when we heed that impulse to grab the phone and connect with someone, we don’t allow the melancholy to develop, and therefore can’t receive the compensatory joy. Which leaves us, Louie says, in this situation: “You don’t ever feel really sad or really happy, you just feel . . . kinda satisfied with your products. And then you die. And that’s why I don’t want to get phones for my kids.”
Why is it that our solipsism is, in Wayne’s words, “frequently given outward expression rather than inward exploration”? Perhaps because we’d rather be surrounded by virtual presences than alone with ourselves. To contemplate the self is, eventually, to contemplate sin, suffering, and mortality. To see one’s weaknesses and regrets, and come to grips with them.
This, it seems, is what many of us are afraid of. And thus social media becomes a balm to troubled minds and hearts. The selfie indicates a need for others to see us, and to applaud what they see. It suggests that we need to be “liked,” literally and figuratively.
To conquer our meta-perceptual blind spots does not necessarily require a full retreat from social media, disbanding Facebook and Snapchat and Twitter and Instagram in a mass shedding of internet usage. While the medium obviously has power, as mentioned above, it’s what we aren’t doing that often makes us especially susceptible to the temptations of social media technology.
What would happen if, when in line at the grocery store, stuck in rush hour traffic, cleaning the house, doing the laundry, working out, or mowing the lawn, we paused all the social media and technology and embraced some thoughtful, quiet “alone” time? What if we pulled out dusty journals (the real physical ones with pages) and put words to paper before penning tweets or statuses? What if we decided to spend half an hour less time on social media, and instead spent that time reading a book or going on a quiet walk?
The above acts shouldn’t necessarily replace social time. But they should replace social media time. Being alone without the disruption of a buzzing phone, letting ourselves seep into contemplative silence, these can give room to the melancholy, meaningful, and honest thoughts that matter. They can help us build a proper sense of self, one not tied to the accolades or acerbic comments of others.
If that selfie study is correct, what you think is most palatable and enjoyable about yourself may, in fact, be less appealing than the real “you” that exists away from the social media filters. Turn off your phone and contemplate on that.
Gracy Olmstead is senior staff writer for The American Conservative.