May 24, 2012

Boasting, Desire, and Truth about Oneself

Once again, the always expanding human capacities of natural science and technology, coupled with the queries and questions of psychologists (and other social scientists) reopen questions long ago addressed, thought not entirely resolved -- by those working in the older humanistic disciplines, particularly philosophy and theology.  This time, the news about the results and interpretation of brain scans and surveys have to do with an eminently human preoccupation -- talking about ourselves.  Apparently, talking about oneself -- that's the way the majority of the stories run -- actives the same pleasure centers in the brain as other activities, for instance  having sex.

A study by Harvard researchers concludes that found written or verbal expression about oneself -- "self-disclosure" holds “intrinsic value” for the person engaging in it, providing pleasure to them.  The study got reported, along with a lot of very interesting speculation naturally flowing from the topic, in the Telegraph and the Wall Street Journal among other places, and then spread through the internet.  Interestingly, sites and networks have highlighted different aspects of the study and its implications, some focusing on the written (generally social media) type of expression, others on self-expression in verbal communication. The tone of many has been along the lines of more or less positive "aha!  well, that's no surprise, but glad we know it now," but there have been some exceptions, for instance, Shouts From The Abyss' interpretation of the study as bearing on a phenomenon of "conversational masturbation."  On the other extreme would be the Royal Society for Public Health's conclusion that talking about oneself is a vital component of one's well being.   So, what should we make of this new research?

Virtue Ethics on Self-Disclosure


Well, for one, the researchers are not actually telling us something we didn't already know about -- that is, if we've read some of the ancient philosophers.  Plato already noted back in the Symposium and the Republic that those things we've made we tend to regard with a fondness like that which we feel towards our children -- and why wouldn't that apply to what we've made or make of ourselves?  Why wouldn't that also apply to the images we project or portray of those qualities, achievements, successes, potentials, whether true of false, faithful or distorted?  Aristotle actually discusses the morality of self-disclosure and -promotion  in terms of virtues and vices in his Nicomachean and Eudemian Ethics.   In his view, there is in fact a virtuous disposition of Truthfulness (aletheia) which finds itself opposed on one side by a vice of Boastfulness (alazoneia) and on the other by Self-Deprecation (eironeia).

In Aristotle's treatment, it's not just what one says, or how much one talks about oneself which determines whether it is good or bad. The motivation of the person is equally important, the reason why he or she is talking about him or herself, telling his or her story, making comparisons to others. Whether the assessment of oneself is accurate or not is also of critical importance.  The truthful person sticks with what actually is the case.  The braggart stretches the truth, sometimes way beyond the breaking point, or they make up matters, perhaps convincing even themselves of their own lies.  The self-deprecating person says less than they should about themselves, portraying themselves as lower in value or quality, thereby departing, even perhaps with more laudable motives of modesty, from the truth

Aristotle is rather forgiving in comparison to certain moralists -- he thinks we ought to talk about ourselves in certain situations -- that this is in fact a good thing, both as an action, and in the disposition.  A classical example, which he could have adduced, would be Odysseus telling those at the Phaeacian court about who he is and what he has done in a manner that might strike people as boastful, but which in an ancient Greek context makes sense -- nobody else is there to speak up for him after all, and he did after all do those things, brave those adventures, carry out those labors, tasks, and stratagems, and it is the time when one would be expected to speak one's piece -- while informing the blinded cyclops of his identity, wanting to drive the stake in yet further, could well be an example of boastfulness.

For many Christian authors, Aristotle's position seems liable to lead into a sinful state of pridefulness or vainglory, and this does reflect a fundamental tension existing between a certain pagan view (not the only one, it must be said) of human nature and morality -- one in which magnanimity, a kind of legitimate pride  in one's own real greatness in relation to others and noble things, is celebrated as a significant, even capstone virtue -- and several different historically existent Christian views.  There are some who would adopt Augustine's quip, in his City of God, that the virtues of the pagans turn out upon examination rather to be "splendid vices," but they'd leave it at that, no explanation, simply that pride is bad and humility, generally understood as self-abasement, is good.

That's certainly not the only -- or even main -- Christian view, though, and some of the Virtue Ethicists among them articulate a more measured viewpoint.  In their analyses of pride (or vainglory) and humility, they connect pride with an incorrect, typically inflated assessment of the self, and they depict genuine humility as intimately interconnected with self-knowledge.  Anselm provides a classic example of this, as I've written about elsewhere, but you can see this at work in many others as well including two great predecessors of and influences upon Anselm, namely Augustine and John Cassian.  All of them are concerned about temptations to say too much or the wrong things about oneself -- to over-assess one's goodnesses and under-assess one's badnesses and therefore to engage in less than entirely conscious bragging, or even to lie about one's own condition, willingly and consciously bragging about oneself.  Humility means a commitment to being honest both with others and with oneself about who, and what, and how good one really is.  So it need not rule out talking about oneself, or even gaze with a jaundiced eye upon the pleasure that comes from talking about oneself.

Mention of that pleasure provides a good point to return to the recent discussions of science and self-talk, in which several different issues are muddled up together.  The Telegraph piece provides a great example, not least because the title and subtitle both centrally feature "boasting" as the issue -- and the Wall Street Journal report uses the term "bragging."  One would expect, naturally, given these pejorative terms, that what would have been studied would be -- at least in some sense -- bad self-disclosure, not just self-disclosure per se.  Is that the case?  What was reported?

The Study "Results"

From the WSJ piece:

About 40% of everyday speech is devoted to telling others about what we feel or think. Now, through five brain imaging and behavioral experiments, Harvard University neuroscientists have uncovered the reason: It feels so rewarding, at the level of brain cells and synapses, that we can't help sharing our thoughts.
"Self-disclosure is extra rewarding," said Harvard neuroscientist Diana Tamir, who conducted the experiments with Harvard colleague Jason Mitchell.

To assess people's inclination for what the researchers call "self disclosure," they conducted laboratory tests to see whether people placed an unusually high value on the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings. They also monitored brain activity among some volunteers to see what parts of the brain were most excited when people talked about themselves as opposed to other people.

In several tests, they offered the volunteers money if they chose to answer questions about other people, such as President Obama, rather than about themselves, paying out on a sliding scale of up to four cents. Questions involved casual matters such as whether someone enjoyed snowboarding or liked mushrooms on a pizza. Other queries involved personality traits, such as intelligence, curiosity or aggression.

Despite the financial incentive, people often preferred to talk about themselves and willingly gave up between 17% and 25% of their potential earnings so they could reveal personal information. "We joked that this was the penny for your thoughts study," Ms. Tamir said.

In related tests, the scientists used a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner, which tracks changes in blood flow between neurons associated with mental activity, to see what parts of the brain responded most strongly when people talked about their own beliefs and options, rather than speculating about other people.

Generally, acts of self disclosure were accompanied by spurts of heightened activity in brain regions belonging to the meso-limbic dopamine system, which is associated with the sense of reward and satisfaction from food, money or sex.

What Can we Actually Conclude?

 Notice three key things we can rightly conclude from all of this. 
  • First, we can definitively say that talking about oneself is pleasurable, not only in a psychological, phenomenologically-accessible way, but even in a physiological, scientifically-accessible way.  
  • Second, this is a good which people will prefer to other goods when they are forced to choose between them, for instance a given sum of money.  
  • Third, and most importantly, other than differentiating between talking about oneself and talking about other people or things, the study tells us nothing about the actual content of what is being said -- nothing about whether the subjects were truthful, duplicitous, honest, manipulative, boastful, vague, modest, humble, or anything of that sort.  It also tells us nothing about whether people estimated their own value with respect to any given trait, qualification, or achievement higher, lower, or as they ought to.  
So, strictly speaking, despite the headlines and the media buzz, this study actually reveals nothing useful to us about bragging -- only about self-disclosure or -talk more generally.
A few other points of interest, made in the Telegraph article:
Experts said the findings might explain why many people disclose personal, and sometimes intimate, details about themselves online. Previous studies have found that 30 to 40 per cent of human speech is used to relay information about private experiences or personal relationships. This compared to four in five posts on social media sites were found to be about a person's immediate experience.

"The Internet has drastically expanded the number of mediums through which we can talk about ourselves to other people," said Diana Tamir, a graduate student who led the study.

"We were interested in why people engage in self-disclosure so seemingly excessively.

“The hypothesis we wanted to test was whether or not this behaviour provided people with intrinsic or subjective value - did it feel good to do it."

She added: “This helps to explain why people so obsessively engage in this behaviour. It's because it provides them with some sort of subjective value. It feels good, basically.”

"Self-disclosure is a behaviour that we do all of the time, day in and day out. When you talk to people, they'll often talk about themselves," Miss Tamir said.

"On Twitter and Facebook, people are primarily posting about what they're thinking and feeling in the moment. This is one piece of evidence about why we may do that.
There's a bit of confusion evident there in conflating "intrinsic" with "subjective" value, forgivable because the valuation of self-talk does seem to reflect an intrinsic value for many who engage in it -- as opposed to a merely instrumental value, for instance when self-revelation is engaged in to put the mark of a salesman at ease, or when one confesses to keep oneself out of trouble, or when one self-reveals just in order to (hopefully) be liked by others.

This isn't of course to go so far as to say self-talk as such, all across the board, has genuinely intrinsic value, that it is always a good in-itself.  Rather, in many cases, it falls into the category of what ancient and medieval thinkers called the "pleasant good" -- distinguishing between the "useful good" (bonum utile), the "pleasurable good" (bonum dilectabile) and the "good-for-its-own sake", the intrinsically valuable good (bonum honestum).  In fact, self-talk or self-disclosure, when we get down to specifics, ranges over this entire set of values.  One can engage in it just to get something else which is desired.  One can do it because it does in many cases -- though certainly not all -- feel good.  Or revealing who one  -- whether for better or worse -- might be a good intrinsically valuable, that value even outweighing any pain or disadvantage it entails.

How Does Self-Disclosure Go Wrong?

From an Aristotelian perspective, the vicious person -- and in this case, we're mainly interested in the extreme of excess, the braggart, the boastful person, the inflated ego -- ends up restricted to two of these possible goods.  Either they over-share, they share at the wrong time and in the wrong ways, and they present a falsely positive (in one way or another) image of who they are, because they want to get something else out of it -- prestige for example, or opportunities, or security -- or because it is precisely the pleasure involved that they want to get out of it.  Some people get pleasure out of thinking they are better than they are, portraying themselves that way, and having others see them that way.  Alternately, it may be very painful to face up to who one genuinely is, let alone to admit it privately or publicly.  Some people just enjoy being the center of attention, and self-disclosure can provide that.

That's not to say all pleasure or desire involved in self-disclosure fits into the disposition of boastfulness, though.  Far from it!  Aristotle would say that one ought to feel pleasure in one's real accomplishments, as well as in talking about them -- perhaps even one's plans, desires, experiences.  This is provided, of course, that one also takes pleasure, and feels or is moved by a love for something other than just oneself -- one must be, as he calls it, a "lover of truth" (philoalethes), and this love must temper the desire for disclosure, for being the object of discourse.

It's interesting that the Internet affords so much more opportunity for self-disclosure.  It's as if entire new dimensions of verbal space have been opened up like fertile lands to be homesteaded and improved by anyone who comes along and tills them, leaving their marks and edifices.  And, that suggests to me that we might want to conceptualize other good or bad modes of self-disclosure through discourse beyond the very useful schema we inherit from Aristotle.  I'm not going to develop these here -- I'll save that analysis for a future post -- but I'd just suggest that two of these might be oversharing which offends or makes uncomfortable (the TMI phenomenon) and imprudent self-disclosure which renders one vulnerable to others.

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