Modern Media and the Evolution of Personality
by Robert DePaolo
This article discusses a potential restructuring of the psyche in response to the increased volume of media, including the monitoring of behavior through various techno-media outlets. The argument is made that given current trends, the triadic id-ego-superego personality structure could regress in a maladaptive sequence of extreme inhibition, sociopathy and finally broad social apathy.
Sigmund Freud’s theory of personality was part biological and part social (Laplanche, Pontalis 1973). He proposed that the id was the bio-natural component of human nature that did not necessarily jive with the demands of complex human society and was oblivious to phenomena such as ethics, mutuality and restraint. Being a neo-Darwinian, he saw this as an aspect of mind designed to aid in the survival and propagation of the human species. He also believe (somewhat ironically) that the id actually provided an ergonomic impetus for all psychic functions, including the conscience (Freud, 1920), (Freud, 1933)
Conversely, in Civilization and its Discontents he viewed the ego and superego as social phenomena that only arose after agricultural society became more complex, sedentary and interactive (2002 – reprint). Large, diverse groups of people from different backgrounds united only by walls tilling the soil, building walls, temples and pyramids, having to combine forces in war against rival armies might not know or like one another, might resent the differences between their various gods, rituals and languages, but they still had to work together to sustain their proto-sovereignties.
While the id would not, as per its basic biological topography, change over time the ego and superego did evolve in accord with socio-cultural changes. Behavior forbidden in one era might become not only tolerated but common place in another. Superego evolution is of particular interest, since it provides a moral frame work for both the individual and society. As Freud wrote, it can be too rigid, for example when mores and the influence of conscience creates such behavioral restraint as to stifle creativity and paralyze the functional psyche. Or it can be too lax such that diffuse primal energies cannot be systematically extricated for socially productive pursuits (Freud – 1987 reprint).
In fact the triadic mind operates by an algorithm of proportion. While laws, religions and ethics are created to maintain order, rescue the soul, and preserve social probity, they all derive from a bio-social blend of instinct, vigilance and reason that provides not just order and spirituality but as Freud suggested, marriage, art, politics, humor and music (Matte, 2001), (Glover, 2014) Since the relation between the ego and superego will shift with changing times one might expect the current (and future) proliferation of media to effect the relationship between the two.
Forward and Back…
There seems little question that a major shift in the psyche has paralleled the spread of liberalism in western society; a phenomenon not confined to the post 60s peace-love-and drug use cultural explosion. While anyone alive during that time is aware that in prior decades sex without marriage, ribald media, drug use and other liberal manifestations were taboo, societies had been veering off into a liberal direction for centuries. Much of this was in response to cruel, punitive policies enacted by various social agencies and systems. In a limited context liberalism served humanity well. It also had a somewhat paradoxical effect on human culture. On one hand it led to disease (West 2008) substance abuse and social dependency (Rossiter, 2014). On the other hand, newer forms of art, music and literature emerged. It is a theme recurrent throughout history. New freedoms create both cultural progress and social duress.
Arguably, in more recent times, there has been a contraction of liberalism as a result of increased media scrutiny. As more subtle and sophisticated gadgets have been developed to monitor, view and record behavior the clouds of social rejection, defamation and ostracism have loomed. Having lived through an extended period of liberalism, man now faces an abrupt U turn. Like the imminent rampage of converging tectonic plates the previously liberated ego is about to collide with a newly aroused and dominant superego.
The end result might be manifest in various ways. One possibility is that acts of hyper-surveillance will be heavily reinforced by society and consequently be shaped into a fairly permanent, habitual behavior pattern. Just as B.F. Skinner’s pigeons obtained food pellets rewards by pecking at a colored disc, so shall the ministers of surveillance be reinforced for pecking away at the reputation of others. Human behavioral dynamics tends to support that assumption.
The Fruits of Observation…
It seems our primate origins sometimes clash our democratic principles. The very makeup of our genes suggest we are in fact a duality. While the notion of equality goes as far back as the reign of Darius II in Persia and certainly gathered historical steam under the collective ideas of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson we also have a fairly ingrained tendency toward social hierarchies. Some people are considered more beloved, more iconic (or less worthy) than others. That unfortunate polarity has persisted throughout human history.
An inevitable byproduct of a hierarchical mindset is competition, i.e. the quest to obtain more assets and social feedback than the other person. Any number of rewards, including fame, fortune and sexual access will arise from that. So the person who seeks out and records bad acts by others can attain a degree of notoriety. Obviously, as per the first amendment, some acts of surveillance are necessary to prevent tyranny and can obviously serve society well. On the other hand, there is, like all other aspects of human experience a threshold beyond which a necessity can become a liability. Moving beyond that point could have psychiatric as well as social implications.
For example it could lead to social isolation. The extreme inhibition resulting from fear of exposure would tend to manifest itself in idiosyncratic thoughts, self-socializing, excessive fantasy and ultimately social-inadequacy. To the extent that social inadequacy can be a prelude to social misperception and conflict it also augurs poorly for the future of human culture.
This is true with regard to both journalistic and social media. The latter is virtually risk-free regarding the expression of imprecise, often critical, at times incendiary language. That has significant implications. A “blogger” does not have to read facial expressions, gauge vocal tone or determine other signs of emotional expression on the Internet, which is a safe zone of hostility and deception. Hiding behind technology precludes retaliation. Being able to “trash talk” without consequences also reinforces negative expressive habits that in time can become entrenched as high probability behaviors.
The problem with any technological advancement is that no matter how progressive it can never exceed the parameters of human nature. We are finite creatures with a substantial but circumscribed temperament and range of capacities and we really can’t go beyond that without jeopardizing our social and political equanimity. The rapid development and enhancement of tools by which to observe one another cannot unfold without negative consequences. The blogger might avoid repercussions. Society will not.
The key in all this is whether the ultimate benefit outweighs the cost. We invented automobiles and airplanes that enable us to travel to all ends of the earth at breakneck speed. That led to expanding economies, greater access to medical facilities, and vast interaction among peoples from other lands. Despite the fact that many thousands of people die each year as a result of these modern inventions does not deter our need and appreciation for them because we know full well that the social, temporal, medical, vocational and political advantages outweigh the risk.
Another possibility also derives from a human duality. While the ego is described by Freud as a creative regulator of psychic energy the personality has another feature, best captured by Gestalt theorists and Jungians, the former of who wrote about a bad me/good me dichotomy within the psyche (Perls, 1957), the latter about a psychic component he referred to as “the shadow” which he felt was the seat of creativity. (Jung, 1951) By their reckoning both aspects are necessary for holistic, integrative psychological functioning. This concept is a bit more concise than Freud’s concept of the id but in both instance the existence of the primal aspect of human nature is deemed necessary for psychological functioning.
Yet not all negative impulses can be channeled into prosocial pursuits. Like miscellaneous (throw away) genes that have no apparent function, some id manifestations are fairly superficial. They have little overall effect on either social norms or creative pursuits. These are often manifest as mini-anti-social actions almost everyone engages in for a variety of reasons, including release, convenience, socialization, identification and need gratification. In other words we all exhibit behaviors derived from the “bad me” – regardless of how moral we claim to be. Speeding on a highway, expressing frustration privately to a friend using foul language, telling off-color jokes, engaging in “off limits” flirting at the office, ordering a fat-filled donut despite doctor’s orders: whether these acts serve any psycho-social benefit is uncertain but they do serve to assert one’s individuality in the face of social controls.
In that context, excessive surveillance can put too many restrictions on such behavior and lead to the an unraveling of the collective psyche. The question becomes; why should even low-end, anti-social behavior be tolerated?
One possibility is the quest for independence. We are, as a species rather continuously tense and prone to both pessimistic and optimistic cognition. For a creature at once dependent on the security of the Hobbesian state yet absorbed by the quest for individuation such acts separate us from the pack. Conformity is an act of compliance. As such it has no aggressive component and cannot resolve tension-induced conflict. On the other hand marginal rebellion against rigid norms does precisely that.
One can extrapolate from that regarding the future of human psychological development. If such pockets of expression are necessary yet increasingly stifled by the proliferation of surveillance a potential sea change in the psyche could occur. Some of those changes might prove to be problematic.
As discussed above, the fear of being monitored constantly will skew the psychic balance toward superego dominance. That in turn will produce behavioral inhibition, social withdrawal and a decline in creative risk taking. There will be a tendency to think more in terms of future consequences rather than in the present. In other words, remove impulse and you remove present-sense thought and action. In that context we could become slaves to social scrutiny, thus rendered incompetent as solving problems in the here-and-now. Parenting, education, artistic expression, financial exploits, relationships – virtually all human endeavors will accede to the mandates of a pathologically blown-up superego. But that is perhaps only the first step toward a more ominous outcome.
A Second Adaptation…
An analogy to Newton’s third law of motion might be applicable, i.e. that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In behavioral terms – one might expect to see a massive, rebound effect typified by the dis-inhibition of behaviors, emotions and attitudes. There is research to support that assumption (Keltner, Grenfeld et al. 2003). It portends a heightened rate of sociopathic behavior whereby we could conceivably become morally oblivious to one another. Allegiance will shift toward technology (which we will come to trust) and away from people (whom we won’t). Beyond that, new moral standards and restrictions on human behavior would be created that no one could possibly meet.That could lead to a broad inter-species disdain – a sense that we are all bad actors. Mass estrangement could result, which could exacerbate violent and/or amoral tendencies. However it is possible the psychic transition would not end there.
A third possible step in the psychic sequence has to do with an information glut. Like money, the value of information will decline in proportion to its increasing volume. That is because, in Information Theory terms, more input creates more noise/uncertainty, thus less pure, encodable information (McEliece 2002). The impact of info-volume could create a trend toward what sociologists have termed “anomie” – a wide spread cultural disengagement devoid of meaning, passion and vigilance. Under such conditions there will be an increasing lack of distinction between moral and immoral, beauty and ugliness, quality and sloppiness, attitudinal focus and general apathy. The new breed of techno-sapiens will be tethered to nothing but love for the technology itself. The dreaded, unexpected consequence of hyper-information (surveillance and otherwise) which purports to make us more aware and better citizens will have a reverse effect. Instead we will become desensitized to input; unmoved, unable to determine relevance or gain a sense of historical, cultural and personal time and place: a final countdown to apathy, with far too many of us (previously) socially dependent creatures now plagued by emotional futility and depression – upright walking beasts unable to make their way through the grasslands of history for lack of an experiential anchor point.
Hopefully the possible events outlined here will not occur, but one can anticipate that some negative after-effects will result from hyper-information. Whether that means we will abandon humanism and self determination in favor of a new and subservient technological idolatry is anyone’s guess.
Freud, S. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In On Metapsychology (1987)
Freud, S. Civilization and its Discontents London, Penguin Books ( 2002 Reprint)
Glover, N. (2014) Freud’s Theory of Art and Creativity: Essay in Psycho Media; Arts and Representations; Excerpt from Psychoanalytic Aesthetics: The British School.
Jung, C. (1951) Phenomenology of the Self. In: The Portable Jung. p 147.
Keltner, D. Gruenfeld, D.H. & Anderson, C. ( 2003) Power, Approach and Inhibition. Psychological Review 110 (2) 265- 284.
Laplanche, J. Pontalis, J-B, (1973) “Id” The Language of Psychoanalysis, London, Karmac Books
Matte G. (2001) A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Humor. International Journal of Humor Research 14 (3) 223- 241
Perls, F. (1957) Interview with Adelaide Bry in Gestalt Kritik, where Perls stated: “Resistance consists of a impulse and resistance to that impulse considered like a dichotomy. Resistance is frequently referred to as “bad” and in the context of regulation grows into just personal dictates of the client and not the therapist. Taken as a polarity it is as integral to health as the trait being resisted.”
Rossiter, L. (2013) The Liberal Mind. On-line article on liberal mind.com
West, M. 9 (2000) Sexually transmitted disease are result of liberalism. Article in Newswithviews.com, March 15, 2000