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Egonomics: The Supply of and Demand for Ego-Feed

EGONOMICS : How much affirmation do you need and How much do you get. The Supply of and demand for ego feed

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The physical sciences have their methods for modeling “dynamics,” the interaction of lots of things. We can measure changes in distance, mass, speed, and volume, both of individual things and of populations of them. 

In the physical sciences, however, there are no such qualities as good and bad, in other words, of value, worth, or usefulness. Value is unavoidable in the life and social sciences. To talk about a biological trait as “functional” is to say that it is useful, of value to the organism, given the organism’s preferences. Likewise and obviously, psychology is largely about tracking the dynamics of value: what people want and don’t want. 

Of all of the life and social sciences, which one offers the most subtle and sophisticated method for modeling dynamics of value? 

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I’d start by saying fiction does an impressive job of modeling it, though only impressionistically. I think fiction can capture the vast tangle of conflicting human appetites better than academic psych research papers. Still, science is after greater precision than can be captured in fiction. Fiction is loose and evocative. Science is tight, though often dry. 

Of the sciences, I’d say it’s economics that does the best job. In economics, we model changes in the dynamic supply of and demand for valuable things and services. 

Economics was the obvious place to start to develop such value-modeling, because, in economics, we can start with an abstract unit of generic value: money. Money gave the field a way around a sticky moral issue. What’s worth valuing? What’s good? What’s bad? 

The real-world answer is, it depends. The moral, idealistic answer is anyone’s guess. People argue a lot about what’s valuable. 

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Money is great for sidestepping the question of what’s of value. Money is “fungible,” the economics term for exchangeable, tradeable, or translatable into whatever value anyone wants. Economists can work out a dynamics of value without committing on what’s of value. Economics works whether people value peace on Earth or a gold toilet seat. 

Having started with an abstract measure of value, economics’ modeling methods have migrated to other abstract values. For example, these days there are “attentionomics,” which studies the supply of and demand for attention. Biologists have likewise applied economic methods to modeling the dynamics of functional (useful, valuable) biological traits.

We, humans, are a different kind of organism. Through our powers of language, we have self-awareness and self-consciousness. We value self-awareness, though we rather dislike self-consciousness, which is kind of funny when you think about it. The terms sound synonymous. What is the difference?

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We like to like what we see in ourselves. We do not like not liking what we see in ourselves. I’d prefer to look down and see a swell fellow. I’d prefer not to look down and see some loser dork.

The difference between self-awareness and self-consciousness isn’t in the seeing but in what’s seen. Both are introspection. One is pleased introspection; the other is displeased introspection.

Ideally, I wouldn’t need to check myself out at all. The only way to do that comfortably is to know that looking down, what I’d find is a swell fellow. If I know I’m great, I don’t have to check, just like if I know my roof is solid, I don’t need to check. 

I’d like to get there, but the confidence that I’m a swell fellow doesn’t come easy. So I reassure myself. I give myself self-affirmations, even sometimes aloud, even in public. And I look for signs from the public too, affirmations that I’m A-OK. For example, I check how many people read my articles or like my Facebook posts.

Not just me, mind you. All of us are born with that struggle between liking and not liking what we see in ourselves and wishing for evidence that we’re A-OK, even great. We’d like to feel permanently blessed, but short of that, we’d settle for daily affirmations. 

In other words, we have egos to be fed. We, humans, value having a supply of ego-feed. Even those of us who want to be admired for our egoless humility.

Humans value self-affirmation. For what parts of ourselves? That’s fungible. If looks are what you’re going for, then affirmation for being hot. If brains are what you’re going for, then affirmation for being smart. If righteousness is what you’re going for, then affirmation for being righteous. 

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Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D., MPP
Adjunct Professor, Rhetoric and Language, University of San Francisco I have a Ph.D. in evolutionary epistemology, and a masters in Public Policy. Call it my middle-age spread, I'm all over the life and social sciences. I've taught college level psych, sociology, English, Western Civ, cultural studies, business strategy, advertising. I'm part of a research team developing an new theory on the origins of life.
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