Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Freeing the American Ego

Compassion is the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things. -- Thomas Merton

Confusing any discussion of EGO is the matter of what definition of the term is being employed.

In their article "The Psychology of the Quiet Ego" in
Transcending Self-Interest (which the pair edited), where most of the articles discussed in this blogpost come from, Jack Bauer and Heidi Wayment offer five from a larger still number of definitions of ego used by researchers. They tell us, though, that three meanings hone in on how current research views the term:
  • Ego = the self, notably affective evaluations of the self, such as self-esteem, self-confidence, self-worth, and self-image (as connoted by a strong, wounded, boosted or deflated ego)
  • Ego = the self, notably in relation to others, as in identifying with others, bonding with others, and identities that include versus exclude others.
  • Ego = that which constructs, organizes, or evaluates the concept of self; that which is aware of or witnesses experience; Wm. James's [Principles of Psychology] "I" (in contrast to "Me"); consciousness itself; one's frame of reference, or, in psychoanalytic theory, the "synthetic function."
A storm of research on the ego in our new century has, perhaps, found EGO in its healthiest aspect – which may inform us on enlightenment and other matters at the core of Buddhism, mysticism and religion, generally. And with this new research comes new terminology to better sculpt a vision of ego's dimensions.

Whereas in the past EGO was usually thought of as a matter of size – from small to healthy to bloated or big – today it's seen by researchers as being primarily on a spectrum from silent-to-quiet-to-loud.

This new paradigm sprung from reaction to a bit of research that saw all egos as Godzilla: In the middle of the twinned Me Decades (the 70s & 80s), A. G. Greenwald wrote an article for the July 1980 issue of American Psychologist called "The totalitarian ego: Fabrication and revision of personal history." In his article, Greenwald asserted that ego is, basically, egocentric, "beneffectant" and cognitively conservative. That is, it's (1) self-focusing, (2)takes responsibility for desired, but not undesired, outcomes and (3) resists change -- just like a totalitarian government. The ego, then, strives to make the self ever mightier and rebuffs any negativity toward that effort. If you want to be nice about it, the successful EGO is like a superhero or Nietzsche's Übermensch, or James Bond.

In his article "Psychology and the American Ideal," in the November 1977 issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Edward E. Sampson set the stage when he suggested that the ideal American personality may be one that is self-contained. "The self-contained person is one who does not require or desire others for his or her completion in life. ... Self-containment is the extreme of independence: needing or wanting no one."

Traindis & Gelford, in the same journal, but in 1998, examined personalities and cited vertical individualism in a matrix of factors that best describe American society. Vertical individualism is a cultural orientation that focuses on personal competitiveness, status, and distinction from others.
So, yeah, the American (and, to lesser extent, the Western) prized personality is one of strength, and extremes of positivism and independence. But is this good … for society? or for the emboldened individual?

Looking at Eastern cultures, as you might well suppose, the situation is different. Quoting Wirtz & Chiu in their paper "Perspectives on the Self in the East and the West" [chapter 14 in Transcending Self-Interest] concluded,
Compared with its Western counterpart, the Eastern self is more inclusive of other people and of negative information and experience, which manifests in cross-cultural differences in the individual's self definition and construction of well-being. To the extent that the Western self has been described as a metaphorically totalitarian or autocratic system, the Eastern self represents, by comparison, a more restrained, quiet ego.
What is a "quiet" ego?

In her paper "Taming the Wild Ego," [chapter 5 in Transcending Self-Interest], Julie Juola Exline tells us that humility is the quieting component that may be able to convert American narcissism or near-narcissism to something more tame (and less delusional!) She writes,
… humility should help people to set realistic goals. By protecting people from excessive ego involvement in their goals, a humble outlook should reduce the amount of energy that people need to spend on self-enhancement and mood regulation, leaving more energy for other pursuits. Humility should also free people to admit that they need help, thus opening the door to accepting resources from others that can save time and energy. A quiet ego should also facilitate an attitude of self-compassion after people make errors.
But while humility is perhaps analogous to the quieting aspect of ego, it is not the end-all, be-all to being authentic and happy. It's a "stabilizing, protective" force, but not an energizing one, Exline writes. "[A] humble person could also be a passive one.

"If a person's humility stems from a deep sense of connection with others, this sense of interdependence should encourage prosocial pursuits. Yet because prosocial motives are not a required element of the definition of humility [as determined/used by ego research], it remains possible that a humble person might pursue goals that are nonsocial or even asocial. … If humility is to be a prosocial quality, then prosocial motivators are needed."

[this post is a work-in-progress]

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