Armchair Economics - Capitalism, Consumerism, and Narcissism

Some people propose that today's youth and humans in general in this society comprise the most narcissistic, self-centered population the world has ever seen. On the other hand, some conclude that we are merely seeing a change or shift in norms and values over time. Many like to give humans the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter, when in fact the former is true. Needless to say, one of the main areas in which this selfishness and seeming narcissism can be seen is advertising. And not only can this selfishness be seen in advertising, but it is quite possible that the advertising itself inspires it. As an armchair economist, I believe some basic principles of economics and capitalism play a role as well.

Proponents of this generalized idea of an evolutionary shift of norms and values usually deny the presence of this apparent societal selfishness. Their seeming laziness encourages them to simply shove the issue aside, either to deal with it later (perhaps in future generations when it really becomes a problem) or not at all. Journalists like Raina Kelley, however, choose to take the road less traveled and observe the present-day fundamental facts of society to correctly conclude that this population is comprised of some of the most self-centered individuals the world has ever seen, suggesting that we are experiencing "a narcissism epidemic." How or why does she make this bold, absolutist conclusion? Well, honestly I do not know, but I choose to take the less traveled road with her and observe things myself, and there are indeed many factors that support her (and, agreeably, my) opinion. There are also many approaches that can be taken when considering the selfish-or-not dichotomy, the first being scientific.

British neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is able to conclude without a doubt that the present-day population indeed quite selfish. Specifically, she observed MRI scans of the brains of teenagers and adults after asking them specific questions. She demonstrates with her own study on the areas of the brain that when making decisions or choosing a course of action, teenagers largely do not use the part of the brain responsible for empathy and understanding, meaning that they think "less about the impact of their actions on other people and how they are likely to make other people feel." This region is known as the medial prefrontal cortex. Blakemore claims that instead of using this region, teenagers use an area in the back of the brain called the superior temporal sulcus, which is responsible for the perception and imagination of actions, as well as the prediction of outcomes based on those actions. In other words, Blakemore is saying that teenagers immediately imagine the effects of their current choice and how it will affect them and virtually ignore the consideration of the possible impact on others. This concept is very important in that it provides a biological explanation for a specific behavior, namely a predisposition for teenagers to behave a certain way: selfishly.

How did this lack of empathy and understanding come about? And, if our grandparents and ancestors did consciously think about the effects of their actions on others, how or why did our brains evolve so drastically to become so seemingly selfish in nature, as Blakemore illustrates? Well, perhaps we should instead investigate the nurture aspect of the situation. In other words, I would argue that this evolution of the brain has stemmed from environmental factors, the primary factor being advertising. Psychologists and sociologists are all the time investigating whether a certain effect is born of nature (biological factors) or nurture (external, environmental factors). Sometimes they are even intertwined, as I believe the case is here.

The nature-versus-nurture argument is vast and is applicable to almost any observable situation or exigency in society, but here I believe the external factor of advertising through media has, over time, caused an evolutionary shift of the human brain. Perhaps the fact that we are constantly to exposed to so much individualistic, self-based advertising, our brains began to recognize the advertisements as the status quo, the normal ways of life, therefore our personalities reflect those fundamentally selfish ideals without us even consciously realizing it. Perhaps we are too caught up in our selfishness to recognize our selfishness, or perhaps we just don't want to. Or perhaps we enjoy the selfishness. I know I do, and I believe most economists would agree.

Samuel J. Scott takes a societal approach, pointing out that a major factor of self-absorption is of economic origin. He believes that it is currently impossible to move up the societal and economic ladders due to the past generations' disinterest in retirement and the current situation of the economy. Scott says that all we can do to pass the time is strive to obtain degrees and "choose to have fun, travel, and live life for ourselves." Scott's assessment definitely seems relevant with the current economic conditions and the fact that it supports the claim that this generation is self-centered. Another important fact is that our economy here in the United States is based around consumerism. We are a self-interested society that consumes things in vast amounts, this consumption essentially being fueled by our ever-present selfishness. Thus, sales-driven companies exploit this selfish consumption by constantly finding different ways to appeal to us through advertising.

Furthermore, the concept of whether or not this selfishness is purposeful is irrelevant in Scott's analysis in that he puts the blame largely on the current economic situation. Although I agree with Scott up to a point, I cannot accept his overall conclusion that it is currently impossible to move up the societal and economic ladders. I think he is simply making an extremely pessimistic generalization about society and the American population in order to further enrich his opinion and the persuasiveness thereof. That said, his argument does emphasize and corroborate the notion that external factors are pushing us to behave this way and to "live life for ourselves." I would argue that perhaps our grandparents and ancestors are and were not as selfish as we are either because they simply were not exposed to the present-day individualistic forms of advertising, or because opposing ideals were implanted in their brains early on in their lives.

An important concept must be considered here though. Economics dictates that humans are rational and self-interested. We accept this, but for some reason society views this self-interest, as well as capitalism, consumerism, and profit maximization, as a bad thing, when in fact it is a great thing! I will explain more on this a little later. For now, let's consider some advertising as an illustration.

All advertising is targeted toward a specific demographic and usually attempts to appeal to the emotions and fundamental ideals of that particular demographic in order to evoke Scott's living-for-ourselves ideal. A successful, knowledgeable twenty-first-century marketing team can effectively persuade anyone to do almost anything these days. Moreover, advertising almost always encompasses a sense of individualism (as opposed to collectivism), usually in terms of self-improvement and self-help, which seem to be the primary, self-centered goals of humans nowadays. For example, consider the infamous weight loss supplement advertisements that guarantee that you can lose a thousand pounds in a matter of hours by simply taking a pill, all while relaxing in your leather armchair with the television remote in one hand and a coke in the other - armchair economics at its best.

Consider the reader's perception of the product in the aforementioned type of advertisement. I can see it now. The marketer would probably throw the ad for the weight loss supplement on a page in a popular magazine targeted toward women, like Cosmopolitan or People, for example. They would slap a picture of a beautiful young woman wearing a bikini with a body that probably took years to sculpt in the top left corner, and perhaps even put some before-and-after-type shots to emphasize the product's seeming effect. The marketing team would also probably opt to put some outrageous statistical claims in bold-face print with phrases like "99.9% effective!" along with a few seemingly falsified endorsements from celebrities, doctors, and/or fitness experts. Sound familiar? I'm sure it does. That is because these types of ads work. They convert into sales. The owner of a marketing firm knows this; an expert economist knows this also, but he or she knows it is true because of the fact that humans are rational and self-interested.

Now let's look specifically at the tactics the marketer used here to grab the attention (and probably the money) of the reader. First, the ad appealed to the senses and drew on the emotions of a perhaps overweight female audience desperately wanting to be thinner. The second tactic is a logical approach through which the advertiser puts flashy, captivating, too-good-to-be-true statistics on the page to almost guarantee its effectiveness. Humans, being rational in nature, love when things make sense logically. Lastly, they usually pay famous people or experts to say something good about the product in question to emphasize its popularity and the fact that the reader is missing out on a great product. You can find several, if not all of these types of tactics in nearly every type of advertisement for any type of product or service. It has become the norm for marketers to both create and then subsequently exploit these fundamental senses of self-centeredness, self-betterment, laziness, and individualism, among other things, in the target audience.

What about the "narcissism epidemic," though? Well, I would be slightly reluctant to casually throw around the term narcissism in describing the present-day population in that I do not exactly believe that we consciously and blatantly disregard the feelings of others; perhaps that is merely subconscious byproduct of the ad-induced self-interest. Either way, hopefully now Kelley's opinion rings a bit truer than it originally did.

Sometimes the advertiser's approach is direct and straightforward in that you know exactly why and how they are attempting to persuade you, and you are able to actively approve or disapprove of a specific advertisement or product. Other times, however, the effect is subliminal, and we do not consciously realize that our viewpoints, opinions, and essentially our brains, are being warped. Advertisers recognize and make use of this subliminal capturing of the target audience. It does not matter whether the ad is in a commercial, magazine, poster, newspaper, or whatever else; they all use the same approaches to achieve the same effect - sales. In that sense, I would like to propose a seemingly abstract concept based on a somewhat replicative structure.

I believe that advertising creates selfishness because the manufacturers doing the advertising are selfish. What I mean to say is manufacturers and entrepreneurs are merely rational, self-interested humans in a capitalist society surrounded by consumerism. In a free market economy, self-interest and its consequent selfishness and individualism are what create the general welfare of the individuals in society. The common man is able to buy microwaves, cell phones, and computers because of the original inventor's profit-driven self-interest, and this concept will always be true of a society with a free market economy. Politicians are quick to cite profiting as some sort of crime or negative act, when in fact it is beneficial and absolutely necessary for the welfare of the individuals of society.

On the other hand, if the inventor's original intention was helping others and allowing others to "profit," then perhaps the subsequent advertisements of his or her product or service would focus on collectivism and the genuine desire of the happiness of the target audience. This idealistic collectivism and seeming altruism is very rare, though, if it even exists at all. Although the emotional effects of advertising may seem of concern to only a small group of individuals, it should in fact concern anyone who cares about the future and welfare of our society. Profit maximization, in relation to capitalism in a free market system, is both our savior, in that it provides us with a means by which consumption and subsequent satisfaction can occur, and our enemy (society's and politicians' viewpoint, NOT mine), creating and inspiring this aforementioned selfishness of society's individuals that everyone views as being a negative attribute. I would absolutely conclude that it is in fact, however, a very positive selfishness. I believe what is born of self-interest is self-interest, and that's what makes the world go 'round. Capitalism is one of my best friends, and I'll stick by it 'til the end.


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