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The Table Video

Looking in the Mirror: Social Media, Self-Perception, and Humility in Our Narcissistic Culture

July 2, 2019

Dr. Krumrei-Mancuso and Dr. Peter Hill discuss what it means to have a healthy self-perception in an image obsessed culture, suggesting that humility has a vital role to play in this task.


Very pervasive principle that you are what other people think you are. Managing your image. This is deeply tied to the way that we project a self to everyone else and it’s about not just your own self regard but a very deep concern for how others regard you. We can get all topsy-turvy on that one, [snickers] and I hope to, but I wanted to pause here on this idea of being in an individualistic society that is very based on images. We’re rearing a selfie generation right now, where children as young as, honestly, one or even less than one are familiar with seeing themself on a screen. And, I’ve recently heard, I think, a good point that when you look at a photo that’s not really you. I wonder if you would comment on the way we think about ourselves. If there is this lack of humility. What we’re talking about when we’re talking about humility is regard for self to some extent. So, I wonder if you’d comment on what is the proper approach to thinking about the self? What would a healthy, flourishing self perspective be?

There is a popular slogan that perhaps many people are familiar with. I think it’s attributed to C.S. Lewis. And that is that humility is not people thinking less of themselves, but they think of themselves less.



that’s good.

What I think is being suggested there is that it’s not that we’re not mindful of who we are, okay? Mindfulness is something that we hear a lot in psychology today and I don’t think humble people are necessarily less mindful. What I do think is that there’s kind of a sense of a detached awareness perhaps that they can tend to see themselves as an object, maybe as other people see them. In fact, there’s an old term, well you can tell it’s an old term just by the term itself. It’s called the looking glass self. It was coined over a century ago. That we often see ourselves as we’re looking in a mirror, and the image that we’re seeing is how we think other people see us. And so, yes, impressions are very important, and we wanna put out good impressions and so forth, but there is this natural kind of social comparison process. I often tell my students my first grade in graduate school was in a stat class and it was a 65 and I felt terrible because I never would get grades like that as an undergrad and I was wondering, am I up to this, and so forth. So, then the teacher wrote up all of the grades on the board and now this doesn’t sound very humble, but my 65 was the second highest grade in the class. Suddenly, ahhhh [laughs] that looked good. Why? Because I was just suddenly engaged in a social comparison process.


And he explained that he gives hard exams and the average is designed to be a 50 and that’s just the way he operates, but suddenly how my self image changed so much because suddenly I saw myself relative to others and I’m, hey, I’m above average you see and that’s another thing that social psychologists often talk about. We like to see ourselves above average. We don’t see ourselves so far above average that it’s unrealistic, but we don’t wanna see ourselves below average either. It’s a nice balance between sort of being self accurate but also feeling good about yourself.

It’s the Lake Wobegon children.

That’s exactly what it is, yeah.

Every child is above average.

laughs: that’s right.

Liz, with respect to this idea of managing self image I wonder if you would just comment on what you observe in contemporary society, the way people interact and are so very concerned to manage another person’s impression of them.

Yeah. Yeah, I mean I think that that’s such an interesting topic to think about in terms of what does that do for a person, for their own mental health to constantly feel like they have to be managing their image. It’s like a full time job, right? To keep up with that. I think that we’ve talked about the idea of the fact that we’re in such an individualistic society but I think this strengthens that so much more, because it really is isolating to be connected to your devices, rather than connected to other people and I think that that is part of the issue that we’re facing with people who are so concerned about what other people think of them but not the real other people, the other people who they’re connected to, their Facebook friends, right? Not their real life friends who are the same people but they’re this different version of these other people. And so, I think that that is something that is a real challenge for our society right now. And I like what you were talking about that quote attributed to C.S. Lewis. You know that’s one that I was thinking of as well. The idea of it’s not about thinking less of yourself, humility, it’s about thinking of yourself less. And along with that, the idea that humility doesn’t mean that you have to have a poor self image, it’s obviously not an unrealistically high self image, but that you have a realistic image of yourself. And, that’s something that’s really hard to create when you see yourself through all of your best photos on Facebook all the time, right? And when you project this image of this is my life, this is what I look like, I delete all the ones that I don’t like, and so it’s hard to be honest with yourself, I think, when you’re trying to project a certain image and not being honest with the world. When you spend so much time on that. Some have even defined humility itself as just complete honesty with yourself.

I like that definition and I think that humility is deeply tied to our longstanding goal of self knowledge. We just want to understand ourselves and our place in the world. And, often we have to do that in response to others. But, I find it so … It’s a grief really to think about this idea of when we interact with one another, in these mediated forms, and when we’re not connected to who we truly are, and we’re not even connected to who other people truly are. Really, we’re just projections of ourselves, trying to work our way into relationships with these other projections and there’s this really thinned out experience. It doesn’t feel like it’s real, substantial connectivity. And, it kind of points out the deep value that we all implicitly have for encountering another person as they really are and being genuine before them, being vulnerable and transparent. I wonder if you’d comment on some of the elements of culture that you think might be contributing and perhaps this is linked up to some research, but what is pushing us to be more image based and what is keeping us from connecting better with others?

Well, so much of our thinking these days is as you’ve eluded to, to the political process. And I think, so often … I’m not a politician, but if I were, I understand the pressure if I’m a Republican or Democrat that what I say is being looked at the party leaders that I’m part of. What I say, if I really speak what I think, might not be favorably received by the leaders of my party, by the President or whoever it might be. And, so there is a lot of external pressure and we can see it certainly in the political process, especially when there’s so much at stake and sometimes we refer to this, in the field of psychology, as ingroup/outgroup differences. And of course, that can apply not just to politics. That applies to all domains of life, race, religion, gender and so forth. We can just go on and on, where you live, what coast you live on, all of those kinds of things. So, there is an element, I think, that all societies probably are structured in ways that produce ingroups and outgroups. And we’re constantly sort of, kind of fluctuating, probably most of our concern is ingroup concern. We’re worried about what other members of my party, or what other members of my religious faith, or whatever might think if I really speak my mind about something. So, there is that constant issue that’s in front of people. Just by the nature of how society is structured.

In order to be accepted, I need to be perceived as towing a particular line.


Believing something

and sometimes there’s real tangible elements that are involved in this. Like, for a politician, I might not get the support of my party come next election.

I might not have a job.

Yeah, I might not have a job. That’s right.