You’re so vain, you probably think this global pandemic is about you

[A version of this article appeared in the Irish Examiner on 22 October 2020 ]

The challenges of COVID-19 have been well reported. Death, disease, and debilitation are the scariest. Discombobulation also makes the list — nobody likes it when the entire world (more or less) gets turned upside-down. And distancing, too, is problematic. For many people, keeping apart from friends and non-immediate family has been the hardest part of coping with the pandemic.

So surely it follows that we all want COVID-19 to just go away? Well, herein lies the rub. It turns out that some of us couldn’t care less. Some of us, to use a technical term, are just assholes.

It could even be that pandemics serve to bring out our inner asshole. With other types of crises — earthquakes, hurricanes, and terrorist attacks — communities express their resilience by coming together in solidarity. People demonstrate in crowded streets, gather in one another’s homes, provide — literally — shoulders for each other to cry on. But not so in a pandemic.

In a pandemic, keeping away from other people is what’s really valued: crossing the street to avoid your neighbour, refusing to stop to talk to passers-by, and staying at home as much as possible.

Social distancing is an essential virtue and it’s important that we all engage in it. But it can feel a lot like “looking after number one.”

* * *

Ironically, during the pandemic, some true assholes are taking the opportunity to congregate as much as possible, as if to highlight the completeness of their contempt for the greater good. However, anti-lockdown agitators are always a minority. Opinion polls consistently show that most people favour more, rather than fewer, restrictions.

For most of us, social distancing is a necessary evil. But we might reasonably worry about its long term effects. Quite apart from the mental health risks of loneliness, should we also consider the adverse impact on social cohesion and solidarity?

We know that COVID-19 has had a greater impact on the poor and marginalised. Even at the best of times, these fellow citizens find themselves ignored and neglected. Now that we are spending all our time working from home, making our own sandwiches, and shopping online for house plants, might we be in danger of becoming even more morally inward-looking?

* * *

Perhaps a better technical term to refer to is “narcissist”. Narcissism is a standard psychological trait, and we all have a bit of it. Some of us have more of it than others. Around one-in-twenty of us have enough to warrant a diagnosis of “Narcissistic Personality Disorder,” or NPD.

However, not all narcissism is clinical. In fact, we might usefully ponder whether modern culture actively cultivates, and then encourages, narcissistic thinking. What we once thought of as problematic levels of selfishness may now comprise the standard template by which our everyday behaviour is judged.

Hyperbole is part of modern life. Our modern culture increasingly promotes extravagance of language, grandiosity of image, and the self-projection of status. We compete in a profile-conscious world awash with elevator pitches, skills statements, and corny LinkedIn testimonials. In essence, we are living in a Golden Age of Narcissism.

Consider some of the clinical diagnostic features that define NPD:

  • An exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • A sense of entitlement
  • A need for constant admiration
  • An expectation of being recognised as high-achieving even without obvious achievements to warrant it
  • A proneness to fantasising about one’s own good qualities
  • Envy of others (and a belief that others envy you back)
  • A feeling of entitlement to the best of everything
  • Anger at being criticised
  • Contempt towards out-groups
  • Difficulty regulating emotion
  • Problems adapting to change
  • Secret feelings of insecurity

I don’t know about you, but that list makes me feel like I’m back on Twitter again.

* * *

The American philosopher Cornel West has suggested that our modern world has become a “hotel civilisation.” We increasingly want to reside with people of our own choosing, to come and go as we please, and to have everything arranged to suit our wants and (self-perceived) needs. We crave — nay, demand a life without unpleasantness or responsibility.

Many of history’s great global crises took place in much different times. If burgeoning narcissism really is baked into our modern world, then we might struggle to marshal the solidarity needed to flatten the COVID-19 curve.

Most people adopt health behaviours in response to personal risk, and many health behaviour interventions are based on this premise. However, pandemics serve to skew the underlying risk analysis. When risk is spread across the population, its impact on each person’s individual motivation is diffused.

Most currently healthy young and middle-aged adults (as well as children) are at relatively low risk from COVID-19. For them, taking action largely serves to protect other people in society. This makes prevention an act of altruism and good citizenship, rather than one of self-preservation.

* * *

The irony is that social distancing can create a mood where some people care less, rather than more, about things like altruism. Immersing ourselves in bubbles of personal security and vain-scrolling through social media are not just bad for our mental health.

Habits that promote narcissism should be resisted for many reasons. Not least for the greater good of the world.

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