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Selfie Book Summary – Will Storr

What you will learn from Selfie:

– The link between suicide and social perfectionism.

– The role reputation and gossip play in social life and how we learn how to behave.

– Why you can think of yourself as a story and why more often then not that story is a lie.

Selfie Book Summary:

This was a fantastic and the prequel to Will Storrs’ great book The Status Game. In this book Will Storr explores how and why we have become more self obsessed over time, why the idea of your self is just a story and much more. This is a great book and if you want a more in-depth exploration of the ideas. Check out the podcast links above!


Suicide and Social perfectionism:

Over the last few years, Will Storr has spoken with many people who’ve been affected by suicide and the basic narrative is this, high expectations leading to failure, leading to a rejection of the self and an impulse to finish it all off, has emerged again and again.

Psychologist Professor Roy Baumeister described suicide as an ‘escape from the self’. Baumeister theorised that the process starts when events in a person’s life ‘fall severely short of standards and expectations’. The self then blames itself for these failures, and loses faith in its ability to repair what’s gone wrong. We believe it’s a feeling of being defeated and humiliated from which you cannot escape.

People prone to social perfectionism, your self-esteem will be dangerously dependent on keeping the roles and responsibilities you believe you have. You’ll tend to agree with statements such as, ‘People expect nothing less than perfection from me’ and “Success means that I must work harder to please others.’ It’s not about what you expect of yourself. It’s what you think other people expect. You’ve let others down because you’ve failed to be a good father or a good brother whatever it is.

Of course, perfectionism isn’t something we either have or don’t have: it’s not a virus or a broken bone. It’s a pattern of thinking. Everyone sits somewhere on the perfectionist scale.

We’re all more or less perfectionist, with those in the upper levels being more sensitive to signals of failure in the environment. Even if you don’t consider yourself a perfectionist, iť’s likely you have an idea of the person you feel you ought to be and experience at least a pang when you don’t measure up to it. That resonant moment of longing sorrow when you realise you’ve failed – that’s what we’re talking about.


Reputation and Gossip:

Reputation lives in gossip. It’s in the delicious little tales we tell each other that our reputations – these radically simplified  avatars that represent us in the social world- are given life. Our appearance as characters in moral stories means we’re automatically cast as heroes or villains, our flaws or attributes magnified, depending on our role in the plot. And we can’t help but gossip.

But gossip wasn’t just a way of gathering crucial intelligence. It was also there to police the tribe. Gossip about a person breaking important rules would’ve generated powerful feelings of moral outrage in its members which would, in turn, have been likely to lead to severe punishments. This pattern, of course, is still all too evident in today’s age of perfectionism, in which gossip about others, notably on social and online media, spreads quickly, leads to upswells of highly emotional moral outrage which, in turn, leads to shaming and calls for harsh punishment and then broken careers and broken people.

How did we know how to get that good reputation in the first place? How did we learn what qualities our tribe valorised, and what it hated? We’d do it, in part, by listening to tribal gossip. It was in these moral outrage-making tales that we’d find out who we had to be if we wanted to be successful. So here we have it: ambitious selves, on the one hand, wanting to become perfect and, on the other, a kind of cultural group concept of the ‘ideal self’. These are the two separate forms we’ve been chasing.

There’s one final, crucial point to make about reputation. Humans are self-conscious creatures. We’re constantly watching ourselves, judging ourselves, just as other people are judging us. When we catch ourselves behaving in obviously selfish ways, our minds alert us with a sense of alarm we call ‘guilt’. We begin to experience guilt before the age of one. It’s not pleasant; we like to believe that we’re good people, the ideal self that deserves to rise to the top of the tribe. As anyone who’s suffered from painful perfectionistic thinking can testify, we don’t only crave a good reputation amongst others, we also crave it with ourselves.


Selfishness and selflessness are nested within the Tribe:

The answer didn’t become fully clear until I understood the extent to which the behaviours we class as ‘selfish’ or ‘selfless’ are mediated by our tribal brains. Remember those toddlers who just naturally expected members of their group to share with each other? They weren’t surprised that a person would refuse to share with someone from a different group.

Selfless acts are most often made on behalf of our people. From John’s point of view, he felt he was selflessly putting himself at constant risk of violent attack and imprisonment, in order that he could serve his gang better. From their perspective, he was being selfless. He was striving to be a person who was of most benefit to his tribe.

The celebrated mythologist Joseph Campbell explained this principle well: ‘Whether you call someone a hero or a monster is all relative to where the focus of your consciousness may be. A German [fighting in WWII] is as much a hero as the American who was sent over there to kill him.’


Culture, Heroes and Perfection:

We often fail to realise that the things we believe are, to a significant extent, a combination of beliefs, stories, philosophies, superstitions, lies, mistakes, and struggles of flawed men and women our our culture, in a word. Voices from long dead minds haunt us in the present, often without our conscious awareness.

Culture can be seen as a web of instructions, like computer code, that surrounds and saturates us. It tells us what a person should be – what it looks like, how it behaves, what it wants, We internalise these rules, then begin adhering to them as if they were laws of the universe. When I feel an emotion of revulsion because my stomach is a long way from the ‘ideal’ shape, that’s my culture talking. I’ve absorbed it. It’s inside me. To a significant extent, it controls me, like a parasite, admonishing me when I stray too far from its models.

When we feel as if we want to become perfect, it’s largely our tribe that defines, for us, what ‘perfect’ actually is. One of the ways it communicates this definition is via gossip, which often focuses on people breaking some important rule. Because of our tribal roots, all humans share the basic principle that a good person is selfless.

Most of us would like to be thought of as a kind of hero – which is to say, we hope to have a good ‘reputation’ in the daily, fluid social stories of our tribe.


The Self as a Story:

We need to consider just one facet of what psychologists and neuroscientists mean when they talk about this idea of the self as a ‘story’. Doing so reveals something important and disturbing about the human self: that it is built to tell us a story of who we are, and that that story is a lie.

So the brain is a storyteller and it’s also a hero-maker – and the hero that it makes is you. But the hero it makes and the plot it shapes your life around are not created in a void. The brain is a plagiarist, stealing ideas from the stories that surround it, then incorporating them into its self. Like John Pridmore and the ancient biblical tales he adopted, we absorb the stories that flow around our culture and use them to make sense of our past, our future, and to help us figure out who we are and who we want to be. We use them to construct our ‘narrative identity’.

We build our sense of who we are by ‘appropriating stories from culture’. Turning our lives into myth, he writes, ‘is what adulthood is all about’. Our story gives our life meaning and purpose. It distracts us from the chaos and hopelessness and dread of the truth.

Joseph Campbell, the mythologist who’s perhaps had more influence over popular Western storytellers than anyone in the last fifty years, describes the hero’s ultimate test as ‘giving yourself to some higher end When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.’

The story theorist Christopher Booker, meanwhile, writes that ‘the “dark power” in stories represents the  power of the ego, most starkly personified in the archetype of the “monster”. . . This incomplete creature is immensely powerful and concerned solely with pursuing its own interests at the expense of everyone else in the world.’

What Campbell and Booker are describing, of course, are the qualities of selflessness and selfishness – the human moral axis that came into being before we were fully human. Story’s roots, it seems, run unimaginably deep.


Using Stories to Understand Reality:

Back at the Suicide Lab, Rory had spoken of the suicidal mindset as having a sense of humiliation and defeat from which it cannot escape. ‘You’re trapped by life circumstances, you can’t see a way out, or your job prospects aren’t going to change and so on.’ It reminded me of that Greek notion of a living hell – Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down again for eternity.

If we’re from the West, we’ll be expecting our lives to follow a typical Greek trajectory: we’ll be fighting our daily battles, winning our rewards, making our lives and maybe the world better, and moving steadily towards a state of personal perfection.


Life is a Story:

The brain, after all, isn’t especially interested in facts and data. We live our lives in story mode. Our minds make sense of the world using simplistic observations of cause and effect.

They confabulate, weaving a useful, makes-sense narrative out of what they’re feeling and seeing that casts their owners in a heroic light. As well as this, they’re often tribal, making automatic allies of those who look and think like them, and enemies of those who don’t.


The Perfectible Self:

Jaeger, that ‘the history of personality in Europe must start’ with the Greeks.

And so, here it was, the age of perfectionism in its emerging form – a culture of veneration and pursuit of the perfect human self. In Greek life, the talents of remarkable people were fetishised. Sublime statues depicted ideal masculine and feminine forms.

This realm of proto-entrepreneurialism, travel, novelty and debate was to form the beginning of what, according historian Professor Werner Jaeger, ‘appears to be the beginning of a new conception of the value of the individual, that each soul is in itself an end of infinite value’.  This idea – of the individual as a node of value that had the potential to improve itself – birthed the modern Western civilisation of freedom, celebrity, democracy and self-improvement we live in today.

But from this self-regarding culture bubbled up a warning. It came, naturally enough, in the form of a story; that of a proud hunter who glimpsed his image in a pool and fell deeply in love, only to despair and eventually die of sadness when he realised the object of his desire was but a reflection. His name was Narcissus.


Modelling the Self:

Our Western self is the son of this atomized world. What had been created in Ancient Greece was individualism. As you’d expect in such an intellectually dynamic place, this was a concept that had many critics. But it’s one that still dominates our lives today.

As we’ve discovered, back in our tribal hunter-gatherer days, the thing that all human selves fundamentally want is to get along and get ahead. Everyone has this in common. When we’re born, our brain looks to the environment to tell it who we ought to become in order to best fulfil this deep and primal need.

What it’s looking for is the model of the ideal of self that exists in its cultural surroundings. If the kind of self that will get along and get ahead most efficiently, in its cultural environment, is a freedom-loving, individualistic huckster, then that’s who it’ll want to become. But if it’s a harmony-fetishizing team-player, then that’s more likely to be the model it will aim towards.


Differences in Selfs – From East to West:

What unites the stories of our two cultures is that they’re accounts of change. In the West we seek to bravely conquer the forces of change whilst in the East they seek a way of bringing them into harmony. But all stories serve the basic function of giving us insights into who we need to be in order to cope with the terrifying, ever-shifting world. In the memorable words of Professor Roy Baumeister, ‘Life is change that yearns for stability.’ No matter where we’re from, stories teach us how to gain that stability. They are lessons in control.


Stories and Religions as explanations to nature of reality:

The Catholic view of human nature formed the underlying texture of my daily experience – my implicit, pessimistic belief that human life is dangerous, unstable and corrupt. I found it hard to separate the hyper-critical inner voice that narrates my low self-esteem from the voice of that church God.


Using Mimicry and Modelling to Define the Self:

What I was watching was a ritualised display of mimicry and deference towards the abbot from the subordinate monks. This, in a sense, is how we all behave in the presence of people that our brains have identified as leaders. The difference is that, when we do it, it’s automatic and mostly unconscious.

The fact is that when we’re working out who we need to be in order to get along and get ahead, we’re not just taking our information from stories. Being tribal animals, we’re also constantly scanning our environment for people who seem to have, in some way, mastered the secrets of a successful life. The ideal self we’re looking for doesn’t only exist in fiction and gossip, iť’s also right there in front of us. And these people can be a powerful source of influence.

Research suggests that we start mimicking people who we see displaying competence when they’re completing tasks at around the age of fourteen months. As we grow up these ‘skill cues’ begin to take on a more symbolic form, as ‘success cues’.

In our hunter-gatherer pasts, it would’ve made sense to copy the actions of the hunter who wore many necklaces of teeth made from his kills, for example, as his success cue demonstrated high competence. It seems likely that designer clothing, expensive manicures and fast cars are today’s equivalents of these attention-magnetizing displays.

We don’t just rely on our own of who’s skilful and successful when we work out who to copy. As a highly social species, we tend to look at what other people consider worthy of attention.

So we copy people. We’re helplessly drawn to them. We identify the ones who seem to know best how to get along and get ahead, we watch them, we listen to them, we open our selves to their influence. And then we’ll often internalise the things they’ve taught us. They have become absorbed into our model of the perfect self. They are now part of us. And, so, cultures spreads.


Our Changing Self:

According to Bruce, the illusion that we have a stable ‘authentic’ self begins with us looking out at the world and other people, and seeing how they treat us. That’s how we build our model of who we are. This idea is sometimes referred to as “The Looking-Glass Self’.

Our lack of true authenticity means that who we are and how we behave tends to shift, somewhat, depending on where we are and who we’re with. When we’re doing our job, for example, we often become that job. We start to behave as we think the model writer or the model hedge-fund manager or the model teacher would act, aping their mannerisms, dress and code of ethics.

As we travel through our days and lives, then, we’re being continually changed by the situations we’re in and the personalities that orbit us. The people around us create a kind of psychic mould that we expand into. This notion that we have a coherent self with integrity is slightly undermined by the fact that under different circumstances in different events we behave in totally different ways,’ Bruce told me. “These different selves reflect the fact that these are different social environments that we’re occupying.’


The truth of the situation:

It seems to me that self-loathing is what happens when our brain’s hero-making capacities become defective. When we’re happy, we feel good about ourselves, successfully pursuing our meaningful projects, making our lives and the world around us better. We’re distracted from the truth of our situation, which is that we have personal flaws that are deep and many, that our lives are ultimately pointless, that we live in a realm of chaos and injustice, and that we and everyone we love are going to die.

When our minds fail to distract us sufficiently, all this can seem very close. It can sometimes feel as if we might turn our heads too quickly and actually see the darkness. Even in our most mundane moments waiting at a traffic light, queuing for ice cream – the hopelessness of it all breathes heavy.


Social Pain:

This is perhaps why social pain developed: it was an alarm system that told you something was wrong in your social life and that you needed to take urgent action. In this respect, it’s no different from physical pain, which works as an alarm system that tells you not to touch an open wound, say, or walk on a broken ankle. Pain is information.

Our use of ostracism as a weapon of assault is with us as much today as it’s always been, of course, and the science of social pain suggests it can sometimes feel hardly less brutal than the physical variety. ‘Anthropologists think ostracism was the foundation of civilization, because fear of it keeps you in line,’


The Rise of Neo-Liberalism:

It was an idea both breathtaking and true. The most reliable way to change masses of selves, we’ve since learned, is by changing the ways by which they have to get along and get ahead. And so it was that the gamification of society triggered the ‘Greed is Good’ era, which represented a staggering transformation from the self of the anti-materialistic, communalistic hippies that had grown out of the mid-century’s more collective economy.

This new and intensified form of competitive individualism meant less support from employers and the state, which, in turn, meant more and more pressure placed upon the individual. To get along and get ahead, in this neoliberal world, meant being fitter, smarter and faster than your neighbours. It meant doubling and then tripling down on the fabulous power of Me.

Of course, it’s important to remind ourselves of the complicated, grey and grown-up truth that neoliberalism isn’t an evil villain. It’s not moral. It’s not trying to be fair. It’s a system.

Like most systems, it creates a trade-off in outcomes. It has both positive and negative effects.


Personality Trait Example:

Imagine how many interactions you have every week in which it could possibly be imagined you’ve been rejected in some way. These ‘rejections’ could range from overt acts of aggression to the subtlest interpretations of tone or body language. Your trait settings will not only guide how many of these incidents you’re actually aware of, but how you react to them.

Some people will tend to shrug and think the best whilst others will become angry, paranoid and vengeful. Others still won’t even notice all but the most obvious confrontations. It’s another alarm system. We all have slightly different thresholds at which our bells start ringing, just as we have different responses to their sound.