June 15, 2020 Reading Time: 5 minutes
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Too long forgotten in the musty corners of academe, the classics of postwar social science can help to illuminate our own less-than-sane times. The Lonely Crowd (1950) is yet another work (previous posts cover The True Believer and the experiments of Stanley Milgram and other social psychologists) that tried to figure out what went wrong with the world between 1914 and 1945. 

Sociologist David Riesman (1909-2002) was the main author but sociologist Nathan Glazer and poet Reuel Denney also contributed. 

None of the trio (hereafter RGD) were libertarian but all were known for solid scholarship. RGD identified three main social personality types: tradition-, inner-, and other-directed. In the messy real world, nobody completely fits into any of those categories but the typical behaviors of many people fit into one of the three and RGD saw the other-directed personality trait gaining ascendance in mid-century America. 

Tradition-directed personalities try to live by rules created scores, hundreds, or even thousands of years ago. They judge themselves and others against old, rigid rules and hence, according to RGD, struggle to adapt to the rapidly-changing modern world. Many are religious fundamentalists, Amish, and so forth.

Inner-directed personalities live by their own rules, judging themselves and others based on their own sense of right and wrong, often notions inculcated by parents and schools early in life. They can be somewhat rigid in their views as well but accept the rule of reason and hence adapt to changing circumstances, though perhaps too slowly for the twentieth-century world.

If tradition-directed personalities follow strict rules for navigating through life, inner-directed ones follow a gyroscope toward goals imbued through early socialization, while other-directed ones follow their social radar towards popular destinations.

Other-directed personalities are inherently flexible because their views of themselves and others come to them from others. Neither tradition nor reason bind them. They seek approval and applause rather than respect and are the best adapted to the modern economy, which demands rapid adaptability regarding car and clothes styles and workplace roles.

Over time, RGD predicted, other-directed personalities would increasingly dominate inner- and especially tradition-directed personalities, who would be relegated to small enclaves like religious cults and agricultural communes.

Tradition, RGD argues, is best suited to people just trying to survive. Inner compasses work best for people trying to achieve material prosperity. But once that prosperity has been achieved, then “increasingly, other people are the problem, not the material environment. And as people mix more widely and become more sensitive to each other, the surviving traditions and “gyroscopic control is no longer sufficiently flexible, and a new psychological mechanism is called for” (pp. 18-19, emphasis in original).

“Unless present trends are reversed,” RGD predicted, “the hegemony of other-direction appears not far off” (p. 21). RGD appear to have been correct, at least in round terms. By the early twenty-first century, most Americans clamored for popularity, not respect. Lonely although almost constantly surrounded by other people, they earnestly seek out more “followers” or “friends” — usually people they will never meet in person — who show approbation for virtue-signaling with “likes” and their disapprobation through “blocking” or “canceling.”

That may all seem harmless because what difference does it make if people spend time hiking, reading a book, watching television programming, or “liking” TikTok videos and Instagram posts? Far be it from me, or anyone, to tell others how to spend their time or what to think of themselves or others.

But when it comes to the quality of democratic institutions, the different social personalities lead to very different outcomes.

Tradition-directed voters judge politicians and their policy proposals against some unchanging old lodestone, like the Bible, Koran, or Constitution. They are conservative farmers and ranchers who tend to feel shame when they transcend tradition.

Inner-directed voters, by contrast, judge politicians and their policy proposals against their own core principals, which can range from Marxism to classical liberalism and often defy easy categorization because, relatively speaking, they are products of individual, independent thought. Regardless of their politics, they are America’s proprietors, its kulaks. They tend to feel guilt when they break from the direction indicated by their inner gyroscopes. 

Meanwhile, other-directed voters go on social media to try to figure out which politicians and policy proposals will earn them the most plaudits from assorted avatars and social influencers. They value fitting in over logic or consistency and many seem genuinely puzzled when the inconsistencies in their expressed opinions are pointed out to them. 

I can hardly wait for one to explicitly say “Well, it’s not popular to be logically consistent right now, so ya blocked.” They make great employees and bureaucrats and often lean Left politically. They feel almost constant anxiety because they can never be entirely sure that their views remain popular.

In fact, it is exceedingly difficult to figure out why the other-directed herd sometimes abruptly changes direction or gains or loses momentum. It is easy to imagine a puppet master or central planner calling all the shots but if there is one, s/he/it is psychotic or revels in randomness. In RGD’s time, people believed that “Madison Avenue,” shorthand for the advertising industry, held sway. Later, it was “Hollywood” or televangelists or “shock jocks.”

I suspect that all those groups, and many others, constantly tug on the herd’s heartstrings, partly for cash, partly for power, and partly just for popularity because most of the presumptive puppet masters are other-directed themselves. The median politician is probably the most other-directed of the bunch.

It is easy to blame the internet but the other-directed personality prevailed well before the web. The internet may speed the dissemination of information about what ideas are trendy, even trending, but the old rumor mill was pretty quick too, especially after the introduction of the telephone (which actually hit the prairies en masse first because it was much more valuable to people who lived miles apart and were already connected by metal wire, of the barbed variety). 

Already in 1950, RGD noted that “increasingly, relations with the outer world and with oneself are mediated by the flow of mass communication. For the other-directed types political events are likewise experienced through a screen of words by which the events are habitually atomized and personalized — or pseudopersonalized” (pp. 21-22).

What the Internet does better than any grapevine, though, is to provide information about who is pushing an idea and how popular it is. “Oh, that video of a cat ‘talking’ has 10 million views, so I gotta watch that” says the outer-directed personality and soon 10 million becomes 100 million. Meanwhile a video that could save money or a life wallows in the shadows because it isn’t popular and hasn’t been pushed by an influencer, be it a corporate sponsor or a Pewdiepie type.

Rather than banning the Internet, though, perhaps what we should do is to try to move people away from other-directedness and toward inner-directedness — most people fall along a spectrum after all and are rarely all one thing or another so there is some hope it can be done. Socialization and education are key.

Imagine if parents again said to their children: “It is okay that the other kids didn’t like what you did because you did what you thought best. That is all that matters. I’m proud of you and love you and don’t let others tell you what to think or feel.” 

As for education, it is little wonder that Riesman’s second-best known book (coauthored with social scientist Christopher Jencks), The Academic Revolution (1968), criticized America’s system of higher education, which increasingly in the humanities and social sciences has turned research and teaching, typically on trite topics, into popularity contests instead of rational inquiries into questions of deep importance and significance.

But moving America’s social personality type towards inner-directedness again may be a pipe dream because its proprietors and entrepreneurs are currently being assailed from all directions. In fact, if I didn’t know better I would say we were in a period of dekulakization, of the deliberate destruction of small business owners through otherwise useless economic lockdowns and police-induced looting. But the destruction of small business ownership could never happen in the United States, right?

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright is the (co)author or (co)editor of over two dozen major books, book series, and edited collections, including AIER’s The Best of Thomas Paine (2021) and Financial Exclusion (2019). He has also (co)authored numerous articles for important journals, including the American Economic ReviewBusiness History ReviewIndependent ReviewJournal of Private EnterpriseReview of Finance, and Southern Economic Review. Robert has taught business, economics, and policy courses at Augustana University, NYU’s Stern School of Business, Temple University, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere since taking his Ph.D. in History from SUNY Buffalo in 1997. Robert E. Wright was formerly a Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research.

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