Twitter vs. Psychoanalysis

In this Times Online article, two psychologists and an author weigh in with their view of Twitter users as narcissistic and infantile:

The clinical psychologist Oliver James has his reservations. “Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.”

“We are the most narcissistic age ever,” agrees Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research based at the University of Sussex. “Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognise you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won’t cure it.”

For Alain de Botton, author of Status Anxiety and the forthcoming The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Twitter represents “a way of making sure you are permanently connected to somebody and somebody is permanently connected to you, proving that you are alive. It’s like when a parent goes into a child’s room to check the child is still breathing. It is a giant baby monitor.”

I’ll save the obvious rebuttals for others, but I think these commentaries are interesting in what they reveal about the evolution of Western culture and the field of psychology.  This is a gross oversimplification, but here goes.

Up until recently, psychology has been the study of (a) the individual, and (b) disorder/pathology.  Social psychology and “positivist” psychology attempts to shift the lopsidedness, but the comments above clearly reflect the traditional psychoanalytic view.  And while I would be the first to admit that narcissism and self-centeredness are a scourge on society and individual fulfillment alike, I believe that over the decades this aspect of human psychology has been giving way to more healthy, empathic and pro-social cognitive constructs and behaviors.

Just looking back through the generations in your own family, you may see the following evolution: Extreme narcissism (Depression era) –> Self-centeredness (the “me generation”) –> Entitlement (the “millenials”).  This is a positive trend.  And with the information revolution and globalization, we are starting to see what the future holds: Hyper-social behavior and holism.

Twitter is both an enabler and a manifestation of hyper-social activity.  Everyone who actually uses it (and Facebook updates) immediately understands the ironic mistake of Oliver James, David Lewis and Alain de Botton.  You don’t twitter to feed your ego, you twitter to hold up your end of the social contract, to create/shape the community you want to be a part of.  To view twitter from the tweeter’s perspective is a laughably myopic — and dare I say — narcissistic stance.

hat tip: Daniel Horowitz

  • kevindick

    My father would no doubt to implore you to distinguish between _clinical_ psychologists and _experimental_ psychologists here.

  • Point noted. I use the term psychoanalysis to refer to the clinical variety, and to be clear, I am not speaking at all of experimental or cognitive psych above.

  • brady

    I think it’s a lot more difficult to infer intentions and motives than either you or the quoted Docs above are acknowledging. I would like to know what kind of data you (or the psychologists) are relying on to infer these motives. Do we even have self-report??

  • Very interesting topic, it has opened my mind through the use of Twitter. Thanks for the explanation.