June 12, 2011

The attention-whoring face distilled, and where the trend may lead

Awhile ago I discussed the ubiquitous kabuki faces in our culture as an example of the decline in sincerity, and how difficult they make it to sympathize with anyone these days -- including people you know in real life, who post them on Facebook.

Looking over the pictures in that post again, recalling music videos, and observing the faces that college kids make when some of them lip-sync at '80s night, it seems like one type of kabuki face predominates -- the help me I'm in pain! face. The main identifiers are the eyebrows raised up and scrunched in above the nose, a universal expression of pain. It usually includes a direct stare at the audience as though to implore their help, unless the face-maker is an actor trying not to break the fourth wall.

(The earliest example that came to mind is the 1993 video for "Heart Shaped Box" by Nirvana. The 2005 video for "Helena" by My Chemical Romance shows that even in an age where no one watches MTV for videos anymore, the pained face remains. In contrast, the early '80s video for "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" does not feature a pained face, and the singer is a queer. How sad that even they were more stoic back then than straights are today.)

Why is this the prototypical attention-whoring face? A look that says help me I'm in pain! is sure to get the audience's attention: the normal unconscious reflex is to feel like, "Drop everything, what's wrong with them?!" Someone who is in pain right here and now requires more attention than someone who looks merely miffed, let alone someone who looks happy.

However, our conscious mind soon realizes that our reflexes have been toyed with -- we see that the person is in no situation that would cause them pain. They're just posing for the camera, singing along to a song, etc. We feel like we've been suckered by the boy who cried wolf. Any particular instance of this may not feel like such a heavy con job, but accumulated over all of the times we experience it, the effect is reinforce the plummeting levels of social trust.

And apart from lowering our trust of others, we get the sense that people don't want us to get close to them -- they must realize how off-putting that face is (or any of the others in the kabuki repertoire), so clearly they intended to set up a wide psychological distance between themselves and others. So we also develop a keener feeling of "I'd like to, but why bother being more social?" in a world of grotesque mask-wearers.

The second-most common type of attention-whoring face is the omigod, I'm so surprised! face, signaled by the universal expression of surprise, raised eyebrows and large googly eyes. This is sure to get the audience's attention because we look to others for information about what's going on, and if we see someone looking so damned surprised, well, probably the cause of that expression is something we should turn our attention to as well. It's like how we pay more attention to hearing a gasp than small talk among a group of strangers within earshot.

As with the pained face, though, we soon realize that there's nothing shocking. They're just taking a random picture for Facebook, dancing in place to music, or some other activity that is not being punctuated by a surprise. Once again the face-maker reliably gets a lot of easy attention, and the onlookers get none of the benefit of attending to the facial expressions of others, feeling only that they've been had. The cumulative effects are the same as with the pained face, and for the same reasons.

I don't consider the surprised face the nadir of social degradation because seeing someone in pain is more serious and stressful than someone in surprise. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of sociopaths is their attempts to con well-meaning people into believing they're in distress, and could you please help? True, the sociopath exploits his victims for a lot more than just a bunch of attention, but it is still a sign of how anti-social the culture is becoming, along with the popularity of video games where guys fantasize about being the exploiters rather than the vigilantes who do whatever it takes to flush the scum down the sewer where it belongs.

Obviously that's not translating into higher rates of murder, rape, etc., but those are always committed by a small number of prolific and highly sociopathic people. That end of the distribution seems to have been curtailed, but the remaining majority are more likely to indulge in petty, not-so-destructive anti-social behavior. There is the problem of a slippery slope, but I think there's an even greater problem than what these people might do themselves after awhile -- namely, develop greater sympathy for inveterate and truly destructive sociopaths.

However incremental and small the change may be, the average attention whore, community-disdainer, and just leave me alone loser will narrow the gap between themselves and the bad guys, and so be more likely to include them under the umbrella of the in-group. This increased sympathy hardly needs to get to 100% thunderous applause for sociopaths before all hell breaks loose. The 1950s were not what most people would consider a super-liberal era, but they were liberal enough, especially in the centers of power (the government, big business, and social science). They had been heading in that naive liberal direction since the New Deal, and it did not even need to reach the shameful levels of the Great Society, given that the crime rate began its long rise in 1959. Unlike Reagan, Eisenhower was a Republican that liberals could like.

Based on the last period of falling crime, 1934 through 1958, we are now in the part of the cycle that corresponds to the 1950s, since crime has been falling since 1993. Like the '50s, this decade will seem safer than ever, but things will get interesting not too long after its end, and we'll have to learn the lessons of the '60s, '70s, and '80s all over again.


  1. but i wonder if the increase in psychopathic behavior among normal people inoculates them against real psychopaths. 'sure, you're in trouble--so is everyone else, buddy.'

  2. There could be that, but what I had in mind was more of a permissive or sympathetic attitude toward their condition in general, along the lines of some earlier posts about Americans getting soft on crime.

    This wouldn't put them at personal vulnerability, but would tend to put society at greater danger.

  3. I'd never actually watched that Nirvana video before. I grew up without MTV and just listened to their CDs.

    Off-topic, but this guy has some theory about teenagers which may have been repurposed from Mencius Moldbug. Unlike him, I will call for child labor.


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