February 8, 2013

Cocooning's web of mental dysfunction

Human beings are social creatures, so cocooning will warp their nature. Rather than explore every possible dysfunction that might stem from social isolation, I thought I'd take a look at how a handful of them are inter-related.

These thoughts began to cohere after looking more deeply into the culture of the mid-20th century, roughly the mid-1930s through the late '50s, although leaking into part of the '60s as well, since the shift away from the mid-century during the '60s was not instantaneous. It's uncanny how similar that zeitgeist was to today's, as well as to the Victorian era, although I'm not as familiar with that period.

What these periods all share is a falling crime rate, which goes along with a tendency toward cocooning. Indeed, it follows shortly after cocooning begins -- fewer people out-and-about means slim pickin's for predatory criminals, and even heat-of-the-moment crimes won't happen as often when, for example, fewer young males hang out in bars.

The psychological impulse toward cocooning comes from having a lowered view of other people -- who needs 'em? Either they're inferior and can't do anything for you, or they're liable to exploit you if you let down your guard. In the helpful framework of Attachment Theory, we'd say that people first become more avoidant emotionally. That then leads on a behavioral level to fewer and shallower social connections being maintained.

Now for the web. First, cocooners develop a higher free-floating level of anxiety because, deep down, they still sense that social isolation makes them ultimately more vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. They don't confide in others, or allow others to confide in them, so they may feel like they're the only one -- or not? -- they can't tell, and that uncertainty about where they stand relative to others only compounds their anxiety.

In fact, that point generalizes: lacking the feedback that comes from lots of social interaction, they don't know how they measure up on all sorts of dimensions, not just nervousness. Are they funny? Are they charming? How can they know without interacting and judging the results of how others respond? They don't exactly feel worthless -- that is, having a keen sense that others do definitely have a low view of them. It's more like a pervasive self-doubting.

The mid-century was the "Age of Anxiety," and the Victorian era popularized the notion of "nervous illness" and "neurasthenia". We don't have a handy name for what we've been suffering from over the past 20 years, but we could just as well call it the Age of Anxiety v.2.0, or perhaps the Prozac Years. During more outgoing times like the Romantic-Gothic period before the Victorians, the Jazz Age before the mid-century, and the New Wave Age before the current period, it's hard to find people who have a generalized and gnawing self-doubt, unsure of who they are across most dimensions of human identity.

In the psychological literature, it's known that self-doubt is associated with obsessive-compulsive thinking and behavior. The obsessions stem directly from the self-doubt because the cocooner feels uncomfortable accepting feedback from others. It all comes down to their own individual appraisal -- does my hair look OK like this or like this or maybe like this, are these carpets really clean enough, am I putting in enough time at the office to get that promotion, does this essay have enough examples to hand in and at least get a B?

The compulsions follow as a way to relieve the stress of obsessing so much about so much of life. Let me just put these hairs over here or maybe there or maybe there, let's just vacuum the room one more time just to be sure, what's another 30 minutes after hours anyway, let me add this example to make the point, no I mean this one, or how about this one, and why not that one too.

Have you been in a college computer lab lately? It's amazing how long they fuss over a simple 2-page paper, forever deleting and re-writing, and pausing for long stretches to beat themselves over the head about whether their examples are good enough. And of course it still comes out sounding however it would've sounded if they'd only taken 30 minutes instead of 3 hours. They're simply too OCD to get shit done.

The rise of OCD over the past 20 years, nowhere more visible than in the game of beer pong and other rigidly defined drinking games, had its parallels in the mid-century with housewives running nervously on their domestic treadmill, and the husband running nervously on the promotion treadmill. Not in the sense of actually going nowhere, but in the sense of wasting too much time on tasks because of obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions and counter-actions, second-guessing themselves for hours instead of just going to it.

The Victorian era had its epidemic of OCD as well, referred to then as "pathological doubt". (Modern sources attribute the phrase "doubting sickness" to the Victorians, but Google's digitized library doesn't show that phrase appearing anywhere.)

Because their compulsions don't ever solve their obsessive problems, cocooners turn to what they hope are mind-altering substances that will root out their anxiety directly. The Victorian era was the heyday for "patent medicines" AKA snake oil, the mid-century for prescription barbiturates, amphetamines, and anti-anxiety drugs, and the current period for prescription anti-depressants. Unlike recreational drugs, these are taken regularly to treat what they feel is a chronic illness, not to every now and then transport their ordinary mind into an extraordinary state.

The data are so rich on this topic that I'll have to come back to it in a separate post, but in brief, cocooners always begin a movement toward popping "happy pills" rather than relieve tension by socializing and realizing from others' reactions to your over-blown fears that your world isn't about to implode after all.

Finally, there's a kind of narcissism that pervades the culture. Not the kind that borders on sociopathy, more like being smug and self-satisfied, and acting in a glib and sassy way towards others. Self-satisfaction would seem to contradict the self-doubt, but it's the direct result of it -- with no feedback from others about where you stand on all those dimensions, you fill it in yourself or listen to what your nuclear family members say, all of which is biased toward inflating your ego.

You're aware that your view of yourself doesn't come from others' evaluations, but from what you've decided you are, and that feels nakedly self-promoting. When you do occasionally sense what others feel about you, and that it clashes with your own view, you dismiss them out of hand as clueless.

In an earlier post on attenion-whoring vs. being popular, I provided long quotes from contemporary observers of both the Victorian and mid-century periods, to the effect that women of the day, especially younger women, were attention-whoring and coarse, glib, and dismissive toward others. All I can say is -- they were there, and we weren't. They might have been called airheaded, but nobody said that the valley girls of the New Wave Age were contemptuous of all other people -- rather, that they wanted desperately to fit in with a group of their peers, and that their minds were too wrapped up in trying to be pleasing toward boys.

Most of us try to think about the mid-century through TV shows like Leave It To Beaver, but TV was only around in the '50s. Radio was much bigger, but most of us including me have little idea what was on it. Sometime I'll get around to doing a content analysis of the popular shows. Still, all of us should have some familiarity with the movies of the mid-30s through the late '50s. And several stock phrases spring to mind to describe a good number of the women -- fast-talking dames, sassy broads, and wise-cracking femme fatales. That type of woman was ever-present in both light movies like the screwball comedy, as well as the darker movies like film noir thrillers.

And they all had a knack for that smirky-smuggy sassy-face that should look familiar to residents of the Millennial age:


There could be other features that tie in with the rest of the web, but these are the ones that stand out the most as being different from other time periods, and that reinforce one another -- avoidant attachment style, cocooning, self-doubting anxiety, OCD, addiction to happy pills, and glib sassiness.

23 comments:

  1. Anonymous2:21 AM

    The psychological impulse toward cocooning comes from having a lowered view of other people -- who needs 'em? Either they're inferior and can't do anything for you, or they're liable to exploit you if you let down your guard. In the helpful framework of Attachment Theory, we'd say that people first become more avoidant emotionally. That then leads on a behavioral level to fewer and shallower social connections being maintained.

    Why is this more persuasive than what seems like the more intuitive theory to me - "People with avoidant personality disorder often consider themselves to be socially inept or personally unappealing and avoid social interaction for fear of being ridiculed, humiliated, rejected, or disliked. "? A la http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avoidant_personality_disorder.

    Basically having an elevated view of other people's capabilities vis-a-vis social interaction (and other facets). I could imagine that being a response to a hyper outgoing age, hyper self-promotion driven age, and declining after an age of people who are all kind of nerdy.

    Are you saying that kind of "I'm less than other people, and being around others makes me feel aware of that, so I'll drop out, even if I don't particularly think they're exploitative" shyness and withdrawal just doesn't exist, or that it's the infrequent kind? It always seemed like the more frequent type to me.

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  2. Anonymous6:21 AM

    Very brilliant insight, however, I disagree on some points.

    Generally, I believe that substance abuse and mental duress are the result of bad conditions. In other words, all those people doing prescription drugs actually are in trouble. Its not just in their head. they are socially isolated, not by choice. and when you are forcefully socially isolated, you have no choice but to become obsessive-compulsive - since your instincts are not being honed by social feedback.


    These problems run deep, and are probably economic in nature. I just don't think its as simple as "if only people would go outside, everything would be easier". Nobody wants to be your friend.

    Though, as you've said, it seems like the culture is becoming a little more outgoing recently. One effect of this is that people are becoming more forthcoming about their lives. For instance, it seems that the majority of young men are not having any sex at all - they are beginning to desperately complain about it on forums. This is a far cry from the glib "I'm the alpha male" attitude that existed only a few years ago. And yeah, I'm talking about things I've seen online, but still. In real life, you can't really judge these things until the weather turns warm. If its true that we're over the hump, then this spring will be very interesting.



    You write about cocooning times as if they're some sort of mass-delusion. I don't think that. I think they are the result of real economic and institutional structural changes. It could be just as simple as high taxes cause cocooning.

    -Curtis


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  3. "shyness and withdrawal just doesn't exist, or that it's the infrequent kind?"

    Attachment Theory slices people up into those who have a high vs. low view of themselves, and high vs. low view of others. The low view of others are avoidant.

    If they also have a low view of themselves, they're fearful-avoidant -- mousy, withdrawn type. If they however have a high view of themselves, they're dismissive-avoidant -- let the haters hate types.

    I don't recall off the top of my head which sub-type is more common among avoidants. The main thing is that people have gotten a lot more avoidant.

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  4. "In other words, all those people doing prescription drugs actually are in trouble. Its not just in their head."

    I didn't claim it was. As a result of their social isolation, they really are more plagued by anxiety and self-doubt.

    "they are socially isolated, not by choice."

    We could test that by having a handful of individuals try to make things more carefree, group-involving, and exciting again.

    If the majority's isolation and avoidance is not by choice, then they'll join in, thinking "at last, we don't have to be so detached and ironic anymore!" It would be like those classic conformity studies by Asch, where as long as a single other person stands out from the group, you feel comfortable doing so too.

    Well, there are actually still people who try in their little daily ways to introduce a little easy-going fun back into social life. But they inevitably get shot down, given a look of "um, seriously guys, really?" or some other duckface, blackface, kabuki-face signal that others are uninterested in, even hostile toward letting their guard down for five seconds and cutting loose.

    So the majority wants to be avoidant and cocooning. When they're given the opportunity to connect with others and have fun, they find it awkward and creepy. Everything social gives them the creeps.

    "I think they are the result of real economic and institutional structural changes."

    It's hard to see that since the standard economic variables are unrelated to crime rates or cocooning. Wealth, income, inequality, unemployment, population size, debt, size of the government, size of corporations, etc.

    Pick whichever ones you want, and they don't slice up the zeitgeist history into the past 20 years, the '60s-'80s, the mid-'30s to the '50s, the fin-de-siecle through the Jazz Age, the Victorian era, the Romantic-Gothic period, etc.

    Those oscillations go right along with the oscillations in the homicide rate, and it's best to stick with a single explanation.

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  5. It's kind of of odd that if the current era is analogous to the 1940's and 50's that the latter period during the mid-20th century was characterized by peak levels of civic engagement in terms of membership in everything from the Elks to the PTA and from church attendance to having friends over for dinner whereas recent decades have seen a decline in community life. How can both high and low levels of membership in community organizations be indicative of low-crime era cocooning?

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  6. I think it was mainly the civic org stuff that was really big in the mid-century. Church attendance looks like it went down in the mid-century, judging from GSS data where people recall their childhoods. The religious fervor of the Jazz Age and the New Wave Age was not there, so apart from attendance, the intensity of religious bonds were lower.

    Same with having folks over for dinner -- the mid-century was the heyday of the drive-in restaurant, drive-in movies, drive-in church, etc. I put a post up on that sometime in 2011.

    It seems like grown-ups in the Roaring Twenties and the Go-Go Eighties we eating out with friends more often -- home is nice, but dining and dancing is better.

    Why were civic orgs high in the mid-century and low now? Two things.

    The welfare state has steadily grown and steadily eroded a lot of the functions that those groups used to serve (scholarships, health insurance, etc.).

    And there's the Peter Turchin "asabiya" story about national cohesion against other nations. Americans were still on the ascent, beginning with our response to the Indian threat, then the Communists and Fascists, and then the Cold War.

    Now that the Cold War is over, we don't have anything external to bind us together internally. There was that blip of solidarity and excitement during the mid-2000s in response to 9/11, but that was it.

    It's more instructive to look at Western Europe during the mid-century -- they sure didn't have the flourishing of civic orgs that we did, regardless of being war-torn. Even by the late '50s, they didn't have our level of civic orgs.

    Existentialism, International Style architecture, minimalist design, drab isolated living in general. We got a good deal of that, but we also had high asabiya, unlike the British, whose national cohesion peaked with the Victorians.

    The American mid-century was more like the Victorian era specifically -- falling-crime, but rising-asabiya.

    The worst of both worlds are like the European mid-century and the American Millennial age -- falling-crime, falling-asabiya. And of course the best of both worlds are like Romantic-Gothic Britain and New Wave America -- rising-crime and rising-asabiya.

    The last quadrant is rising-crime, falling-asabiya -- that was Britain from the '60s through the '80s. Seems more enjoyable, less depressing than the Victorian era and the mid-century Britain.

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  7. Another rising-crime, falling-asabiya culture was Romantic-Gothic "Germany" -- that was a lot more oriented toward the ominous and sublime, and didn't have as much carefree fun as they did in Britain at the same time.

    Kind of like how New Wave Britain wasn't as footloose as America was during the same time, and was better at tapping into the sublime.

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  8. Anyway, why do we get these four possibilities instead of one dimension cancelling the other out? People have a nested set of allegiances, and easily keep track of them separately (I and my brother against my cousin, etc.).

    Rising-crime stimulates people's groupiness at the local and regional level, and rising-external-threats stimulates their larger and almost symbolic groupiness.

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  9. Anonymous7:54 PM

    "Now that the Cold War is over, we don't have anything external to bind us together internally."

    I'm not so sure we need such a thing....

    Regardless, I need to think more deeply about this.

    -Curtis

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  10. You talked about people responding to predictable vs unpredictable environments before. I've probably mentioned Mark Kleiman here before (shame on me if I haven't), and he's got a recent discussion where he highlights how that relates to crime. If the empirical effects he's finding hold up, it sounds about as unquestionable a good thing as you can get. He also points out later "The bloodthirstiness of the American political system has shrunk a lot as the crime rate has shrunk". You made the same point, if not quite in those words.

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  11. Anonymous1:57 AM

    Attachment Theory slices people up into those who have a high vs. low view of themselves, and high vs. low view of others. The low view of others are avoidant.
    If they also have a low view of themselves, they're fearful-avoidant -- mousy, withdrawn type. If they however have a high view of themselves, they're dismissive-avoidant -- let the haters hate types.


    Just seems a bit screwy. If you think someone's awesome and won't have any time for you, you won't want to spend any time with them or if you think that someone is awesome but just different from you, you won't want to spend any time with them.

    General social bonding seems different from how kids relate to their caregivers, where not wanting to spend time with the caregiver is plausibly determined a great deal by the child feeling independent from the parent ("I can do this on my own", if not "superior" exactly to the parent, "you can't do anything for me") or mistrust of the parent. The nature of adult relationships is not the same, so I can't understand why it would be adaptive for humans to pattern their adult relationships strongly on a caregiver relationship. It "underestimates the child".

    Re: Attachment Theory in general, the consensus in much of the HBD sphere (I don't know how much you consider yourself part of that, or them to be kooky falling crime autistics or something) has been towards the irrelevance of early development and the supremacy of genetics.

    The tendency is to cite Judith Rich Harris's survey of twin studies (which i've never read and not sure if they have).

    Is this false and the twin study evidence really does support AT?

    I.e. identical twins raised with different ATs show significant (or even measurable) differences in -version, mental health service use, numbers of close relationships as adults?

    Sorry to be acting like an interrogator, it is just that this strong dependence on attachment theory in explaning generational characteristics really at odds with the HBD-sphere received wisdom.

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  12. "If you think someone's awesome and won't have any time for you, you won't want to spend any time with them or if you think that someone is awesome but just different from you, you won't want to spend any time with them."

    You've obviously never meet or heard of a person who was clingy and needy... there might not be any of those types left in the Millennial generation.

    You described someone who has a *high* view of others, low view of self. They're usually called the "anxious" type in the lit. High view of others, high view of self is "secure".

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  13. "so I can't understand why it would be adaptive for humans to pattern their adult relationships strongly on a caregiver relationship."

    They don't. Historically, the attachment theory people began with child-caregiver relationships, then noticed that attachment is a feature of adolescence and adulthood too. So they developed the theory for peer relationships, whether friendship, workmates, or romantic partners.

    They're not saying that your attachment style comes from interacting with the parent at a young age, and freezes that way when you're out interacting with peers.

    However, attachment styles do persist somewhat over the lifespan, probably from a genetic predisposition. I don't recall heritabilities, but they're not as high as for height -- probably more like for IQ or personality traits.

    Anyway, the fact that kids today are so different from kids 20-30 years ago shows that the naive genetic view is wrong. They've picked up on a totally different social-emotional wind blowing through their world, from infancy through adolescence and early adulthood, and have adapted accordingly.

    Genes that are so inflexible to not allow facultative adjustment are selected out when there is environmental variability, including change over time. The genes set up a kind of program -- if you're in this environment, develop this way, if you're in that environment, develop that way, etc.

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  14. I only caught a small part of this movie, but the way the girl talks! And this is supposed to be romantic, I think.

    "Definitely, Maybe"

    Smoke-off

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=804UN9XPV44


    ---

    I found this other clip with the copy girl in "Definitely, Maybe" and I guess it's not as bad, but still.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GkPbF_FJuho

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  15. Forgot to link this earlier. Early Kodachrome footage from 1922.

    "Even more interesting to a modern viewer are the women’s gestures. They act out fluttery, innocent modesty; warm maternal love; and in the longest sequence, sexy, puckered-lip vamping. Their open expressions of feeling and the particular way they move their hands and tilt their heads, even more than the fashions of their clothes and makeup, immediately mark them as women of the interwar period. Recently a Russian film scholar, Oksana Bulgakowa, has shown how various feelings and meanings were coded in the gestures of early film actors. Some of these are so unfamiliar now, they seem like a foreign language.

    Today, when we watch a TV show or a movie, we see a wide range of acting styles and behaviors. A hundred years from now, which ones will be seen as defining our age?"

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  16. Jimbo5:57 AM

    Agnostic,

    When are you going to put all this together into a book? I'd love to read it...

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  17. Anonymous9:52 AM

    "Genes that are so inflexible to not allow facultative adjustment are selected out when there is environmental variability, including change over time. The genes set up a kind of program -- if you're in this environment, develop this way, if you're in that environment, develop that way, etc."

    This is true. However, this would mean that young people are cocooning because of things going on, right now, in their environment. Not because of the way they were raised...

    -Curtis

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  18. Do you remember the phrase, "Talk to the hand, because the face isn't listening"?

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  19. I heard it as "Talk to the hand, cuz the face don't understand." Then it went to just, "Talk to the hand."

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  20. Okay so I was trying to find a thread to post this in, and this one seems suitable. My brother is on a business trip to DC, and he just texted me: "DC is a strange place. Everyone is very much into keeping to themselves. No discussion on the trains. Strangely quiet."

    Mind you, he isn't into the alt-right sphere of websites. So maybe you really are onto something with your cocooning theory. When I read his text I thought of you instantly.

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  21. The Bos-Wash corridor is probably the worst. I grew up from middle school after in the Maryland suburbs of DC.

    It's not just the huge number of transplants -- there were tons of those pouring into California as late as the 1980s, but they were all excited to join the crowd. Now people flock to major cities to compete in dorky status contests.

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  22. Got another sign of cultural decline for you. This was a status update posted by one of my friends on facebook:

    "Some people are SO sweet and thoughtful!!!
    A very sweet friend and hero of mine just asked if he could send me something in the mail. Then proceeded to ask if he was being creepy. How could thoughtfulness ever be creepy??? You sir just made my day !"

    Good response by my friend, but sad that the dude thought he was being creepy.

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  23. You can hardly blame him when most of his female peers keep telling everyone how creepy everything is.

    Last time I sent a friend something in the mail was maybe 3 years ago, but it was a Christmas present, so it couldn't have sounded weird to ask for her address. Guys today are probably like, "hmmm, is she gonna think it's going to be a pig's heart or something? better not ask her then."

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