Category Archives: personality

Thoughts on the Terrorist Attacks in Norway

Is it possible to prevent terrorist attacks such as the ones that happened in Norway on Friday?

I’m not going to explore the answer to that question in well-researched detail; rather, I’ll list some thoughts.  Preventing such an attack would require intervening at some point or another.  There are a few possibilities:

  1. In the perpetrator’s youth, to ensure that whatever experiences that caused him to become a sociopath and to lose respect for human life don’t happen
  2. Preventing the perpetrator from obtaining the weapons to be used in the attack
  3. Being there on the scene to stop him just before committing the crime

I don’t think any of these three will work.  #1 seems impractical.  Psychology isn’t an exact science and it isn’t known exactly what turns Timothy McVeigh or Anders Behring Breivik.  I don’t think #2 will work either.  First off, it’s hard to identify these people (if it weren’t, wouldn’t people have tried to help them before?) so you’d need to take the weapons away from everyone, which isn’t always practical.  Second, I suspect that, if they didn’t have one weapon, they’d use another.  As technology advances, it becomes easier for people to obtain or create things that could be used as destructive weapons, and banning every single possibility would be a major infringement on civil rights.  As for #3, how would anyone know where to be (unless you were in a police state where the police were everywhere anyway)? One possibility is that a lot of these folks that commit these sort of acts leave some sort of message on the Internet explaining themselves; possibly there might be the ability to look for this sort of material, but I suspect that, if this were in place, these folks’ MO would change so that this wouldn’t work anyway.

So, I think the answer to the question I posed in the first paragraph is “No”.  The risk of these sort of terrorist attacks is unfortunately inevitable in a world that contains 7 billion people.  This huge population makes it more likely that the right (or, more accurately, wrong) combination of circumstances will cause people like Anders Behring Breivik to go down the path that they do, and it makes it more likely that there will be a lot of innocent bystanders in the way when they do unleash their anger.

How significant a problem is this, though? Before I investigate this question further I want to apologise for the tone of the following paragraph.  I’m going to be taking a “big picture” look at these events, and that unfortunately excludes examining the individual suffering of the dead or wounded and their friends and family.  Having said that, it seems that 200 deaths is around an upper limit on the number of people that one person can kill before getting caught.  Timothy McVeigh managed to kill 168 people in Oklahoma City.  The terrorists in the September 11, 2011 attacks managed to kill nearly 3,000 people, but there were 19 of them.  I can’t think of any incident in which a single person managed to kill more than 200 people.  This is because there are so many things that could go wrong that it takes a rare combination of circumstances to ensure that they all go right.

Those with lurid imaginations could probably imagine how these people could have killed more people, but I think it’s likelier that other events would happen that result in more people being saved.  The events that we do hear about on the news were the ones that were (from the terrorist’s perspective, not the world at large) wildly successful.

Not to minimize the individual suffering of the victims and their relatives and friends, but even 200 deaths are not highly significant from a global perspective. Worldwide, around 267 people are born every minute, so the number of people killed in a hypothetical terrorist attack that takes 200 lives are equal to the number of people born worldwide every 45 seconds.  One attack doesn’t have a significant effect on the Earth’s population, and attacks of this magnitude are rare.

Unfortunately this is the way it is because there are so many people on this planet and we currently can’t choose to go somewhere else.  “Animals can be driven crazy by placing too many in too small a pen.  Homo sapiens is the only animal that voluntarily does this to himself” (Robert A. Heinlein).   I hope that, one day, technology will make it possible to go somewhere else and that we don’t have to continue to crowd each other out in the same tiny pen that is the Earth.

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

I saw a news article today about a study done on celebrities through analyzing five million books.  Some interesting conclusions drawn; the study found that celebrities achieve fame earlier in life (those born in 1950 initially achieved fame, on the average, at the age of 29, compared to 43 with those born in 1800) but fame drops off faster (measured by how long it takes for mentions in books to fall from half of the peak).

One other trend not mentioned in the article is that, due to the increasing diversity of our society and the proliferation of media that serve this diversity, a lot more people are able to become famous.

What if we extrapolate these two trends?  The article I read doesn’t provide enough data points to come up with a meaningful trend line (possibly the original journal article does) but if I use my imagination I imagine the number of celebrities increasing and the amount of time decreasing.  Projecting this out far enough, and the result is that everyone is famous for 15 minutes, a la Andy Warhol.

I wrote an article last week about the increasing importance of being a celebrity in today’s economy.  If being a celebrity remains important, it is only natural that more people are going to try to achieve celebrity status, and thus more people are going to succeed, only to be pushed out of the limelight ever faster by more up-and-comers.  In this scenario, Andy Warhol’s prediction of a world in which everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes seems dead on.

So, guess what?  If you live long enough, you’re going to be famous, too!  Just don’t expect it to last…

The Personality Economy

Last week I noticed several news articles that were worth blogging about, but I just started the blog a few days ago.  This is one of these blog entries.  I’ll get through that backlog shortly, I hope…

I saw in the New York Times last week indicating that Narcissistic Personality Disorder is being removed from the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) along with a few other personality disorders, and briefly discussed a debate among psychiatrists regarding this removal.  While most people that we might think of as being narcissistic probably don’t qualify as having NPD, narcissism certainly has been getting a lot of press in recent years; one good recent book about it is The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, which illustrates the increase of vanity and self-absorption in modern culture and the negative effects thereof.

Why is narcissism on the increase?  This is probably a complex issue with several root causes.  I’m going to look at one possibility in particular, namely the nature of our information economy.  While large corporations, for example, would be willing to pay lots of money for the right kind of information, it’s difficult to get the average customer to pay for just information.

One of the reasons is the ease of finding people willing to produce information for free.  Do you want a 5000-word-long, fairly well-written if bland in tone, referenced article about the Crusades?  Someone’s already written it on Wikipedia.  There is an enormous amount of information somewhere or another on the Internet, free for the taking.  This abundance of free information contrasts with the outcomes of the Industrial Revolution; while the prices of goods that started to be factory made decreased, it didn’t decrease to zero.

Another reason is due to the ease of reproducing information.  Information can be transmitted and copied endlessly almost instantaneously nowadays, and with a theoretically unlimited supply of a piece of information, it’s not surprising that the price go down to zero.

These two reasons aren’t necessarily Bad Things; it’s nice for people to share, and it only makes sense to give something away if it’s just going to be copied anyway.  However, if you’re someone that creates intellectual property, how can you get ahead financially?  Well, you have to sell something else; just selling your information isn’t going to work.  Certainly you could sell physical instantiations of your product (books, CDs, DVDs, etc.) or advertising, but you still have to stand out among the enormous pile of information out there.  How do you do that?  Well, probably the best way to stand out from the crowd is to sell yourself through being a celebrity or, if you can’t be a celebrity, at least act like one.

Certainly the allure of celebritydom is quite strong, at least in the United States, where people quit governing Alaska in order to become a celebrity.  Why?  Well, being a celebrity, or at least acting like you were one, gets you a lot of attention, which allows you to stand out in the crowd.  That attention should solve the problem of getting ahead financially as people flock to you and your product.  Being well-known has a lot of other advantages.  For example, Steve Jobs’ personality is certainly a good selling point for iPhones and iPads and iPods.  Even if you aren’t a CEO, there are obvious advantages to having a lot of people know you.

Getting back to the title, “The Personality Economy”, that may be a bit of an overstatement, there is a lot of economic activity generated via people’s personalities, and I can only see this increasing in the future.  Why are so many people narcissistic?  Because it pays off in today’s economy.