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“Me.” These days, it’s a brand – especially in this era of social media, when people present themselves in a way that to some extent is out of touch with reality. Is this development leading to a disruption of our individual characteristics?
Me, Myself and I
On average, people are spending nearly seven hours a day on the Internet, half of that time via their smartphone. For many people, “always on” simply describes their everyday life. It’s only logical that all of this would have an effect on us as individuals – and that social media could influence us as well. After all, almost everyone today has a profile on at least one online platform. As a “digital me”, this profile connects you with your family, friends, acquaintances – potentially with everyone.
This can be coupled with some side effects, as everything and everyone always seems perfect in the online world, impeccable. More than anyone else, this is true for people who earn their livelihood based on their appearance and the way their lifestyle is presented to the world. Because of their community of thousands of followers, they are role models – especially vis-à-vis the younger generation. Desiring to emulate these role models, young people learn quickly that it’s easy to present a flattering image of themselves to the world – all it takes is some apps.
Five traits, one character
This constant comparison with countless other people, this ongoing prettifying of our lives – what is it doing to us? In spite of knowing full well that social media images are artificial, are we changing the uniqueness of our individual essence, just to please the masses?
Personality researchers speak of five core dimensions that define a person’s character. Mathematically, they can occur in 3,125 different combinations – which doesn’t sound like a large number of variants among a worldwide population of 7.7 billion people. But how do we develop our own individual combination?
To a large extent, your personality depends on which genes you inherited at birth. Equally influential, though, are your social environment, your education, and your individual history of learned experiences. This includes the role models you choose, in both the offline and online worlds. But in total, we human beings are only able to freely determine about 20 percent of our character.
Can I be the way I want to be?
To summarize, in the totality of our character traits, our behaviors, thought patterns, attitudes, and beliefs, everyone is unique. But there is one common element: we want to be liked and respected by others.
In the era of social media, standards are shifting in this regard. While in the past, it was only our family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who could observe and evaluate us, today it’s the whole world. Similarly, the people we compare ourselves to are also all around the globe. The pressure on us to look perfect and lead an exciting life has grown thanks to social media, and of course this exerts an influence on us. But while our hobbies, clothes, and appearance can all be changed at short notice, character is something different. It’s not because you are on a search for clicks that you will automatically become a different person. Being the way you want to be – it’s a lifelong learning process.
Interview with Prof. Willibald Ruch
Digital self-promotion, uniqueness, influenceability: what so these concepts mean for an individual’s character traits? Is the individual “me” becoming a broadly accepted “brand” instead?
Professor Ruch, as individuals, how unique are we really?
It depends on how you look at it. In the entire world, there is no other person who is the same age, looks the same, and has the same personality as me. In that sense, we’re all unique. However, if you only look at our personality traits, we are more alike.
Is the statement “That’s just the way I am” rational?
On the one hand, I think we should accept the uniqueness of every person and value their diversity. On the other hand, studies show that it is absolutely possible to change at will. For example, I conducted a study to answer the question whether a character trait such as humor can be learned and trained. The results spoke for themselves: yes, absolutely. Nobody in our study was transformed from a grouchy sourpuss into a stand-up comedian, but statistically significant changes were visible.
So it is possible to develop contrary to the way we’ve been socialized?
Yes, it’s definitely possible to change from the way the people who raised us intended. A good example of this is in the case of adoption. Studies have compared the personality traits of adopted children with those of their adoptive family and their biological family. What was demonstrated is that the influence of genetics is more pronounced, at least at a young age, because the similarity to the biological family was considerably greater.
How do strokes of fate affect us?
They definitely do have an effect. Much more interesting, however, is the question of how long-lasting they are. Moments of shock often bring about a depressive condition. However, one to two years later, people usually return to their personality and their previous state of satisfaction.
Is there a relationship between character and appearance?
People used to think, among other things, that your happiness is correlated with your physical attractiveness, but that’s been proven not to be the case. True, attractive people are more likely to be helped, but this doesn’t seem to have any direct influence on their happiness.
Are social media turning us into brands?
There has always been a certain need for self-expression, but the way this is done now has changed. On the one hand, social media make it easier to express yourself, to build your own brand. On the other hand, social media also stimulate competition for affection. With one click on your smartphone, you’ve got countless models that you can emulate and compete with. I can see more or less what my neighbors and acquaintances are doing – and what they can afford – and in turn this can arouse or reinforce in me the desire for a certain behavior.
This is an abridged version of the full interview with Dr. Ruch, which you can read in our Wealth Management Magazine “Inspiration”.
Biography Prof. Willibald Ruch
Since 2002, Prof. Willibald Ruch has been Chair of the Section of Personality and Assessment at the Psychological Institute of the University of Zurich. His research interests include personality and character; humor; character strengths in leisure, school, and workplace environments; as well as the design of diagnostic methods.