The personality crisis

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The personality crisis

Our consumer culture is destroying our planet. Why don’t we do something to stop it? Psychologist John F Schumaker writes about what is happening to the human personality – this is the heart of the problem.


We are destroying our planet because our personalities are changing. (Illustration: Saman Sarheng)

If we want a culture not to destroy itself as it progresses, it must have a good sense of justice, work together well, have a good public spirit and have responsible, moral leaders (from H. George ‘Social Problems’, 1883). But the consumer culture we have now is going in the opposite direction.

We know we have a serious mental-health crisis, but we don’t understand the more serious ‘personality crisis’. This has made most of the public not suitable for democracy, and no use for the many emergencies that need responsible and conscientious citizenship.

In a crisis, we look at the ‘state of the economy’. We don’t usually look at the ‘state of the person’, or what Eric Fromm calls a culture’s ‘social character’. This means the shared personality and character that come from society and which create the values, ethics, opinions and what people think are important and want.

Fromm wrote this more than 50 years ago, when he saw a personality crisis starting. He said a ‘marketing personality’ – when we buy things without thinking – makes people agree to be stupid. And it could destroy us. ‘Social character’ and citizenship have got worse since then and some people say there is an ‘apocalyptic personality’ making us destroy ourselves. But the problem now is much bigger than agreeing to be stupid.

More people are starting to think like children – this is ‘cultural infantilization’. People can be more adaptable, but less loyal, have shorter attention spans and need more new things. But they do not have higher ability to judge and make decisions. This could create a ‘culture of irresponsibility’.

This has very bad long-term effects, but this ‘capitalist personality’ was a predictable result. It comes from a system with low levels of ethics, personal growth and spirituality.

There are many ways we can destroy ourselves. But the climate crisis has the biggest need for responsible citizenship and leadership. It is by far the biggest moral, ethical and psycho-social challenge that humans have had. But we don’t have the culture or responsibility to work on it. If people feel guilty, this does not stop them. We do not build characters to solve ethical problems anymore. We have so much narcissism (extreme selfishness) that people now think this is normal. It is the same with sociopathic personalities, where people cannot understand the feelings of others.

Researchers have seen that people are happier now to support behaviour and leaders that, in the past, people would have said were dishonest, immoral, unjust and anti-social. The sociopathic personality has become very important for modern consumer capitalism.

All societies that work well depend on empathy, the basis of civilisation. But we have less of it now around the world. Data from 127 countries and over 100,000 assessments in the State of the Heart Report (2016) showed that empathy is one part of emotional intelligence that we are losing the fastest. We are becoming indifferent – we do not care – and we could lose our sensitivity to others and the planet.

Many people say we are tired of hearing about climate change. But why are we tired of it if we have done nothing? About 10 years ago, there was a big fall in climate concern, at the same time as lots of high quality climate change research that said we need urgent action. We are becoming less concerned about climate change as time goes on.

First people said this was because of problems with the economy. But researchers now think that education made things worse. People react against facts that are against their cultural beliefs, and make their cultural beliefs stronger, even when they are clearly wrong.

In the US, Republicans became less likely to believe in climate change as they learnt more about it. And Democrats before more likely to believe in climate change as they learnt more (from research at Yale University). This shows that our beliefs come from our culture more than from our knowledge, or what is right or wrong.

Young people in the past started social change. But now most of them have no ideals and they agree with conventions. Consumer culture has stopped them wanting to improve things.

Democracy is no longer the answer. And it could be bad if most people are on the side of the forces of destruction.

We have seen experiments in eco-religion, or green religion, which showed that we can change society with spiritual growth and enlightenment. But these failed. They cannot compete with the theology of money and buying more, where we get more than we give.

A few people still say love is the force that can change everything. But there is less love too. It is more difficult to love people and they are less able to love. It is dangerous to love others (Chomsky). It is easier to only care about ourselves.

The Great Law of the Iroquois said that all important decisions must think about the people and the land in seven generations in the future. Chief Luther Standing Bear, the famous author and philosopher head of the Oglala Lakota Iroquois said: ‘A man’s heart away from nature becomes hard’. We are no longer close to nature and this is one reason why we destroy it.

Who we are is now very different from who we need to be. We have become the biggest threat to ourselves and the planet. We have been perfectly prepared, psychologically and spiritually, for disaster. We have become hard. We are the people of the apocalypse.

John F Schumaker is a retired clinical psychologist and academic living in Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)