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We live in some times. On the one hand, things are better than they've ever been. Overall rates of violence, poverty, and disease are down. There have been substantial increases in education, longevity, leisure time, and safety. On the other hand... We are more divided than ever as a species. Tribalism and identity politics are rampant on all sides of everything.
Steven Pinker and other intellectuals think that the answer is a return to Enlightenment values—things like reason, individualism, and the free expression of as many ideas as possible and an effective method for evaluating the truth of them. I agree that this is part of the solution, but I think an often underdiscussed part of the problem is much more fundamental: all of our egos are just too damn loud.*
Watching debates in the media (and especially on YouTube) in recent years has been making my head explode. There seems to be this growing belief that the goal is always to win. Not have a dialectical, well-intentioned, mutual search for overarching principles and productive ways forward that will improve humanity—but to just win and destroy.
Now, don't get me wrong—I find a good intellectual domination just as thrilling as the next person. But cheap thrills aside, I also care deeply about there actually being a positive outcome. Arriving at the truth and improving society may not be explicit goals of a WWE match, but surely these are worthy goals of public discourse?
There is also an interesting paradox at play here in that the more the ego is quieted, the higher the likelihood of actually reaching one's goals. I think we tend to grossly underestimate the extent to which the drive for self-enhancement actually gets in the way of reaching one's goals—even if one's goals are primarily agentic.
Since psychologists use of the term ego is very different ways, let me be clear how I am defining it here. I define the ego as that aspect of the self that has the incessant need to see itself in a positive light. Make no doubt: the self can be our greatest resource, but it can also be our darkest enemy. On the one hand, the fundamentally human capacities for self-awareness, self-reflection, and self-control are essential for reaching our goals. On the other hand, the self will do anything to disavow itself of responsibility for any negative outcome it may have played a role. As one researcher put it, the self engenders “a self-zoo of self-defense mechanisms.” I believe we can refer to these defensive strategies to see the self in a positive light as the “ego”. A noisy ego spends so much time defending the self as if it were a real thing, and then doing whatever it takes to assert itself, that it often inhibits the very goals it is most striving for.
In recent years, Heidi Wayment and her colleagues have been developing a “quiet ego” research program grounded in Buddhist philosophy and humanistic psychology ideals, and backed by empirical research in the field of positive psychology. Paradoxically, it turns out that quieting the ego is so much more effective in cultivating well-being, growth, health, productivity, and a healthy, productive self-esteem, than focusing so loudly on self-enhancement.
To be clear, a quiet ego is not the same thing as a silent ego. Squashing the ego so much that it loses its identity entirely does not do yourself or the world any favors. Instead, the quiet ego perspective emphasizes balance and integration. As Wayment and colleagues put it, “The volume of the ego is turned down so that it might listen to others as well as the self in an effort to approach life more humanely and compassionately.” The quiet ego approach focuses on balancing the interests of the self and others, and cultivating growth of the self and others over time based on self-awareness, interdependent identity, and compassionate experience.
The goal of the quiet ego approach is to arrive at a less defensive, and more integrative stance toward the self and others, not lose your sense of self or deny your need for the esteem from others. You can very much cultivate an authentic identity that incorporates others without losing the self, or feeling the need for narcissistic displays of winning. A quiet ego is an indication of a healthy self-esteem, one that acknowledges one’s own limitations, doesn’t need to constantly resort to defensiveness whenever the ego is threatened, and yet has a firm sense of self-worth and competence.
According to Bauer and Wayment, the quiet ego consists of four deeply interconnected facets that can be cultivated: detached awareness, inclusive identity, perspective-taking, and growth-mindedness. These four qualities of the quiet ego contribute to having a general stance of balance and growth toward the self and others:
- Detached Awareness. Those with a quiet ego have an engaged, nondefensive form of attention to the present moment. They are aware of both the positive and negatives of a situation, and their attention is detached from more ego-driven evaluations of the present moment. Rather, they attempt to see reality as clearly as possible. This requires openness and acceptance to whatever one might discover about the self or others in the present moment, and letting the moment unfold as naturally as possibly. It also involves the ability to revisit thoughts and feelings that have already occurred, examine them more objectively than perhaps one was able to in the moment, and make the appropriate adjustments that will lead to further growth.
- Inclusive Identity. People whose egos are turned down in volume have a balanced or more integrative interpretation of the self and others. They understand other perspectives in a way that allows them to identify with the experience of others, break down barriers, and come to a deeper understanding of common humanity. An ability to be mindful, and the detached awareness that comes with it, can help facilitate an inclusive identity, especially under moments of conflict, such as having one’s identity or core values challenged. If your identity is inclusive, you’re likely to be cooperative and compassionate toward others rather than only working to help yourself.
- Perspective-Taking. By reflecting on other viewpoints, the quiet ego brings attention outside the self, increasing empathy and compassion. Perspective taking and inclusive identity are intimately intertwined, as either one can trigger the other. For instance, the realization of one’s interdependence with others can lead to a greater understanding of the perspective of others.
- Growth-Mindedness. A concern for prosocial development and change for self and others over time causes those with a quiet ego to question the long-term impact of their actions in the moment, and to view the present moment as part of an ongoing life journey instead of a threat to one’s self and existence. Growth-mindedness and perspective taking complement each other nicely, as a growth stance toward the moment clears a space for understanding multiple perspectives. Growth-mindedness is also complementary to detached awareness, as both are focused on dynamic processes rather than evaluation of the final product.
These qualities should not be viewed in isolation from each other, but as part of a whole system of ego functioning. Curious where you lie on the quiet ego continuum? Here are 14 items that will give you a rough estimation. If you find yourself nodding in strong agreement to most of these items, you probably have a quiet ego:
- I often pay attention when I am doing things.
- I don’t do jobs or tasks automatically, I am aware of what I’m doing.
- I don’t rush through activities without being really attentive to them.
- I feel a connection to all living things.
- I feel a connection with strangers.
- I feel a connection to people of other races.
- Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place.
- When I’m upset at someone, I usually try to put myself in his or her shoes for a while.
- I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision.
- I find it easy to see things from another person’s point of view.
- For me, life has been a continuous process of learning, changing, and growth.
- I think it is important to have new experiences that challenge how you think about yourself and the world.
- I have the sense that I have developed a lot as a person over time.
- When I think about it, I have really improved a lot as a person over the years.
Those scoring higher on the Quiet Ego Scale tend to be more interested in personal growth and balance and are more likely to seek growth through authenticity, mastery, and positive social relationships. While a quiet ego is positively related to having a healthy self-esteem, resilience, and healthy coping strategies for dealing with life’s stressors, it is also related to humanitarian attitudes and behaviors. This is consistent with the idea that a quiet ego balances compassion with self-protection and growth goals. Indeed, a good indication that one is growing is that the ego is quieting. A quiet ego is also associated with humility, spiritual growth, flexible thinking, open-minded thinking, the ability to savor everyday experiences, life satisfaction, risk-taking, and the feeling that life is meaningful. It’s clear that a quiet ego is very conducive to living a full existence.
In my own research, I found a zero relationship between having a quiet ego and scores on a measure of "self-sacrificing self-enhancement", which is a actually facet of narcissism. Self-sacrificing self-enhancement is measured by items such as:
- Sacrificing for others makes me the better person.
- I try to show what a good person I am through my sacrifices.
- I like to have friends who rely on me because it makes me feel important.
- I feel important when others rely on me.
It seems that the quiet ego is related to a genuine concern for the growth and development of self and others. In line with this, I found that the quiet ego was positively related to measures of compassion and empathy that were negatively correlated with self-sacrificing self-enhancement. Consistent with prior research, I also found a positive relationship between a quiet ego and self-compassion. It appears then that those with a quiet ego tend be loving, giving people, but also take care of themselves just as compassionately as they tend to take care of others.
These results underscore the centrality of growth and balance values to the quiet ego construct, and make clear that quieting the ego does not quiet the self. In fact, I would like to put forward the following equation:
The quieter the ego = The stronger one's best self emerges
I think it's time for our society to realize (and put into practice) the fact that you don't have to choose either concern for the self or concern for others. In fact, intentionally practicing to maintain a healthy balance between these fundamental concerns is most conducive to health, growth, well-being, high performance, creativity, and actually arriving at the truth.
Imagine if in addition to learning math, reading, and sex education in school, we also learned how to cultivate the four characteristics of the quiet ego? Or imagine if before any potentially heated public debate, the ground rules included at least an attempt for all participants to practice these characteristics? Better yet, how about instead of the goal of the debate being "who won?", the debate concludes by having each participant state the things they learned from the other person as a result of the discussion? Would that really be so boring? If so, then I think the problem cuts even deeper than I thought.
Instead of destroying each other how about we learn from each other?
*I say "all of us" because I really do believe that all of us (including me!) can benefit from cultivating a quieter ego. This is a lifelong practice, and one that each of us are capable of committing to and moving toward in our daily lives. Recent research (see Discussion section of this paper) suggests that there are activities that do in fact enhance people's quiet ego functioning.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.