Saturday, April 7, 2012

On Failure and Social Support

There is a fear of failure in most individuals that belies one of the greatest truths in human social interactions. It is simply, that misery loves company and people are more likely to warm up to others who they think embody some weakness of some sort.

This is the product of social comparison, the tendency of individuals to compare themselves to others to assess their own standing and maintain self-esteem. It is easier and less painful for individuals' self-esteem to provide social support for those against whom they believe, they compare favourably.

To illustrate this phenomenon, I would like to give an example using two women. Everyone knows these two women. The scenario I am using is familiar and has been played in the social sphere countless of times.

Woman One has been overweight for most of her life. In terms of fitness, she is equated with a level of failure.
Woman Two is a splendid model of health, who for years, perhaps over twenty years, has followed a fitness and diet regimen without fail.

This is where it gets interesting.

In some circles, I must try not to generalise but that is the norm, the continually slim, healthy woman is dismissed as vain and 'not-knowing-what-it's-like' to struggle with weight issues. If she were to post a photo of herself on a social media platform, perhaps feeling proud of all her efforts in maintaining a toned figure and her persistence in taking care of herself after all these years, the general consensus is that she must 'really love herself'. It does not matter that following a regular exercise and health routine involves determination, discipline and self-sacrifice. The fact that she generally succeeds in this quest and has succeeded in this quest for years often bears negative consequences. Her 'success' is perceived as having come easily for her. There is also the perception that her 'overblown' efforts to maintain her appearance are only the result of her self-centredness and vanity.

Now let us examine what it means to be seen as 'once having failed'.
Please note, that personally, I think, failure only becomes failure if one is dissatisfied with one's state but chooses to do nothing to overcome this state. The example I give with Woman Two, that of being overweight, is only a problem if Woman Two is dissatisfied with her health and unhappy with her abundant curves. My measure of failure, here, is relative and depends on the individual's own values.

So returning to our example, let us assume that this overweight woman decides to lose weight and increase her fitness level because she wants to and over the next six months or maybe a year, she does indeed succeed at her enterprise.
Let us also assume that she begins to post photos of her efforts on a social media platform partly to motivate herself in her ongoing quest but also to celebrate her results so far.
Now comes the difference...

Her friends will naturally be encouraging of what is perceived as her commendable efforts in exercising regularly and eating well. They will perceive her long struggle. They will empathise with the feelings of dissatisfaction that have given rise to her desire to better herself. In short, she can expect more support than Woman One.

This is not just for women by the way,  I have witnessed abundant outpourings of support, praise and encouragement on Facebook when one man admitted to having lost 10kg in his last regimen. Kind words like "That is an amazing effort!" or "Well done on your determination" rarely shower down for those who are 'effortlessly' slim.

This is an example of how being perceived to have failed and to then succeed is often more socially welcomed than being perceived to have done nothing but succeed. Unless an individual is already a celebrity and has over 10 million fans, people have a need to know that the individual is not superhuman. Many people in fact need to see others as struggling with some sort of setback before they will allow them to shine.

Another example. When a new author comes onto the scene with a published book, recall how fascinated we are to know that they were once rejected by fifteen different publishers. All of a sudden, when we learn of this, there is a glow around their newly published manuscript. It's a manuscript seared with battlefield scars. It acquires an aura of injustice that has been finally overcome. Its potency somehow increases just as does our support for the author. It does not matter that most publishing stories are in fact riddled with rejections and the writer's journey is by its very nature likely to be fraught with setbacks and rejections. It is as though having identified that an author has been rejected before, we think they must 'know-what-it's-like' to struggle and we rally in favour of this underdog. Take the growing pains of J.K. Rowling in placing Harry Potter on the market and how this has been perceived. J.K. Rowling is seen as fully 'deserving' of her books' successes as a result.

Conversely, think to some of the feedback that writers like Elizabeth Kostova have received for being known to not-have-struggled in their publishing quest. Not content with being likened to the next Dan Brown, Kostova dared to attract a $2-million dollar advance for her fabulous debut novel, The Historian. If this was not enough, Sony was known to have immediately signed up for the movie rights. Here is a brief example of the against-the-grain responses (with the star rating in brackets) that have been made of The Historian:

"I honestly don’t understand the high reviews that had been given to this book" (1/5)

"This proved to be a big disappointment. It's been a huge bestseller, & reviews always mention the huge advance it got & often say it's brilliantly structured. But I found everything about it implausible..." (1/5)

"I found The Historian to be rich and luxurious - kind of like a mink coat, unfortunately the pacing and unrelenting narrative make it about as useful as a mink coat in Florida. Still, I wouldn’t mind reading the next novel Ms. Kostova writes, maybe a biography of one of the historical characters in this book because she has a wonderful ability to bring her characters to life. My only hope is that Ms. Kostova spent her two million dollar advance wisely, hopefully not on a mink coat." (2/5) - Ha!

"This is definitive proof that Dracula is NOT still alive/undead because if he was, he'd've killed this author. And then her editor." (1/5) - And they say only indies have editing problems. :)

"Considering the fact that the author had a 2 Milion Dollar advance to write this book over 10 years, it was a very bad read. I kept hoping the story would unfold, but no." (1/5)

Negative reviewers of this instant-success novel tended to make relative judgments based on the publicity that the book and its author had garnered. For example, they alluded to the critical acclaim and hefty advance and balked at how misled everyone else who raved about it was.

It would be interesting to discover if the lowest ratings given for The Historian would have been statistically higher, if Kostova's book and her generous debut novelist advance had not received so much publicity.

Indeed, people are relatively more supportive of those who struggle with some perceived failure and who eventually overcome this to 'succeed'. It is as though they are deemed to 'have suffered long enough' to be allowed to succeed. There is a sense that due to all their sufferings they now deserve their silver medal. As a result, it becomes perfectly alright to praise them and shower them with support since we have now established that they have been to hell and have suffered 'just like the rest of us'.

Human nature is indeed fascinating.

Beautiful actresses who uglify themselves onscreen deserve an Oscar

So in summary we can formulate the above discussion into two equations:

1. Effort + Success => Low Level Social Support or in extreme cases, No support

2. Perceived Failure/Struggle + Effort + Success => High Level of Social Support

What to take home from this?

Ultimately the social support one will obtain from others is related to the ability to market one's failures and let others know that one has flaws. Failure is not such a bad thing after all.

In fact many women do bond by speaking about the difficulties in one or more aspects of their lives. Woe to the woman who has everything going for her and is perceived as a model of perfection.

In some cases, people make a point of revealing their problems because they know perfectly well that this will arouse sympathy and can be used to rally others to their cause. It is a form of social manipulation.
Based on this, is it socially manipulative to advertise your failures?

I have no answer. With anything, it depends on the individual and the situation. In fact, never believe any advice that is too deterministic in nature: human psychology is riddled with 'it depends'. Don't even believe what I've written here. I should know better. I should know that successful people are praised every five minutes and live a joyful life due to all those who bask in their glory and hope to gain favours from them. I should also know that people who lose weight after years of struggle are met with apathy and jealous silences and that since they've dared to come out of their box and reinvent themselves they can expect nothing except resentment... Yeah, you see? It depends!

Fascinating, those humans...

But returning to the topic... While I would not go out of my way to hide my failures, I personally would not follow the conscious, 'everyone-look-at-how-much-I'm-struggling' approach.

I like to be perceived as superhuman you see...Why not!  And by the same token, the prospect of seeing my friends kick ass at whatever they do, can only bring a smile to my face.

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