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The Psychology of Communication


4.4 Intrinsic And Extrinsic Worth

If the person is responsible for behavior, then the person has intrinsic worth. The person must accept blame for bad behavior but, on the other hand, can accept credit for good behavior. That is, a person can have intrinsic worth. People who consider themselves to have intrinsic worth are said to have self-esteem (that is, worth in their own eyes); people who consider themselves to have no intrinsic worth tend to seek prestige (that is, worth in the eyes of other people).

The prevailing behavioristic concept of the person may, thus, help explain why modern industrial societies are characterized by compulsive and conspicuous consumption. The major method of gaining prestige is to acquire possessions. The fact that prestige is not an adequate substitute for self-esteem makes it more, rather than less, potent. The person accumulates more and more possessions in a futile search for satisfaction. Other people tend to be more offended than impressed by your possessions because they too are seeking prestige. The bigger your pile, the less impressive their pile. Your greed clashes with their envy. Since a major function of a possession is to impress other people, as many of them as possible must know that you possess it. Thus, consumption becomes conspicuous as well as compulsive. The concept of conspicuous consumption was a central thesis of Thorstein Veblen [VEBLEN], who had such a profound influence on Harold Innis.

What determines which people have self-esteem and which people must embark on a compensating search for prestige? Stanley Coopersmith has studied the antecedents of self-esteem by exploring the child-rearing practices which determine the level of self-esteem of children before they go to school [COOPERSMITH]. He concluded that parents of children with high self-esteem:

  • accept children in their own right,
  • lay down clear and enforceable rules of conduct, and
  • allow the children a wide latitude to explore within those boundaries.
  • Firm and fair rules provide a secure and consistent world and freedom to explore and manipulate provides the means of knowing and understanding this world.

    By applying those principles, teachers can contribute to high self-esteem in their students. Two psychologists argue, however, that schools often lower the self-esteem of students [COVINGTON & BEARY]. Schools tend to link self-esteem to intellectual ability which is, in turn, linked to scholastic performance. The competitive atmosphere of the typical classroom requires that there be few successes and many failures. Students become apprehensive about their scholastic performance because it reflects back on their intellectual ability which reflects back, in turn, on their self-esteem. Many students become oriented to avoiding failure rather than achieving success. Their various strategies for avoiding failure - passive indifference, underachieving, over-striving, and so on are self-defeating for the students (they fail because they fear failure) and frustrating for the teacher.

    The authors make a number of recommendations:

  • Shift from a competitive to a cooperative classroom atmosphere, in which success is not scarce.
  • Shift from a situation in which students compete with one another to one in which they each compete with themself.
  • Set realistic standards for each student and allow them plenty of latitude to meet those standards in their own way and at their own pace.
  • Permit "freedom to fail" or, better, freedom to have temporary non-successes on their way to success.
  • Shift from praise (which focuses on the standards of the teacher) to encouragement (which focuses on the standards of the student).
  • The words good and bad tend to scare scientists into scurrying off in search of philosophers. There seems to be no place for values in a world of facts. Some scientists are however evolving a set of values based on natural laws rather than cultural rules - that is, the propositions we have derived to describe our planet and our selves rather than the propositions we have derived to prescribe our conduct on this planet. Here is a summary of those values, as expounded by such diverse thinkers are Teilhard de Chardin, Buckminster Fuller and Kenneth Boulder.

    Whereas the industrial society had to deal with an energy crisis, the information society has to deal with an entropy crisis. Entropy - the spontaneous tendency of systems towards disorder - is increasing. Biological systems, within their limited space and for a limited time, defy the law of entropy. During their growth, they become more rather than less structured. Our species, the most complex biological system, is the greatest anti-entropic force in the universe. Each of us is a defiant little package of anti-entropy fighting our brave battle against the forces of chaos.

    Consciousness emerges as a function of complexity and provides the ultimate weapon against entropy. It enables us to assimilate and accommodate to information to create a microcosm of the universe within ourselves. The fuller and more accurate this subjective map of the objective world, the better we fight the good fight. It is ultimately futile, of course, we can win battles but must lose the war. Eventually, we die and get recycled as the air our survivors breathe and the water they drink. However, it is not futile for the species. Each of us spawns other defiant little packages of anti-entropy in our books and movies and children and students, which continue the war.

    We have intrinsic worth, then, because we are important elements in the complex system of the universe. We are a part of nature rather than apart from it. Our criterion of success is not wealth but health. We are healthy insofar as we realize our function in the universe - to move up the hierarchy of needs, to satisfy our biological, sociological, and psychological needs, to know and understand our selves and our planet, to build a full and accurate subjective map of the objective world.