Think about this question: “Are you an important person?”
Now, think about how you would answer this question. Leave aside your actual answer for a moment and consider what informs your understandings of what makes a person important: is it achievement, education, “success”, wealth, kindness, wisdom, community service …? Is it by simply being a person?
I came to this question through Robert Putnam, the Harvard University professor and author of Bowling Alone, who recently appeared on Laurie Taylor’s Thinking Allowed radio show and podcast. Putnam was there to talk about community and social capital (and his new book), but it was his reference to several studies, carried out over a series of decades, that asked young people in the United States (among many other things) whether they were an “important person”. Apparently, the number of young people answering “yes” had increased markedly between the 1950s and the 1990s — long before reality television, social media and online influencers made narcissism something of a vulgar art form.
I tracked down the study to an academic journal article titled, Changes in adolescent response patterns on the MMPI/MMPI–a across four decades. It is a complex article, so I’ll avoid unpacking it here, but it essentially compares the self-presentation of adolescents in 1948, 1954 and 1989, based on a series of questions that reveal details of their personality and behaviour. The issue of “importance” indeed featured in the research. As the authors (Newsom et al., 2003, p. 80) write:
modern adolescents [in the late 1980s] were more likely respond true to items such as “I am an important person” … In the 1950s, this item, placed on the ego inflation (Ma4) subscale, was endorsed as true by only about 12% of the Hathaway and Monachesi (1963) sample. In contrast, this item was endorsed as true by 77% (girls) to 80% (boys) of contemporary adolescents.
It might be easy to assume this increase is the product of a society of individualists who have become increasingly obsessed with themselves. The authors, however, attribute this “dramatic shift” to the very act of viewing oneself as “important” becoming, over a period of decades, less associated with arrogance and more reflective of discourse around the importance of self-esteem. It does not necessarily reflect an explosion of narcissism.
Rather than engage more with the reasons behind this increase, it made me consider the factors that might inform whether someone in 2021 might answer “true” to the statement “I am an important person”. I have little interest in defining who might answer “yes” — let alone who “should” answer “yes”. But the matter of how someone might attempt to answer this question is fascinating.
Consider just some of the things that might inform someone’s answer:
- Self-esteem: how does the notion of an “important person” fit with understandings of what a “healthy” level of self-esteem is? Should the average person feel “important”?
- Perceptions of “arrogance”: how harshly are you judged if you declare yourself “important”?
- Legal rights and citizenship: how do legal frameworks recognise you as important (or deny you of importance)?
- Moral, religious or spiritual factors: is a person naturally “important” as a spritual or religious being? What kind of a person do you have to “be” in order to be considered important? (And is being “good” and being “important” the same or similar?)
- Relationships: how important is a friend, father or daughter to those to whom they are connected? Does that importance translate to a broader societal context?
- Roles: to what extent does your career make you important? Or volunteer work? Or community involvement? What types of career are valued as important over others in society?
- Status: how do political power, education, perceived wisdom and accolades fit into all this?
- Intelligence: how would you define this when considering individual “importance”? And to what or whom would you compare it?
- Kindness: how would you define this? Is this being polite? Donating money? Offering your time?
- Popularity and influence: what does 1 million Instagram followers mean in terms of importance?
- Temporality and age: how might “importance” change over time or throughout a lifetime?
All of this is up for debate. It seems difficult to know where to begin when defining “important person” and where to draw boundaries between “important” and a whole range of other compatible and incompatible types of people, such as those considered ethical, good, well-liked, valued, powerful, skilled, pious, respected, well-known, influential and universally loved.
I’ll refrain, therefore, from attempting to define an “important person” or to provide justification for an answer.
Rather, I’ll just enjoy how beautifully thought-provoking the question is.
Newsom CR, Archer RP, Trumbetta S, Gottesman II. Changes in adolescent response patterns on the MMPI/MMPI–a across four decades. J Pers Assess. 2003 Aug;81(1):74-84. doi: 10.1207/S15327752JPA8101_07. PMID: 12842804.