Bryan Caplan  

The Silent Suffering of the Non-Neurotic

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Negative emotions like sadness, anger, and fear tend to come as a package.  Personality psychologists call this package "Neuroticism."  There's a spectrum, of course.  At the high end of Neuroticism, we have people like Seinfeld's George Costanza, who finds misery and outrage wherever he turns.  At the low end, we have people like Seinfeld's Cosmo Kramer, who discovers amusement and excitement around every corner. 

Having a Neurotic personality is not fun, and Neurotics rarely let us forget it.  This doesn't imply, however, that they're victims.  By acting on their sadness, anger, and fear, Neurotics routinely make the people around them sadder, angrier, and more fearful.  Parallel claims hold for non-Neurotics.  They rarely complain, but that doesn't imply they're not victims.

How exactly does society victimize the non-Neurotic?  Look at the news - or, in an election year, politics.  It's a parade of stories crafted to make every onlooker feel sadness, anger, and fear.  It's a pan-ideological problem: Left and right disagree on many things, but both tribes of activists want you to get upset about something every day.  Take a look at the stories your friends shared on Facebook today.  How many aren't a thinly-veiled demand for negative affect

If your Neuroticism is high or even average, you probably aren't even aware that you're imposing on others.  For you, calling on people to be sad, angry, or afraid is on par with asking them to walk with their eyes open.  And since non-Neurotics aren't prone to complain, it's easy to remain oblivious to their concerns.

Actually, as a self-identified non-Neurotic, I should say, "our concerns."  Though I loathe to complain, I can't stand to see my people suffer any longer.  Sadness, anger, and fear do not come naturally to us.  We don't "love to hate" things.  And though we are happy to lend a sympathetic and constructive ear to your concrete problems, we don't want to be part of the vicissitudes of your abstract offense.

I know Neurotics are highly unlikely to change their personalities.  But it would be nice if you showed us non-Neurotics a little consideration.  And we so rarely ask for anything!  Without reproach, I ask you this: Please, stop trying to make us feel what you feel. 

Thanks in advance!




COMMENTS (12 to date)
Ben H. writes:

"For you, calling on people to be sad, angry, or afraid is on par with asking them to walk with their eyes open." Hmm. So you're saying that a post on Facebook that points out an issue that the user thinks is important, and that more people ought to be aware of, is inevitably "calling on people to be sad, angry, or afraid"? Is there a way to raise awareness of important facts and issues *without* "calling on people to be sad, angry, or afraid"? Why exactly are your blog posts, which also attempt to call attention to particular issues that you think are important, somehow *not* "calling on people to be sad, angry, or afraid" when other people's posts are? Isn't this rather the pot calling the kettle black?

gmm writes:

Thank you for such a timely post. Any reference to Seinfeld makes me smile, but I also found it insightful.

Michael writes:

I score in the 99%ile for neuroticism on the standard five-factor test. I am capable of intellectual distance from my emotions, so I often find myself making the same optimistic arguments as you. The neurotic style in politics isn't necessary a straight reflection of neurotic personality. And I suspect neuroticism is an unusual trait in senior politicians. A neurotic bent in journalism and academia might be a valuable corrective to unwarranted perfectionist optimism of our political leaders.

Personality traits in politics is a fascinating topic, but I fear (sorry!) that your anti-neuroticism is a prejudice that could be blinding you.

J writes:

Just a thought no harm intended.


The day to day reality that we live is not reality it just an experience that we cannot really understand. Someone once said “Don’t sweat the small stuff… and it’s all small stuff”.

Thomas B writes:

Trying to get you to feel "negative" emotions has nothing to do with neuroticism. It has to do with trying to get you to pay attention and/or take action. People also use sex to get you to pay attention, you'll notice. Strong, basic urges, misused for marketing - that's all.

I'm not aware that neuroticism is related to attempting to get others to share the feelings. Indeed, if you encounter a Pollyanna, you're very likely listening to a natural neurotic. Rather, picking up on other people's feelings, and internalizing them, may be a symptom of weak emotional boundaries.

You might want to work on that. :-)

psmith writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

wd40 writes:

You are focusing on one end of an emotional continuum and its negatives when a deeper understanding also requires a consideration of the other end of the continuum and its negative consequences--being oblivious to harms caused by others or by yourself. I once read that 25 years after WW2 ended, former Nazi guards were happy with their lives and were not at all bothered by their past. Even if this was not actually the case, the story should encourage you to think more about the opposite of what you call neuroticism.

MikeP writes:

Take a look at the stories your friends shared on Facebook today.

What do these words in this order mean?

Or, perhaps more to the point... Why would I let what I read with my valuable time be curated by people who weren't good at it?

Bob Murphy writes:

Bryan, I have to agree with some of the people above, who find this post to be a performative contradiction.

It sounds like you are typing words on a blog post in order to cause others (namely neurotics) to experience your same frustration, and then to change their behavior because you have inflicted discomfort on them.

Who do you think would pull Jerry aside and complain for 5 minutes about people's Facebook behavior? George or Cramer?

Alessandro Sisti writes:

There are successful models of news that are more positive, but they're Buzzfeed and the news in China. Even though our traditional news is distressing, I like it better.

Graham Peterson writes:

This theme is turning into a sort of nerdy, rationalist community version of Tony Robbins and other self help gurus who posture about how their emotional and moral superiority creates success.

A Country Farmer writes:

To take this further, Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex has documented personal experience in his psychology practice that people have become suicidal due to the air of negativity. Maybe some of those are non-neurotics.

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