If you do the ice bucket challenge, are you charitable or narcissistic? Modern altruism is all about performance, says Chris Baraniuk, but is that a bad thing?

It is August 2014 and a new viral craze is sweeping the internet. Thousands of people, from your next door neighbour to A-list celebrities, are standing in their gardens and throwing buckets of ice water over themselves. The videos are promptly uploaded to Facebook or YouTube and shared for all to see. Ostensibly, it’s in the name of a good cause – fundraising for ALS or motor neurone disease charities. But it’s got some people very upset.

“It’s social media exhibitionism, more about attention-seeking than philanthropy,” writes Michael Hogan in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper. American TV star Steve-O points out on his Instagram feed that many fellow celebs have forgotten to state the charitable motive behind the trend in their videos. And digital magazine Vice really goes to town. “There are a lot of things wrong with the ice bucket challenge, but the most annoying is that it's basically narcissism masked as altruism,” concludes Arielle Pardes.

Yet is a bit of narcissism OK if it helps make the world a better place?

For W Keith Campbell at the University of Georgia, the ice bucket challenge has taken root in a culture of rampant narcissism. Campbell argues that in today’s society, narcissism isn’t just prevalent – it’s an “epidemic”. Campbell and his colleagues have analysed Western culture over recent decades and argue that, from booming reality TV shows to plastic surgery, we can’t get enough of ourselves. One journal article co-authored by Campbell even found that song lyrics between 1980 and 2007 have mirrored this trend. “Use of words related to self-focus and anti-social behaviour increased, whereas words related to other-focus, social interactions, and positive emotion decreased,” noted the paper.

“If you’re narcissistic it’s good for starting relationships, it’s good for getting hired, it’s good for getting elected to public office, it’s good for being a reality TV star or for risk taking,” explains Campbell. “It has these positive short-term qualities. But it also has more negative qualities which are that you’re often more willing to manipulate people or take advantage of others. Your ethics suffer, so it’s very much a mixed bag.”

Yet this modern self-regard gets complicated when it is exploited to encourage altruism, as various charitable campaigns have done recently. Some of the most popular campaigns appeal to our social identity and our interest in our own looks.

Moustaches and make-up

The Movember campaign, for example, allows men to play with their image by growing a moustache for the month of November. The altruistic motive here is to raise awareness of men’s health issues such as testicular cancer or mental health. Earlier this summer the #nomakeupselfie craze saw thousands of women, including many celebrities, share photographs of themselves sans make-up. In Britain, it raised £8m for Cancer Research UK in just six days.

Every November, many men grow moustaches for charity (Getty Images)

Every November, many men grow moustaches for charity (Getty Images)

Although these campaigns suggest that people love others taking notice of their looks, it’s interesting to note that none of these actions is about appealing to socially acceptable standards of beauty or attractiveness. Moustaches are quirky; make-up remains de rigueur for women, and not many people look good after having ice water dumped on their heads. This, indeed, appears to be why President Obama was one of very few to refuse to take part in the ice bucket challenge (although he did make a donation). The Daily Dot astutely notes that high-profile politicians often regret appearing in public wearing unusual costumes or with funny things on their heads.

These campaigns may well be narcissistic, but it’s a narcissism which at least plays with established notions of what we “should” look like.

Green show-offs

It’s not just charities and one-off funding drives which are benefitting from the rise in narcissism. A fascinating paper published earlier this year by Iman Naderi and David Strutton concluded that narcissistic tendencies could boost the sales of environmentally friendly products and services. Narcissists, it turned out, were more likely to “buy green” when the probability of being seen and admired by others for doing so was increased.

Is ice bucket about charity, or looking generous and game-for-a-laugh? (Getty Images)

Is ice bucket about charity, or looking generous and game-for-a-laugh? (Getty Images)

As the authors noted: “This research demonstrates why and how the prevalence of a disdained personality trait might be leveraged to generate net environmental gain, as a direct consequence of normal narcissists’ propensity to engage, as expected, in highly self-absorbed consumption behaviour.”

This supports the notion that good behaviour is enabled and augmented when it is visible to our peers. Today’s social networks are capturing this in a way that previously might not have been possible. Generosity was once much more anonymous, or at least less publicised. With social media, the network of people and their friends’ excruciating awareness of good deeds is everything – that’s what has powered the ice bucket challenge from day one. If we’re all involved in a giant good deed together, realising that is made much easier online. Studies have shown that Facebook and other social networks may well encourage narcissism, but they’re also places where we go when we want to experience empathy.

We're all celebrities now (Thinkstock)

We're all celebrities now (Thinkstock)

In some ways, we’re all now doing what celebrities appearing on TV telethons have done for years – donating their time and money in exchange for some positive publicity. London publicist Catherine Lyn Scott, who works with many television stars, says that she often encourages her clients to get involved with a charity in order to help a good cause and raise their profile in a positive way. “It’s 50-50, and I’m very open about that,” she says.

And now that we’re participating in this world of self-promotion too, it makes the success of these charitable campaigns all the more likely. Scott notes that the ice bucket challenge has been extremely successful in cementing the sense of the global village – a world in which celebrities and members of the public alike can do something good together.

“I think it brings people close to the stars they like because they can do exactly what they’re doing,” she explains. “They’re nominating their friends on Facebook and the stars are nominating their own high-profile friends. I think on this occasion it makes them feel very real to us.”

Or to consider this behaviour in a more positive light, ice bucket challenge videos don’t just reaffirm our idea of ourselves as special people who deserve attention. They reaffirm our belief in our society as collaborative, valiant, geared to doing “the right thing”.

Viral ignorance

All of this is not to say that a culture of narcissism isn’t problematic. A sense of cultural righteousness often leads to oversimplification of complex issues, for example, as noted by PhD student David Banks in a blog post about feel-good clickbait phenomenon Upworthy. Sharing Upworthy videos to show your peers how compassionate you are can help the spread of false information. Many gloss over inequality, or present complex socio-political issues in a simplistic light, says Banks. “Ignorance goes viral,” he quips.

In addition, measuring one’s worth in terms of one’s visibility may not, in the end, be very healthy as author David Zweig argues in his book, Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion. “We’re in an environment where we are reliant on recognition for our self-esteem,” he writes. Perhaps it would be better in the long-run if our actions were motivated by the idea of something bigger than ourselves?

But as Naderi and Strutton noted in their paper on how to make people go green, “altruistic narcissism” is certainly effective. There is too the fact that we don’t necessarily do good things unless we’re adequately provoked.

Call it what you will. A necessary evil. A means to an end. Narcissism isn’t going away any time soon. But while it is here, it might as well be harnessed to make the world a better place.

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