The Fictive Personality Revisited

A couple of posts ago I mentioned a paper about grief reactions in response to the death of Princess Diana. The online archive of this journal (Psychiatric Bulletin) only goes back to 2000, so here’s a summary from my paper copy:

[Update: the full paper is now online here].

The fictive personality revisited
Psychiatric admission as a consequence of Princess Diana’s death
Jill Chaloner

Chaloner presents the case of a 45 year old woman with no previous
psychiatric history, who presented with symptoms of suicidal ideation and
depression which she attributed solely to the effect on her of Princess
Diana’s death. It became clear during her stay that she had significant
marital, financial and childcare problems, but she remained preoccupied with
the subject of Princess Diana, and was unwilling to discuss her own life.
Over the course of three admissions the ward team offered specific pieces of
support with her practical problems, and her symptoms changed to chest pain,
then resolved.

Chaloner notes that the patient expressed herself in the language of
bereavement, even though she knew the lost person only through the mass
media. It was evident that she was failing to influence or deal with the
behaviour of those closest to her.

Chaloner suggests that, instead of reflecting on her own life, the patient
was projecting aspects of herself into external phenomena – in Kleinian
terms projectively identifying with Diana’s situation, splitting good
(Diana) and bad (the Queen) – thus denying the adverse events in her own
life. After Diana’s death she strove for complete identification with the
good object in death rather than taking back the projected good and bad
parts into herself. The practical help provided reduced the badness of the
bad things, allowing the patient to abandon her projection, taking the
problem back inside herself (initially by somatising).

Chaloner cites Martin (1984) who described the “fictive personality” in
which “the self strives towards total identification with characters in
literary, historical or mass media fiction”, and described clinical
examples of people whose “own ego appears impoverished or absent”, to the
extent that they can only keep going by identifying with “available fictions
that fill up their empty selves and allow them to seem real”. Also mentioned
is Winicott’s concept of the transitional object, Chaloner suggesting that
images from the mass media may become transitional objects for adults.

Chaloner quotes James (1998) who points out that in modern life, the balance
between real and represented people in our lives is weighted very much in
favour of the latter. Media representations are often idealised, putting
people in a position of enforced subordination, generating depression. This
process generates low self esteem, increasing the pressure towards
projective identification with fictionalised, idealised, personalities.

Chaloner’s finishes by wondering if, “since projective processes are
continuously and actively encouraged by the nature and content of the mass
media, it may be that fictive personality disturbance has now become a
social norm which goes largely unremarked”.

Chaloner, J. (1999) The fictive personality revisited. Psychiatric Bulletin,
23, 559-561.

Martin, J. (1984) Clinical contributions to the theory of the fictive
personality. Annals of Psychoanalysis 1984-85, vols 12-13, 267-300. Beverly
Hills CA: South California Psychoanalytic Institute.

James, O. (1998) Britain on the Couch, 42-127. London: Arrow Books.

Formal confusion

Avid readers of this column (that is me, and that guy in Japan, who is probably actually a computer program) will have noticed that I haven’t really decided what form these articles should take. I’m torn between the classic blog model, with daily updates on whatever happens to be passing through my mind, or something more akin to a newspaper column, well thought-out and researched, and appearing every week or so. Thus far I have been turning out a sorry hybrid of ramblings that are both infrequent and ill-considered.

Part of the problem is that I do have a fairly demanding real life, though with some more discipline I could probably increase my output a bit.

Anyway, there are two topics I could go for this week; the MySpace/Facebook class divide, and the addictiveness or otherwise of video games. I do want to do a bit more reading and thinking before coming up with an opinion though, so look out for something in a couple of days.

And what about the original Second Life project? That’s still stalled, until I get around to ordering the parts I need to upgrade my box. Then of course I’ll need to find time to fit them, and do a new Linux installation, and before I even start that I’ll have to do a long-overdue backup… Before the end of the summer is what I’m aiming for.

A bigger picture

Like the majority of web surfers, I tend not to range freely over the ever-widening ocean of information that is the internet, but stick close to the familiar waters of a few favourite sites. A frequent port of call for me is the Onion AV Club. I like the way that its writers treat popular culture as something deserving serious consideration, without sliding into humourless pretentiousness. (And it also carries Savage Love, for my money the most consistently fascinating advice column out there).

It was a column in the AV Club that steered me towards this blog, written by a woman grappling with the complexities of being one partner in a polygamous relationship. It’s not as interesting as it sounds though, since the woman in question is not a real person, but a fictional character in the TV show Big Love. The blog entries themselves are a quite well-done pastiche of the sort of self-absorbed musing that all compulsive blog-readers will be familiar with, but what really gives the site verisimilitude are the replies left by visitors. I’d love to think that these comments are genuine, but I’m pretty sure that they’re made-up too. It’s all essentially indistinguishable from the real thing though, and illustrates how simple it is to create a false sense of familiarity in cyberspace.

There are plenty of other examples of characters taking on a life beyond the bounds of their fictional worlds of course, but this is usually driven by fans, and it feels a bit manipulative when it’s done by a big media corporation.

This case is fairly harmless though, compared with some of the fake blogging that’s around. Katie Couric’s video blog, for example, which was at the centre of a minor scandal a few months back, when it turned out that a touching personal story about Katie’s first library card had been lifted from a column in the Wall Street Journal. Personally I wasn’t too bothered by the plagiarism, nor by the barely-surprising revelation that Ms Couric doesn’t script her own journal entries, but delegates the task to a staffer. What does annoy me is the thinking behind the blog, the idea that, if we can be fooled into thinking that we have some sort of personal relationship with a complete stranger, we might be more prepared to believe that the stuff she is paid to read out on the TV is actually the truth, rather than sanitised corporate propaganda.

For the connected citizen in the technologically advanced world, the amount of social interaction that takes place in cyberspace is increasing at at accelerating pace. This is especially true of the communication that mediates the multiple relationships between individuals, the institutions of civil society, and the state. There are many positive aspects of this, not least the widening of the concept of community beyond traditional geographical and cultural boundaries. How can we be sure of the integrity of this communication though? How do we know that our emotions are not being subtly manipulated, by state or corporate interests, for their own ends?

It could be argued that anyone who has grown up watching TV – that is practically everyone in the developed world under the age of 60 – should be able to tell the difference between a real personal connection and the fake sincerity of a newsreader, but I think that underestimates the extent to which the internet as a medium of communication can replicate the experience of true intimacy. Even the most cyber-aware of us haven’t really had the chance to develop the psychological tools that would let us judge how much we can trust our own feelings when it comes to online interaction, and most of the time we don’t even think about it, or are at best only dimly aware of the possibility that our reactions may be unreliable.

I don’t know if studying cyber-interaction at an individual level will answer any of the broader questions about how society and politics are being affected by the changes in patterns of social communication that are developing as we live more of our lives online, and how we should react to those changes, but it seems as good a place to start as any. Self-knowledge can only help us fulfil our responsibility to be vigilant cyber-citizens.

Crime and Punishment

Since everyone else seems to have an opinion on the Paris Hilton in/out of jail saga, I thought I should weigh in with my bit of ill-informed reaction too.

I’m not going to say anything about whether or not Ms Hilton deserves to serve time, beyond noting that, from a European perspective, the US justice system is ridiculously punitive, and there is no evidence that short jail terms serve any rehabilitative purpose. Rather I’m going use the fact that so many people are interested in the story to expand on a point made in my last post.

I was writing last time about virtual intimacy, and how this can work best when the object of the supposed intimacy acts as a blank screen upon which a person’s desires can be projected. The whole phenomenon of celebrity culture is one big example of this.

It’s hard, even for sceptics like myself, to maintain a realistic perspective when it comes to celebrity stories. I first really noticed this a couple of years ago, when I was standing in line at the supermarket checkout, and I happened to glance at a magazine cover, which carried the story of Angelina Jolie’s pregnancy. I experienced a feeling of sympathy, which on reflection resolved itself into the thought “That must be hard for Jennifer Aniston”. (If you have no idea what I am talking about, don’t worry. In fact, count yourself lucky). It wasn’t until a few hours later that I realised how strange that thought was. I wasn’t close to Jennifer Aniston. I had no way of knowing how she would react to that event. Yet I had experienced an emotion in relation to her that was indistinguishable from a feeling that I would have had upon receiving troubling news about someone that I did know well.

Now I’m someone who hardly ever watches TV and only reads serious newspapers. I do try to avoid frivolous stuff on the web, though not always successfully. Yet, despite this, I have managed to pick up an amazing amount of trivial celebrity information – I recognised a picture of Perez Hilton the other day, without having to look at the caption. It must be some kind of cultural osmosis. No one can escape it.

It’s hardly original, I’ll admit, to note that people experience vicarious emotions in relation to celebrities, and I’m sure there has been some work done on identifying personality traits that predispose to extreme forms of this – I remember reading a paper about people who experienced severe grief reactions following Princess Diana’s death (I’ll try to track down a link). Come to think of it, it will be the tenth anniversary of that soon, so there will probably be a resurgence of such cases.

It would be interesting to study if there is some connection between the propensity to experience intense emotion in relation to celebrities, and the ability to experience virtual intimacy. Another thing to explore when I set up my practice in SL.

Virtual intimacy

“Marge, it takes two to lie. One to lie and one to listen.” – Homer Simpson.

Following on from our consideration of online dishonesty, we turn our attention to the other side of the equation; the suspension of disbelief that is required to make it possible to have a relationship in a virtual universe like SL.

There is some interesting research into the phenomenon of virtual intimacy, which shows that it is possible to develop a degree of romantic affinity using only computer-mediated interaction, though not so much as in face-to-face relationships. Unfortunately, little detail is given in the paper about exact type of online relationships that study participants had experienced, though reference is made to email communication via dating websites. It would seem reasonable to suppose that similar if not greater levels of intimacy could be experienced in a more realistic online environment like SL. A study carried out in SL suggested that real-world social norms mediated by quite subtle non-verbal communication may also be observed in virtual space, which lends weight to the theory that interaction in SL can replicate experience in real life.

Is intimacy in cyberspace really achievable though? Does true intimacy not imply some special understanding of the other person in the relationship? How is a belief in the possiblity of such insight compatible with the knowledge that many people online are dishonest about such basic aspects of their personality as gender or age?

To come to some understanding of this we need to recognise that there are different types of intimacy that may be sought online.

The most straightforward type is exemplified by users of web dating services. Here, the electronic portion of the courtship is, in most cases, just a means of reaching the true goal, that is a real-life relationship. A little creativity in their prospective partner’s profile may be acceptable, but lies that go much beyond moving a birthdate a few years forward or forgetting an ex-wife are likely to be found out, and prove fatal to the liason.

There is a separate population, however, for whom the online relationship is the objective itself, rather than a stepping stone to a real-world meeting. For these people the issue of dishonesty is much less critical. Indeed, having an untruthful partner may be may be positively advantageous. In such an affair the focus of affection is not a real person, but rather an internalised love-object. Too much honesty would be an unwelcome intrusion of reality; it might mark the blank screen upon which the lover wishes to project his or her fantasies.

There is obviously a lot more subtlety to the process than this crude outline, and there is of course a huge amount of psychoanalytical writing on the phenomenon as it occurs in therapy, and other real-life situations. My theory is that an environment like SL will be the ideal setting to study such interactions in an unusually pure form, which should be interesting.

Online dishonesty

While spending the last couple of days dealing with various things in my real life, or in meatspace as the vernacular would have it, I’ve been thinking about a couple of related but separate issues that relate to interaction in cyberspace, namely dishonesty and perceived intimacy.

I’m sure you won’t be shocked to learn that there is a lot of the former around; the last paper I read said that around 70% of net users report they’ve been lied to online at some point, while about 30% admit lying to others. Of course people aren’t always completely truthful when they talk to researchers either, so those figures should probably read 100% and 99%. What kind of mendacity is out there? The same as in real life; lies about age, occupation, marital status, but also about gender, which is harder to pull off in the flesh. Males and females were equally dishonest (or maybe all the women surveyed were really men). Why do people resort to deception? Parallels with meatspace again; to elevate their their status and attractiveness, and to guard their privacy. The biggest motivator however, was the desire to try out a new identity – this was particularly true for those who switched gender.

So far, so unsurprising. What good would a second life be if it was just the same as your first one? And is it really dishonest to try to be a different person in SL? Isn’t that person just the real you, your true self unencumbered by all the things (and people) that frustrate you in the real world?

It does raise the question though of how far it is possible to reinvent yourself online. People try to change their lives all the time, by moving city, or getting a new job, or a fresh relationship, or a new haircut. Some manage to pull it off, but most are disappointed, because the most important factor is what hasn’t changed, that is themselves. Conventional wisdom would say that to really transform yourself you need psychotherapy, (conventional wisdom among therapists that is, who can hardly be expected to say otherwise), but can an alternative reality like SL give people the opportunity to be someone else, even if it is only temporarily, or can it only ever be acting?

This raises some core issues about identity. Is it possible to act exactly like someone else when you are in SL, and thus actually become them, for all practical purposes? Or is there some part of your personality that will always show through the character you construct for yourself online?

Well, that’s what I’m hoping to find out, if I ever get it together enough to get in to SL. I plan to try to interview people when they are in character, then hope they will answer a few questions about their real life. Eventually I’d like to construct some sort of personality inventory to use online, one that would measure how well people can shift identity, and see if that correlates with any other personality traits.

It’s late at night, I’ll have to come back to the subject of perceived intimacy.

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