“Narcissus” was a character in Greek mythology who was strikingly attractive. He rejected advances from anyone, feeling no one was good enough for him. One day he came by a pool of water. For the first time in his life, he saw his reflection. He was entranced. Admiring himself was so compelling he could not bear to leave; he died staring into the pool. He was transformed into a beautiful flower that bears his name.
Sigmund Freud drew on this myth to describe a curious element of human behavior. He observed that people tend to look for very small differences between things and other people, and then make judgments that lets them feel “special” or superior. To describe this tendency, he coined the phrase “narcissism of small differences.”
I have found this concept to be very useful.
Let’s start with toothpaste.
I had a friend who lived in Kenya for two years while serving in the Peace Corps. He said when he would go to the store for toothpaste, there would be one or two choices. When he returned to the states and went into a drugstore to buy toothpaste, he was overwhelmed by the options. He had to come back the next day to choose. He said he missed Kenya.
This week, I went to CVS to pick up a prescription. I stopped by the toothpaste aisle to count the options. I counted at least 30 choices — of Colgate. Crest? 43 options. Bringing up the rear: Sensodyne, Aquafresh, Arm and Hammer, Tom’s — and the always humble Pepsodent. That’s more than 80 choices. How can anyone leave the store without being empowered by their toothpaste selection?
In the early 90s, a typical supermarket might contain 7,000 items. Now it often ranges between 40,000 and 50,000. We must be royalty to be able to get exactly what we want!
Time for coffee?
Restaurants used to serve coffee. Then, there was a second option: decaf. Then Starbucks came along. From the main menu of 40 options, you can specify endless variations. According to an article in the Huffington Post, the possibilities of “getting it your way” run to 80,000.[i] Anybody walking in can announce precisely what they want, then watch the barista obediently prepare it. Doesn’t it feel good to know you are the master of your destiny?
We could keep going with these illustrations by considering fashion, cars, wines, craft beers, appliances, and everything else.
The reason for so many choices? Advertisers and marketers know that if we are presented with many options, choosing the one that we like the best makes us feel empowered. It doesn’t matter if the difference is significant – all that matters is how we perceive it.
The concept applies not only to products, but also our social relationships.
Think about what you wore in Junior High. When I was in 7th grade, at some point it became clear that if you wanted to identify with the cool crowd, you had to wear a pocket t-shirt from Penny’s. It had to be from Penny’s. You could easily have bought ones made by Hanes or Fruit of the Loom. But the other kids would know immediately you were a hopeless klutz. When I finally got one and wore it to school, I felt like I was 10 feet tall (even though I was less than 5 feet high at the time).
I heard a lecture given by a rabbi at an interfaith conference some years ago. He was talking about our human temptation to feel superior to others based on perceived differences. He told a joke about a Jewish guy who was stranded on a desert island. When rescuers arrived, they saw two identical structures on the beach. When asked what they were, he said, “This one is the synagogue I worship in every week. That other one? I wouldn’t step inside that one if my life depended on it.”
Christianity is often talked about as one religion. But recent surveys indicate there are at least 33,280 denominations that call themselves Christian in the U.S.[ii] Each one believes it stands for something unique and important. I’ve been to lots of churches in my time. I’ll tell you this: there are some I feel comfortable worshiping in, and some I wouldn’t step into if my life depended on it.
For our hunting and gathering ancestors, it was an advantage to be able to accurately distinguish between plants that were edible and those that were poisonous, which strangers we can trust and which we cannot, and who has the most status in our group. We prize attention to detail in many areas of life. But we can easily fall prey to the “narcissism of small differences.” We can make choices about things that have little relation to their actual value. We can make judgments about other people that make us feel superior but blind us from seeing what we have in common.
Let’s be on the lookout for this tendency, and not fall prey to it.
And if you’re going by a Starbucks any time soon, could you pick me something? I’d like a “doppia con panna.” It’s not on the menu, and you may have to translate the Italian: two shots of espresso with a shot of whipped cream. They may ask how much whipped cream…I prefer two inches. When you come by to drop it off, just leave it on the doorstep — I don’t want to be disturbed. I’ll probably be out back, sitting contentedly as I gaze into my new, state-of-the-art reflecting pool.
Top Image: Caravaggio, “Narcissus”
Excellent essay, Steve. Thank you! A good reminder of how we tend to focus on differences rather than what we have in common….even down to the smallest thing.
Thank you, Marilyn for your comment.
Thanx, Steve! I know I easily fall prey to seeing the small differences as “definite” indicators of much larger differences in beliefs and values. Hey, just because I like cheesy grits doesn’t mean I wear a red hat.
PattI: I bet cheesy grits taste particularly good on a sub-zero day…
Great observation of our quick judgements from only knowing the little things, I always hope I will not judge on one small puzzle piece without knowing what the whole puzzle is when put together .
Great way to put it, Linda.
I love how you ended this one with your special coffee order. Ha! When I paused on alcohol during my 2019 health adventure, I suddenly became aware of the booze aisles in all grocery stores and pharmacies (so astonishing that you can buy booze while picking up your prescriptions — America!). The endless variations available for each type of grape, beer style, etc. has been there forever, but I didn’t really take it all in until I wasn’t able to buy it. I was suddenly aware of how I’ve been falling for the marketing. It’s the same for me at REI. Each product promises me that I’ll soon be on an adventure and living a better life. I think my new sleeping pad is healthier than drinking IPAs, but you get the point/pint. 🙂 Thanks for another thoughtful post, Steve! You are the coolest no matter what T-shirt you are wearing.
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Thank you again, my pint loving amigo who always gets the point..and I just bought a new camp chair from REI yesterday, so I can sit outside in my Penny’s t-shirt admiring the reflection pool
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Something to consider in our polarized world. Thank-you for the insight and the laugh!
STEVE. Oh man, I just got around to reading this one. I of course LOVE it. And i wonder if you wrote it recently? Tell me! It’s so FUNNY and poignant. And the writing is lively in a way that feels more fresh. I always love your writing = just wondering if you. – Have you been taking a different writing class. >?
Last year I had nine months without income and i spent the least money ever in my life. And i was so happy. Maybe buying things is only one of the ways we fall into our narcissism, I will now start to look at what other ways I do…
Kristen Jacobsen Mobile 831-818-6573 Leadership & Change Inc.
“It takes courage to be curious”
Sent from my magic IPad
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Thanks Steve! Great story as usual. It is ironic because day before yesterday I was walking in downtown Point Arena with my newly turned 5 year old twin grandkids. River said what is that pretty flower? I replied it is a nar CIS sus, I said there is another meaning to that word, someone who is in love with their looks, a NAR cis sus. I realized I pronounce it differently for the flower and the person. Does that make sense? Btw, not that there is anything wrong with loving yourself. (I think there is a double ‘C’ in there but I don’t pronounce it.)
Antoinette: Great connection. The flower is narcissus and the self-loving person is a narcissist, so it sounds pretty similar. I’m so glad when the stories connect with everyday life!
Thanks Steve, I should have looked it up before posting. Oops! Love your stories!