On Teen Angst

Two complementary theories of teen angst:

  1. Our homo hypocritus ancestors overtly followed idealistic norms, such as against dominance and bragging, but covertly violated them. They also cheated often on norms of sexual fidelity. An important part of growing up in such a world was learning to see that acts oft deviate from spoken ideals, and to affirm ideals via outrage at such hypocrisy, before one was old enough to have been very hypocritical oneself. And since the young seek to displace the old in the positions of highest status, old hypocrisy makes a good rallying cry.
  2. In the vast majority of the past, and the vast majority of the future, people grow up in a world for which they were designed – their inborn expectations and intuitions are good guides to their world. But in this the great Dreamtime, only ten thousand years old, mostly done, and near its peak, our inborn intuitions are poor guides – we awake into a world we find strange, fake, and wrong. So when young, we are drawn to stories about righting those wrongs by exposing this fake world, replacing it with a true one, and in the process having an adventure where we prove our mettle and impress potential mates and allies.

Below are quotes on teen angst in fiction.  They inspire this open letter of mine:

Dear angsty teen,

As you suspect, the world into which you have been born is indeed strange, fake, and wrong, relative to your inborn intuitions. Adults have not been frank with you, or themselves, about how often they fail to live up to your ideals or theirs. In fact, much of the function of school and other ways adults shape your youth is to use social pressure to get you to replace your inborn ideals with new given ideals, and to accept your and others’ hypocrisies.

There maybe be places you could move which better fit your inborn ideals and expectations, and there may be ways to change your current place to better fit such things. You may even devote some energy to such moving or changing.  But the vast majority of you will mostly forget your angst, eagerly trading your inborn ideals for the hope of social approval and respect. A few of you will hold the most strongly to your inborn ideals, paying great costs to move or change. Some such efforts will even succeed, moving your world closer to your inborn ideals.

But know that your world is stable enough so that if you actually “fight the power,” you will on average lose.  Most of what looks like young “rebels” winning is actually part of the established order.  New art, tech, political groups, etc. often replace old ones with rhetoric about how the change better achieves natural ideals.  Such rhetoric can bind “rebels” together, helping them beat rivals. But most such changes do little about hypocrisy or idealism overall, and the few that do mostly reflect larger trends, not a triumph of some group’s moral fervor.

On average, real rebels who most hold to their inborn ideals do not thereby gain social approval or respect – they lose it.  Real rebels are little like the heroes of your teen angst fiction, who accumulate fascinating stories while proving their mettle and impressing potential mates and allies. While some real rebels succeed in exposing more hypocrisy to those willing to listen, it is the willingness to listen that is the main block. Those willing to look for hypocrisy can find it easily enough themselves, most anywhere they look.

Finally, pause for a moment and ask: how sure can you be that your inborn ideals are really better than the ideals society wishes to imprint on you? Your inborn ideals were adaptive to a world that is long gone, and only then in conjunction with lots of hypocrisy; the ideals adults want to imprint on you instead seem better adapted to your current world. There is no solid rock on which you can stand; we all float in a sea of choice; choose your ideals, and your level of hypocrisy, and pay the price.

Now for those quotes.  On JD Salinger:

Mr. Salinger had such unerring radar for the feelings of teenage angst and vulnerability and anger … Mr. Salinger’s people tend to be outsiders — spiritual voyagers shipwrecked in a vulgar and materialistic world, misfits who never really outgrew adolescent feelings of estrangement. … Such characters have a yearning for some greater spiritual truth, but they are also given to an adolescent either/or view of the world and tend to divide people into categories: the authentic and the phony, those with an understanding … and those coarse, unenlightened morons who will never get it — a sprawling category, it turns out, that includes everyone from pompous college students parroting trendy lit crit theories to fashionable, well-fed theater-goers to self-satisfied blowhards who recount every play in a football game or proudly wear tattersall vests.

On Dystopian Teen Fiction:

A recent boom in dystopian fiction for young people. … Intricately imagined worlds. … For example, all sixteen-year-olds undergo surgery to conform to a universal standard of prettiness. … Teen-age boys awaken, all memories of their previous lives wiped clean, in a walled compound surrounded by a monster-filled labyrinth. The books tend to end in cliff-hangers. … There are, or will soon be, books about teen-agers slotted into governmentally arranged professions and marriages or harvested for spare parts or genetically engineered for particular skills or brainwashed by subliminal messages embedded in music or outfitted with Internet connections in their brains. Then, there are the post-apocalyptic scenarios in which humanity is reduced to subsistence farming or neo-feudalism. … A new, better way of life can be assembled from the ruins. …

Dystopian fiction … it’s about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader. “The success of ‘Uglies,’ … is partly thanks to high school being a dystopia.” … As a tool of practical propaganda, the [Hunger Games] don’t make much sense. … If, on the other hand, you consider the games as a fever-dream allegory of the adolescent social experience, they become perfectly intelligible. Adults dump teen-agers into the viper pit of high school, spouting a lot of sentimental drivel about what a wonderful stage of life it’s supposed to be. The rules are arbitrary, unfathomable, and subject to sudden change. A brutal social hierarchy prevails, with the rich, the good-looking, and the athletic lording their advantages over everyone else. To survive you have to be totally fake. Adults don’t seem to understand how high the stakes are; your whole life could be over, and they act like it’s just some “phase”! Everyone’s always watching you, scrutinizing your clothes or your friends … but no one cares who you really are or how you really feel about anything.

The typical arc of the dystopian narrative mirrors the course of adolescent disaffection. First, the fictional world is laid out. It may seem pleasant enough. Tally … looks forward to the surgery that will transform her into a Pretty. … Then somebody new, a misfit, turns up, or the hero stumbles on an incongruity. A crack opens in the façade. If the society is a false utopia, the hero discovers the lie at its very foundation: the Pretties are lobotomized when they receive their plastic surgery. … If the society is frankly miserable or oppressive, the hero will learn that, contrary to what he’s been told, there may be an alternative out there, somewhere. Conditions at home become more and more unbearable until finally the hero, alone or with a companion, decides to make a break for it, heading out across dangerous terrain. …

Incorporating the particular flavor of contemporary kid culture. Waking up in a hostile, confined place without an identity or any notion of what you’re supposed to do or how you can get out … is a scenario often found in video games. … There’s more hand-to-hand combat in these dystopias. … Some [kids] will surely grow up to write dystopian tales of their own, incited by technologies or social trends we have yet to conceive. By then, reality TV and privacy on the Internet may seem like quaint, outdated problems. But the part about the world being broken or intolerable, about the need to sweep away the past to make room for the new? That part never gets old.

Added 13June: Reports of teen angst seem more common in industry and among farmer aristocrats than elsewhere.  This could be because such folks are more articulate, and have high enough status to complain. If not, this fact seems to favor the second of the two explanations I offered above.

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  • Steven Schreiber

    The obvious problem is that most teens wouldn’t understand the letter and most who would probably aren’t that angsty. 😛

  • Popeye

    In the vast majority of the past, and the vast majority of the future, people grow up in a world for which they were designed – their inborn expectations and intuitions are good guides to their world. But in this the great Dreamtime, only ten thousand years old, mostly done, and near its peak, our inborn intuitions are poor guides – we awake into a world we find strange, fake, and wrong.

    Or in other words, God created Adam in his own image and put him in Eden and Adam had a grand old time but then he took a bite of an apple from the Tree of Knowledge and got kicked out of Eden and now life sucks. I’m glad evolutionary psychology is around to add some scientistic credence to our creation myths.

    Human beings were “designed” by an impersonal process over millions of years. Is it surprising that they aren’t always happy, that they don’t live in perfect harmony with the world? The penguins in that Morgan Freeman movie hadn’t developed agriculture but their lives looked tragically pointless and meaningless to me.

    Agree with the general gist of #1.

    • michael vassar

      Seconded. Also, what Robin takes to be inborn intuitions I take to be the rare periods of activity of mostly passive memes. Intellectuals invent ideas which for the most part replicate from mind to mind as denotatively passive green-beard signals, but within intellectuals, some of the time the denotative content becomes active. Since this content is just, for the most part non-sense made up by intellectuals and subject to very little selection (because it is usually inactive and neutral), when it becomes active it makes trouble for the people who it is active within.

  • Steven Schreiber

    How about:

    Dear Angsty Teen,

    Over time you will figure out how to successfully limit your peer group to those people you get along with. Once you’ve done this, you will actually start to forget that there are other people; if you stop watching television, this process will accelerate. One day you will hear a snippet of news and think to yourself “but I don’t know anyone who….”, that is the day you have succeeded in the adult world.

    Your job, however, will always feel like high school; you can’t pick your coworkers.

    Frankly, that’s why my high school experience wasn’t bad at all. They had a pretty robust tracking system, so I never really even saw people who weren’t in a group I was roughly equal with. Envy, fear and general anxiety didn’t set in until I moved to Los Angeles.

    • nazgulnarsil

      surrounding yourself with people who share your values is the simplest path to happiness. the internet has ameliorated the pain in finding these people. the next logical step is more geographical movement in order to establish areas where people who share your values are the majority.

      • Randall Randall

        However, this will continue to boost inter-group conflict, especially politically.

      • I could see that Randall, it’s an interesting question on how that would affect efficiency. Because talent seems fairly uncoordinated with values, I suspect we’re better off with intraregional value diversity and residence sorting based on talent (as determined by experts and their tools and mechanisms such as markets and experiments).

  • As far as I am aware, the whole “angsty teen” is a very modern and very Western notion. If you are going to try to suggest deep causes related to evolutionary history, it might be nice to establish that this actually is a universal.

    • Doug S.

      Both Hamlet and Romeo fit nicely into the “Emo Teen” stereotype.

      But, yeah. “Teenagers” as a separate category is a recent invention. In the Old Days, a sixteen-year-old would have been considered an adult, not a child.

      • Steven Schreiber

        Yes, but both characters would have had something much closer to the life of a modern teenager. Both were upper class people with lots of idle time and a primarily social rather than productive orientation for their lives.

        What’s needed for the angst-as-adaptation thesis is examples of people not under intense social pressure due to enforced idleness and social interaction becoming angsty teens.

  • Bock

    Pete Townshend said it well: “Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.”

  • What are these inborn expectations and intuitions you refer to? I don’t believe I’m familiar with them. I experienced a vast amount of conditioning before ever undergoing so-called teen angst.

  • At a certain point all mass youth rebellion in the USA has become shtick. I’d place it sometime before 1980. The social technology of MTV may have had a lot to do with it. I recall reading articles about exporting MTV to conservative islamic countries: the idea didn’t seem that stupid to me. Boredom may be the problem. Poseur hedonic consumerism may be an easy fix.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    Holden Caulfield lives. The tricky thing is that not only society, but every organization, has the same hypocrisy. I remember working for a bank, and we supposedly worked for our customers, using standard Fortune 500 values. In practice, every little niche engaged in petty politics and if you didn’t you would not prosper. How many go into academia to find lux et veritas, and then find themselves pumping citation counts, a classic self-referential bubble?

    Is not being hypocritical a sign of ineptitude? If so, at what point do you tell your kids about the importance of hypocrisy?

    • Eric,
      In my microsocial reality (and celebrosphere observations) almost all hypocricy allegations seem to me to be a type of rent seeking bias farming. It tends to most often be a heckle against those who manage resources deviantly well in my observation.

      At the same time I think hypocricy regulation is of value to society, but the first principle should be optimizing things like resource management and existential risk minimization -not reduction of hypocricy in society as its own good, exploiting a mass bias towards this end while playing status games.

  • Douglas Knight

    Are teens angsty? In particular, do they care about hypocrisy or adults lying about the rules? Or is it only the highly verbal ones, the ones who record their thoughts and get read, who care?

    • michael vassar

      Sounds right to me.

  • Bock

    3. we desire the luxury of not being hypocrits and fight for it while we still can.

    andre breton said he wanted to live in a glass house.

    hugh heffner and mick jagger achieved that.

    i wish i could think of more examples. few exist.

    but that is what we all want the most.

  • Bock

    “But the vast majority of you will mostly forget your angst, eagerly trading your inborn i
    deals for the hope of social approval and respect.”

    i just realized im not a part of the vast majority

  • Bock

    for the record, being drunk is far mode. im at a bar drinking beer after beer thinking of all the things i plan to do on my ideal productive monday thru fri schedule, but knowing that actually doing those things will require doing them in near mode. perhaps this is why drinking is so unproductive.

    near mode mostly sucks. no?

    • mjgeddes

      Yes near mode sucks. It will mostly be automated anyway, Bayes, decision theory, goal optimization etc etc and so on and so forth, non-sentient programs can do all that.

      Eventually, far mode will dominate, because I’m sure it will always require sentience (conscious deliberation) and it’s far more exciting and satisfying. The ideal is for us to spend all our time in far mode, and have the non-sentient AIs do all the near-mode stuff for us. Economics is near. Art is far. So let the automation take-over for achieving the productive results (near mode). Leave the art and the signaling (far mode) to us.

      Contray to what Robin says, far mode comes naturally and school aims to try to impose near-mode thinking. But teens just can’t stand near-mode for the simple reason that near mode is so fucking boring. (Possibly the reason I yawn loudly and fall asleep every time I try to read a ‘Less Wrong’ article – except for the fiction ones).

      • Steven Schreiber

        This doesn’t make sense. Near-mode problems are exactly the sort which computers have problems solving because they cannot be easily abstracted away. Far-mode problems are easily solved by computer even if the goals cannot be defined by one.

        Suffice this much: we have many books and the entire self-help industry devoted to far-mode issues (from weight loss to financial success) but near-mode issues require us to personally intervene, discover information, build trust networks, etc.

        Contrary to your statement, it seems like non-sentient artifacts can work wonders on far-mode problems but sentience seems almost a requirement for near-mode issues.

      • mjgeddes


        By my understanding ‘near mode’ is referring to a mode of thinking dealing with issues requiring precise, logical steps extending over short intervals of space and time, whereas ‘far mode’ is referring to a mode of thought dealing with broad ideals and abtractions extending over longer intervals of space and time.

        ‘Near mode’ is concerned with specific *means* of attaining ends – precisely things for which you devise algorithms. (weight loss, financial sucess etc, these are all near-mode issues). ‘Far’ mode’ is concerned with the ideals or *ends* themselves and the signaling or presention of these ends, something you can’t easily find algorithms for.

        That is my interpretation.

    • mjgeddes

      To elaborate, the ‘teen angst’ comes about because near mode reality just doesn’t come close to matching far mode ideals. The imagination (far) is in some sense, always more satisfying that the mundane reality (near).

      In their imginations (far) teens roar like lions, when they go to actually implement their ideas in reality (near) all that comes out are mouse-like squeaks.

      For example: in the IT course , DP (Data Process Modeling) was always more enjoyable than programiing for instance, because creating domain models exercises the imagination and creativity far more than programming, which to be honest is more like walking over broken glass because it requires near-term precise thinking in every step and not putting a foot wrong.

      Domain models are far, programming is near. The domain models (far) roar, but unfortunately the detailed implemented code (near) often only squeaks. The angst is caused by the unbearable vast gulf between far mode ideals and the excruiatingly mundane near-mode reality. The reality just doesn’t measure up.

  • Bock

    trying to figure out why one might intuit intoxication to be near mode when in fact it is far.

    we prob think intoxication is near because we are more likely to have sex or fight, which are near mode activities.

    but it is the idealism inspired by intoxication that causes to behave differently. a guy is more likely to fight when drunk because they believe in their cause, whether or not they think it is prudent. a girl likely rationalizes the sex as love or at least romance when she is drunk.

    drunk is far.

  • Bock

    but psilocybon mushrooms and acid are near.

    • You give an invalid email address, so I have to tell you this publicly: please check the rules about comment frequency on the about page.

  • I just added to the post.

    • Steven Schreiber

      Yes, but I don’t see how this would be contrary to the vast majority of evolved intuitions. If we presume a long hunter-gatherer past followed by a shorter, but linguistic, transhumance period, you’re talking about societies with lots of downtime for socialization and politicking. That would be the evolutionary crucible in which human psychology formed and it is much more like our society than the transitional period between settled agriculture and post-industrialism (we even have semi-transhumance in many industries, herding customers rather than goats).

      Let’s not kid ourselves: social games are difficult, complex and require the mastery of large skill sets. Learning is hard and for social games your rookie mistakes cost you. It’s entirely plausible that teen angst represents little more than immense frustration with high stakes learning. A lot of what teenagers see as “hypocrisy” is a mismatch between very simple, single concepts and how those must interlock; it is not uncommon for a teenager, or even someone in their 20s, to profess a utopian belief which is internally inconsistent because it simply was not conceived with a large enough view.

      In this respect, “teen angst” is just the social reflection of “calculus angst” or “mean professor syndrome” that happens anytime there is a quick turnaround between learning and use. We see this in industry as well, with high pressure, project-oriented professions having a high burnout rates. High end law firms and even nurses share these qualities because each must rapidly learn a unique case every day or hour.

      The posters who are pushing a jarring near/far mode chasm during the teenage years seem to have a better explanation than a problem with evolved intuitions.

  • Ian Maxwell

    Your second explanation is similar in a lot of respects toPaul Graham’s explanation (about 3/4 of the way in), which is that teenagers are designed to be adults, but required by their society to be children.

    If you want to know whether teen angst is universal, there are hundreds of other civilizations to look at, present and past. In the same essay Graham says, “I’ve read a lot of history, and I have not seen a single reference to this supposedly universal fact before the twentieth century.”

  • I wonder if we find hypocrisies more easily as teenagers because socially we needed to develop a way to correct issues / change with the times. Searching out ways that our ideals don’t match our actions is a good way of upending the current social structure and then remaking it in a way that (while also containing hypocrisies) fits better with the zeitgeist and moment. Certainly culturally we always need a way to declaim rituals + functions that are no longer useful, and what better than a built-in deficiency to any culture (ie: hypocrisy).

    (I wrote more about this post here: http://popculturecurator.tumblr.com/post/694212808/maturity-hypocrisy-and-savviness)

  • Philo

    It is easy to see that “[]our inborn ideals were adaptive to a world that is long gone, and only then in conjunction with lots of hypocrisy,” and therefore that these ideals do not deserve our uncritical allegiance. It is moderately plausible (though no more than that) that “the ideals adults want to imprint on you[ng people] instead seem better adapted to [their] current world.”

    You do not here explain why hypocrisy will still be necessary *with respect to these new and better ideals*. From other posts, I gather that your answer is that it often benefits the individual to violate the ideals (I suppose this applies both to the old ones, which still have some grip on today’s people, and to the new-and-better ones). As a further point you remark that the individual will benefit from *pretending* to subscribe to the ideals, which pretence will be most successful if he *deceives himself* about his level of commitment; thus unconscious hypocrisy has an advantage over the conscious form (though it also is disadvantageous in some respects, a point which I don’t believe you have mentioned). And–a final point–natural selection can be expected to be weakening people’s natural allegiance to the old, no-longer-appropriate, ideals, and providing natural reinforcement for the new, better ones.

    This is mostly plausible and, I think, illuminating. The weakest link: why think that the ideals adults are trying to inculcate in the young, to override their biologically determined natural ideals, make for better adaptation to the current social environment (and how nearly optimal should we expect them to be)?

  • Albert Angstteen

    The special and general theories of hypocrisy were experimentally confirmed even while I was still alive, though I never did complete my unified futility theory. Kurt always said it was logically impossible to do so. But Professor Hanson gives me hope.

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