Stahl: Narcissism and fashion go together like Skinner and his dogs

By Samantha Stahl

Take your seats, boys and girls. It’s midterm season, and that means it’s time for another lesson in Sam’s Psychology of Fashion 101. This week’s lecture: positive reinforcement.

To get you up to speed on B.F. Skinner’s catchphrase concept, positive reinforcement can roughly be defined as the presentation of a favorable stimulus directly after the desired response. After awhile, the stimulus becomes associated with the response and increases the frequency of the response.

The age-old phenomenon has been used for more than canine obedience training. It’s hardwired humankind to be responsive to compliments. We’ve grown so accustomed to mumbling flattery whenever we want to get on someone’s good side that it’s practically white noise.

Remember that time the girl in your mass communications class told you she liked your necklace? She probably was just trying to get you to do all the work in your group project. The time that guy at a frat party told you he liked your shoes? Well — you know what he wanted. Do compliments ever have any validity these days?

Over the summer, I was sitting in a New York City bar one afternoon, and a guy next to me was throwing paper towels into a trashcan on the other side of the bar. I laughed and said something along the lines of, “Nice aim. Good luck with the NBA.” And you know what his response was? “You’re clearly not from New York. You’re too friendly.”

I’d never been more offended in my life. If there’s one thing I’d rather be mistaken for more than a friendly person, it’s a bitter native New Yorker. I was hoping my all-black ensemble would put on the right facade, but apparently it wasn’t enough. Apparently, New Yorkers don’t give compliments.

Perhaps, however, these uncongenial city dwellers are on to something. After all, I do hate when people give compliments just to hear themselves talk. There’s surely nothing worse than the hesitantly reciprocated compliment: “Oh thanks, you, uh, look cute today, too.”

Self-obsession is a human impulse. The ever-expanding world of social network media outlets attests to this theory. Do I really believe that everyone wants to know whether I’m having a good day through my Facebook status? Yes, I do. Call me your friendly neighborhood narcissist.

I wish I could say I’m at a point in my life where compliments don’t mean anything to me, that I’m happy with who I am all on my own. The unfortunate truth is I’ll probably never tire of positive feedback. What can I say? I’m vain. Does anyone honestly not enjoy the small boost to his fleeting confidence?

It is for this reason that I’ve never understood people who don’t put in at least a base level of effort when dressing in the morning. Maybe they’re admirable. Maybe they really are so secure they don’t need adulation. After all, fashion is essentially the physical manifestation of fishing for compliments.

But I think these people are selling themselves short. They don’t know what they’re missing — it’s really quite nice to hear good things about yourself. My personal getting-ready-in-the-morning philosophy is as follows: If you don’t put anything on that warrants a compliment, you probably shouldn’t bother leaving the house in the first place.

So here’s my call to action: I’m asking everyone to cut the obsequious flattery. Speak up when someone is dressed well and keep quiet when you’re just trying to break the ice. There are better ways to start a conversation.

Oh and guys, just because I compliment you does not mean that I’m hitting on you. You’re probably not even my type. So few guys dress well, though, that when they get something right, I feel I need to keep nudging them in the right direction. Positive reinforcement, remember?