The Psychology of Applauding Ourselves: Because you have nothing to lose doesn’t mean you should win

I just euphorically finished running on my treadmill despite all my ailments and I was so eager to hit the imaginary applause button that I nearly fell off the moving walkway. I shrugged off my clumsiness reminding myself I had just accomplished a great feat and was soundly deserving of a round of applause. Sadly, no one was around to see or hear my applause. What’s the point of applause if there is no one around to witness it?  My moment of introspection got me thinking about performance nature of life.


Why is it that if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere? In walking through the streets of New York, you tend to pass by all sorts of performers. You have street dancers, cardsharks, musicians, mimes, jugglers and more trying to get your attention so as to get a buck dropped in their tin can bucket.  New York has so many street performers that there is a guide for street performing. Furthermore, every waiter is more or less a great talent waiting to be discovered.  No one is immune from the performance bug. You pass by a children’s playground, and yes we have many of those in New York, and the second the child falls he pivots and if he has an audience he cries. Try ignoring a child that has fallen (just a scrape mind you).  Life continues as is without the production of prolactin-laced tears.  How about this scenario? You sit quietly in your commuter train car to only be exposed to a cacophony of witty statements twenty-something year olds are exclaiming while rapidly turning their heads waiting to catch an acknowledgement of their grand wit.  You know you have noticed it. Someone says something loudly on the train and then turns around with a wild hungry gleam in their eyes.  They are savoring the prospect of others acknowledging their grand wit.  Because you are a curmudgeon, you quickly turn away so as to not give them that satisfaction. These days, everyone is a performer waiting for their wild applause in the sun.  My son, thanks to Little Einsteins (so-called educational pre-k cartoon), already wildly claps and sings “bravo” at totally random acts of being.

When I was younger, I alternated between dreaming of the moment I would give my brilliantly authentic, teary-eyed acceptance speech at the Oscars or the moment I would run away with the circus.  I honestly do not believe I am that different from you all in that respect. Either way, I dreamt of a life rife with applause.  I dreamt of it. I tasted it. I went on to become little Miss Carvel, a champion storyteller and spelling bee champ.  I was taught to pivot towards applause, seek applause and attain applause. It was part of the social construct and social contract I had signed onto early on in life. Again, I really was no different from you all.   From an early age we are taught to be performers, essentially dancing baby monkeys. If you have a child, when was the last time you recorded and clapped at your baby’s performance (potty training counts as a performance by the way)?  Ten minutes ago, a day a week ago? From childhood on out, life is one long performance. I guess it makes sense that we would occasionally like a round of applause. But what is justifiable as an occasional allotment of applause has seemingly turned into a sense of continuous applause entitlement.

A political pundit noted about a former disgraced congressman, current NYC mayoral candidate (who shall remain dangerously nameless) that “just because you have nothing to lose doesn’t mean you should win.”  Even at the bottom of the rung you have to earn that win. Applause shouldn’t come cheap nor should it be assumed. As Benjamin Franklin noted “applause waits on success.”  No such thing as pity applause. Of course, ego applause runs rampant in our society nowadays.


Jay Z recently noted, in response to a critique by Harry Belafonte that the power couple of Beyonce and Jay Z don’t give back enough, that his “presence is charity”. Wow, does that not smell of applaud entitlement? Such a state of mind could also explain why Beyonce didn’t seem to understand the collective sense of disappointment at her lip-syncing performance at President Obama’s inauguration. Just by being there. Just by pretending to sing she seemed to feel that she deserved applause. Her presence, in her mind was apparently, charity enough. Oh, Blue Ivy sure hope you have some good vocal chords on ya.


Do you ever wonder what a Kanye and Kim wedding would look like? I don’t really spend too much thought on such a potential spectacle but now that I mention it to myself, I wrinkle my nose and think about the video equipment largesse. I assume the microphones and the speakers will be appropriately spaced so that the highly expected and encouraged round of applause is amplified. I imagine Neil Patrick Harris serving as host exclaiming: Wait for it…wait for it; ah, here comes the applause. Ah, to be young, jaded and egotistical.


Outside of the enormous egos that our celebrities tend to have, there is at the basic level of humanity a grand need, a craving even, to be appreciated by others.  Applause is a sign of that appreciation and is thus about building social capital and social currency.  When you clap for someone, you are signaling your approval and admiration. When you receive applause, your heart races and you go into overdrive. Applause is a constant now both in the real and virtual world. The likes one gets on a blog or on Facebook, the retweets and favoriting on Twitter are all akin to applause. Everything we do is now a performance. We live and breathe being an act.  Kim Kardashian was quite smart to cash in on her daily act.  However, why people “pay” to see that performance when they are embedded in their own day-to-day performance is beyond me.


What will you do for applause?

What will you do for applause?

Have you seen that recent commercial in which a dancer, a singer, and an athlete are all preparing backstage for their big moment? The nerves and precision of preparation are intense, only to be superseded by the act of going on to the stage.  Interestingly, the singer goes on and automatically receives applause. Why, when he is yet to perform? In the movie Topsy Turvy, the female lead notes: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if ordinary people gave themselves a round of applause at the end of the day.”  Of course, the film is titled Topsy Turvy indicating things are turned upside down.  Certainly, her suggestion is counter to the experience of certain performers who automatically get a round of applause before performing.  Similarly, there are many who feel that they should get an applause at the start of the day as a way to psych themselves into the work day and in part because of a grand sense of a need to say “I am worth it”.


Let us take the modern-day workplace, for instance. You come into the office and notice certain musk in the air.  Old spice, it ain’t. Instead, it’s a smell of entitlement. Entitlement to applause and adulation. Just because you are going for a record in self-esteem affirmations does not mean I must stand there and applaud you just because you walk in through the door.  Don’t get me wrong.  As a psychologist I applaud actions that enhance a healthy sense of self-esteem. However, just because you made it in to work today to earn your salary, doesn’t mean you get a standing ovation.  Coming in to work is just a whole other set of performances for which we get annual performance reviews.  Although, I don’t recall ever giving a round of applause at the end of an annual performance review, I have been known to grant wishes.


Nonetheless, it would seem to make more sense to get a round of applause at the end of the day after you have reached a certain set of accomplishments and tasks.  I will put myself out there as deserving of said end-of-the-day applause.  Trust me, getting through my daily work day is an exercise in quick wittedness, enormous restraint, putting out fires and the headache-inducing task of holding a 100 egos in check.  That, my friends, would deserve a round of applause at the end of the day, any day.


I began this post and end this post with a self-congratulatory round of applause. Cue the button.




7 replies »

  1. Should I applaud now?

    Seriously, I think self-applause is a great thing when applied primarily to the world inside yourself. For example, I read this post just after completing a psychologically arduous journey on my bike where I conquered a few demons. Should you care, beyond ordinary concern for strangers? No, but I’m feeling pretty happy with myself.

    You made some excellent points … up there above, and possibly below, my own comment.


    • Seems like an awesome bikeride. I would absolutely applaud for you. 🙂 I seriously applauded for myself after working out. I literally clapped with glee. I am such a dork. but the applauding just because someone thinks they said something witty in a crowded quiet commuter train car ….drives me batty


  2. This post is great!! (pause for studio audience)

    I keep a voice in my head and I call him “DJ LoudLove.” He’s basically a louder version of Will Smith that gives me post-activity adulation. Cheers for self-cheers!


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