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Form Over Substance

The emphasis in our culture, unfortunately, has increasingly become one of form over substance: too often image matters more than truth. People are so wrapped up in their solitary pursuits of personal interests and satisfaction that other people have merely become tools for achieving it.

Truth and integrity end up taking a back seat to winning. Here’s an example: Parents emphasize the importance of getting into the “right” college, which becomes their child’s goal. School systems across the country now report huge increases in academic cheating. This is form over substance: the child would rather get an “A” however he or she gets it than an honest “B” or “C” that won’t get him or her entry into the “right” school.

One of my colleagues who teaches at a local university gave a student an “A-“ in a class, and this student, who felt fully entitled to an “A,” became so hostile and vindictive that she filed complaints with the university about the instructor and made harassing phone calls to her at all hours of the day and night.

Many other colleagues who teach in universities have told me similar stories of students behaving in threatening, intimidating ways in order to get a better grade than they deserve. One who teaches at Yale University, characterized the shift this way: “Students used to come in feeling it was their responsibility to learn. Now, too many come in feeling it is your responsibility to teach.”

Too many people today have a strong sense of entitlement, which is a basis for simmering anger, poor relationships, and subsequent depression.

Psychologist and researcher Jean Twenge of San Diego State University has captured this trend empirically in her studies of the attitudes of young people about themselves in relationship to others. She documents a growing narcissism in her superb book, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable than Ever Before.

Young people expect the world to be as programmable as their ipods, Twenge suggests, and consequently many don’t develop tolerance for others’ views, empathy for their feelings or needs, or an ability to build and maintain genuine relationships with others that can withstand inevitable conflicts and growing spasms.

Form over substance; it’s how we choose our political leaders, it’s how we choose the products whose advertising we know best, it’s how we justify misguided efforts that help keep us painfully the same, it’s how we raise our expectations of others (and ourselves, too) ever unrealistically higher, it’s how we fool ourselves into thinking we can do things we really can’t, and it’s how we become vulnerable to depression when we’re disappointed the substance didn’t match the form.

Depression doesn’t arise in a social vacuum. It arises in response to world conditions, family conditions, marriage conditions, social conditions. It is essential for each person to get past the often misleading superficial image of how things seem (advanced by people who benefit from people buying into it) in order to get closer to how things really are.

If you really want to challenge yourself in the best of ways, explore well thought out opinions that challenge yours rather than those that simply reinforce what you already believe, especially when what you believe is working against you in some way. Only when you have many different viewpoints about some issue can you evolve a better sense of how to generate more realistic solutions to the challenges you face.

Form Over Substance

This article has been updated from the original version, which was originally published here on December 5, 2010.

Michael D. Yapko, Ph.D.

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APA Reference
Yapko, M. (2019). Form Over Substance. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 May 2019
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