It’s all about me: the rise of narcissism

by Joanne Black / 19 May, 2012
The rise of narcissism is affecting us all - and not always in a good way.

When Jean Twenge’s five-year-old daughter showed her mother the worksheet she had brought home from kindergarten last month, Twenge’s heart sank. On the front of the paper, her daughter had been required to draw a picture of herself to go with the words “I’m very happy to be me”. “Well, fine,” thought her mum. But on the reverse were the words to the “Special” song, in which kindergarten children sing, to the tune of Frère Jacques, the words “I am special, I am special. Look at me! Look at me!”

It might sound cute and innocent to many parents but it is anathema to Twenge, who is not only Associate Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, but also a world-acclaimed researcher and author on the subject of narcissism. Her central thesis is that because so many children, teenagers and adults are being encouraged to focus on themselves and their own entitlement, society itself is at risk. In everything from marriage breakdowns to the mortgage crisis, Twenge sees evidence of a narcissistic culture running rampant.

“The focus on self-admiration has caused a flight from reality to the land of grandiose fantasy,” Twenge and co-author Keith Campbell write in their book The Narcissism Epidemic. So far, so American, but the trends Twenge identifies and relates to self-entitlement are common to many Western societies. The recent furore over Samantha Brick’s claims that women hated her “for being beautiful” is a case in point.

Her column in the UK’s Daily Mail sparked debate around the world. Heated debate also arose after British Employment Minister Chris Grayling exhorted employers to consider hiring the local “surly young man in a hoodie” ahead of someone from Eastern Europe with five years’ experience and the get-up-and-go to cross the Continent in search of work. This prompted the response that if young Brits consider themselves so entitled to express their “Authentic Self” that they will not even take their hoodies off for an interview, they should also not be surprised that employers feel similarly entitled to hire the Hungarian in a suit, instead.

Decrying the “new myth” that the “projection of your chosen appearance is equivalent to a fundamental human right”, British commentators are also scathing about shop assistants who leave good jobs simply because they are asked to conceal heavily tattooed parts of their body. The new inflexible mantra is “take me as I am”. The narcissistic society might find its apogee in reality TV shows and celebrity worship, but Twenge argues its ramifications are much more important than that and affect us all. “Here in the US, for example, the percentage of babies born to unmarried mums is now 40% and it used to be 5% [in 1950],” she says by phone from her home in San Diego.

“Sociologists who have studied that trend have come to the conclusion that this pattern leads to a lot of different short-term relationships, described by one sociologist as a marriage-go-round, and the idea that you won’t get married but will just ‘hook up’ is the type of pattern you see with a more narcissistic society, because that’s the type of relationship narcissists like. No commitment, nothing long term.”

Twenge is not saying that all sole parents are narcissists, because many other factors are at work in relationship breakdowns, but a habit – learnt in childhood – of thinking your personal happiness and desires are more important than anyone else’s is the typical mindset of a narcissistic society. That is where her resistance to preschoolers singing the “Special” song comes from. She says it is an illustration of how commonly accepted it has become for children to be affirmed and praised for no achievement whatsoever, and for doing something that requires no effort. “Of course it’s important for kids to have a basic sense of self-worth,” Twenge says, “but that’s not really what we’re talking about here.”

What she is talking about is the myriad examples of children being encouraged to have an inflated idea of themselves. This is nicely illustrated by a reviewer of The Narcissism Epidemic, who wrote that while she was reading Twenge and Campbell’s work, her husband was framing a mock cover of Sports Illustrated magazine with their seven-year-old featuring as Player of the Year. And despite many people thinking that narcissism might be good for career prospects, it is not linked to professional and social success. Twenge says that when people ask whether it’s an advantage to be narcissistic, she uses the example of Asian Americans.

“I point out that here in the US, and it’s probably true in New Zealand, too, that Asian-American kids have the lowest self-esteem yet they do the best in school. So, the connection between self-confidence and doing well is not what we think it is.” She says the effect lasts beyond school. “When we do workplace studies, it also comes up that there is not a huge connection between self-esteem and doing well at work.” That stays true when factored for ethnicity, too, she says. “Asian Americans have the lowest unemployment rate in the US and the lowest rates of narcissism and self-esteem.”

Young people, it seems, have always been more self-absorbed than older people, and every generation notices it. But Twenge and others contend that more recently there has been a fundamental societal shift, encouraged by the “self-esteem movement” of the 1980s and by a contemporary culture of parenting and teaching in which children are disproportionately praised and affirmed for simply being who they are. Studies in New Zealand show narcissism may also be on the rise here.

Associate Professor Marc Wilson, who heads Victoria University’s School of Psychology, and University of Auckland senior lecturer in social psychology Chris Sibley are co-authors of a paper called “Narcissism Creep: Evidence for Age-related Differences in Narcissism in the New Zealand Population”, which shows younger people are more narcissistic than older ones. “The trick for us,” says Wilson, “is to disentangle whether or not this is a developmental thing and people simply start off full of themselves and in the course of their lives become less so.

There are lots of reasons that might be the case and one of them is that when you’re young, and believe the world’s your oyster, you haven’t necessarily had the opportunity to learn otherwise. Life does tend to provide opportunities to learn the boundaries of one’s own invincibility. “That’s one possibility, and there may even be adaptive reasons why it helps to feel invincible when you’re young. Maybe you’ll do things that you otherwise wouldn’t have, which in evolutionary, psychological terms means you get to pass on your genetic inheritance to other people – you do things that might make you more attractive, for example. “But the other possibility is that because older people were born in a different time, it could be something about the era in which we grow up that makes us more or less narcissistic, and it’s very difficult to disentangle that when you just do one-off surveys.

So, Jean Twenge’s work and that of other people is really important, because what she did was to pull together a whole bunch of work done over 30-odd years. “UCLA has a great database from generations of undergrads all completing the same test of narcissism, so she was able to show that not only do younger people tend to be more narcissistic than older people but younger people are more narcissistic now than comparable younger people were 20 to 30 years ago.”

So what is, and what is not, narcissism? Wilson says he tends to the view that “all of us have a little bit of narcissism in us” but only in extreme manifestations does it becomes problematic. When people think – based on no objective measure – that they are better than others because they are better looking, more intelligent or cleverer, then the narcissism line starts to be broached. But even that degree of self-belief can be widespread.

“Most of us tend to think we’re better than average,” says Wilson. “The betterthan- average effect refers to the fact that if you ask people ‘where do you sit relative to other people who drive’, then 80% of people say, ‘I’m a better than average driver’, which is a lovely result because it is, of course, statistically impossible. “And that serves an adaptive function, because we know that if people think they are crap at something, they tend to underperform. So, there are benefits to thinking that you’re a cool person. There are benefits to thinking that you’re a good judge of character when in fact research shows that we tend not to be that good.

“But while research suggests that on the whole people tend to see the world through rose-coloured glasses, narcissism is where you’re taking it that extra step too far, so not only do you think the world’s your oyster but if it doesn’t work out that way then it’s not your fault – you’re just misunderstood, and it’s someone else’s fault.”

Narcissism has a link to self-esteem, he says, but is not the same thing, although people who score highly on characteristics associated with narcissism also tend to display high scores on measures of self-esteem. Importantly, studies show that narcissists are no more attractive and no more intelligent than other people, although they believe that they are. Further, narcissists seem unable to be empathetic. They cannot see a situation from someone else’s perspective, but nor do they really try, since they mostly think only about themselves and how others see them.

All these traits need to be in place for a person to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, but many people can be narcissists without ever being labelled with a disorder. For a start, they are unlikely to seek any help, because as far as they are concerned there is nothing wrong with them. Twenge says the normal short-term curbs on poor behaviour do not work with narcissists, because when a failure occurs – in a relationship, for example – narcissists just blame someone else.

“My co-author, Keith, and some of his colleagues looked at this and they found that by the time people high in narcissism get into their forties and fifties, the consequences are starting to accumulate. They’ve messed up their relationships at work and at home and then they start to get depressed, and that’s the moment when they might even try to change things [about themselves]. “The historical problem with narcissists that clinicians talk about is that they won’t even show up to therapy, let alone stay, because there’s nothing wrong with them. They are already perfect.”

Cultural context is also important when considering narcissism, explains Victoria University associate professor of psychology Devon Polaschek. “When you decide that narcissism is a disorder, it is about your assessment of a person against the baseline level of narcissism in the culture you’re looking at.” Therefore, a person would have to display considerably more narcissism to be labelled a narcissist in the US than he or she would in, say, Japan. “But it does seem to me that a good chunk of the younger generation of New Zealanders – particularly those brought up with lots of nurturing from their parents and in small families – are much more confi dent and out there and less reserved than  many of us used to be.”

For people to be considered dysfunctional, their personality (or habit or addiction) needs to be impairing their social or professional life, and what often goes wrong for narcissists is their relationship. “The relationships of people with high levels of narcissism are typically characterised by their need for admiration rather than a genuine desire to be on a level playing field and emotionally close to someone else in a sharing and reciprocal kind of way,” says Polaschek. “That does tend to lead itself to quite shallow relationships where people are expected to be sycophantic rather than an equal. So-called “trophy wives” are said to be chosen by narcissistic men because the need to be admired includes having a partner who reflects well on you. It’s all about how you look.”

A big question for psychologists today is whether social media is likely to intensify narcissistic tendencies that already exist, or even create them in those who are not narcissists already. “It’s very difficult at this point to say Facebook will cause an increase in these things because we just don’t have the data yet,” says Wilson. “I suspect we will find, as we’ve found in other areas of psychological research, a reciprocal relationship. “So, people who are full of themselves are more likely to use Facebook as a way of publicising how flash they are. That in turn will promote their belief that they are particularly special. Once it’s started there will be a reinforcing effect. People might think, ‘I have 800 friends, I must be special.’ But the real concern is whether the use of things like social media will take people who aren’t particularly narcissistic and turn them into narcissists.

“People who tend to have more narcissistic traits tend to have more friends on Facebook – they don’t necessarily spend much more time on it, but when they are on it they tend to pay attention to doing things that will enhance the way they see themselves and the way they present themselves to others. “Men seem to self-aggrandise through text – the profile and descriptions they provide of themselves, while women who score higher on narcissism tend to spend a lot of time deciding on the pictures they will use to show how flash they are.”

Wilson says research also shows that narcissists tend to engage in more put-downs when online, and tend to ask for more affirmation and support from other people than they themselves provide. “They also tend to respond in a much more volatile way to any statements that might threaten how well they might be seen, rather than letting it roll like water off a duck’s back. “While they might have more Facebook friends, in selecting who those friends will be they tend to pay more attention to characteristics that will make themselves look good. So, the pictures of the people they choose to friend will on average tend to be ones they think are more attractive because, again, they’re basking in the reflected glory of their vast and beautiful social network.”

But Twenge says that at a societal level, when narcissism goes awry, its consequences can be serious. “We’re surrounded by examples of overconfidence backfiring,” she says. “The most prominent example is the recession that started here in the US with the mortgage crisis. Overconfi dence pretty much explains exactly what happened there, both on the part of consumers and on the parts of investors and bankers. We know from lab studies, too, that that’s what narcissists do in stockmarket simulations – they take too many risks, and when things go badly, they go badly really, really fast for people who have taken too many risks. So you see the consequences play out there.” The problem, she says, is “the illusion that everything is always going to go well for me”.

When it comes to solutions, Twenge is conscious as a parent to relate the praise she gives her children to effort they have put in, or for something they have accomplished. She says it is perfectly normal for young children to fish for compliments and so her five-year-old might ask, after a swimming lesson, “Do you think I’m the best swimmer ever?” “Well, what am I going to say to that? I might try to change the subject, or I’ll say, ‘I think you’ve tried really hard and I’m very proud of the progress you’re making.’ Then when we’re at the pool, I try to emphasise the technical things she is doing well, and how it is that she can do those, rather than her self-esteem. To say ‘yes, you’re the best swimmer ever’ would be narcissistic, because how would I know that?”

She says what the media rarely shows is how much effort and practice went into someone becoming successful, and she stresses that with her children. When her daughter came home with the “Special” song, Twenge says she emailed the kindergarten counsellor and suggested to her that it was not a good choice. “Her reply clearly showed she had no idea what I was talking about, absolutely no idea. I tried to explain what was wrong, but she said it was about uniqueness, and it was great to teach them about uniqueness. But why do we emphasise uniqueness? Why don’t we emphasise what everyone has in common?”

Polaschek also sees a hazard in overpraising young children, making them less resilient when life’s inevitable setbacks and disappointments come along. But she remains unconvinced that what we are seeing is a rise in narcissism, as such. “We talk about the self-absorbed Generation X but the baby boomers are pretty self-absorbed at times, too. My generation – the end of the baby boom – has adapted very well to changes in society. They might have been brought up reserved but now they’re out there, and they might have been brought up with no money but now they have 15 televisions, and people might say that in fact this is the generation that’s been most self-absorbed.”

That is possible, but Wilson notes that Twenge argues that if parents in the US 50 years ago were asked what they thought the most important thing was for their child to appreciate, they would have said “obedience”, but now it’s “to be themselves”. He says young people have been encouraged to “reach for the stars”, to “be all that they can be” and to feel good about themselves. “But one of the downsides is that what we’re potentially doing is encouraging young people to see themselves as the centre of their universe.

“In her book The Narcissism Epidemic, Twenge says look at all these young kids being put in T-shirts that tell the world they are a princess or the best things since sliced bread. Now that’s well-meaning, and it’s cute, but if young people’s lives are full of these sorts of things, can we blame them for internalising the message that we haven’t even realised we’re potentially sending?”

The dark side

A threat to the self-esteem can tip some over the edge.

The trial in the UK of Elliot Turner over the murder of aspiring model Emily Longley has revealed what can happen when people with narcissistic tendencies think they’ve been pushed too far. Turner thought Longley, who was brought up in New Zealand, was having affairs, and became furious when he saw she had changed her Facebook profile picture, which he thought showed her flirting with another man.

In secret police recordings played at the trial, Turner said, “I was actually thinking I was insane, just like violent thoughts in my head for weeks… No girl had ever pushed me that far – taunted me, and f---ing got to my core.” Turner told his friends he would kill Longley, go to prison “and still be a millionaire when I come out”.

There are similar self-obsessed overtones in the case of Clayton Weatherston, the New Zealander most associated with narcissism in recent times. During his 2009 trial for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Sophie Elliott, his testimony appeared to shock the public nearly as much as the crime itself. Weatherston, an economics lecturer at the University of Otago at the time of the killing, stabbed Elliot 216 times in the bedroom of her family home on January 9, 2008, and mutilated her body with scissors after she was dead. In the subsequent trial, Weatherston blamed Elliot for the murder. It was her fault because she had provoked him, he said. She had been damaging his reputation in the way she was talking to her friends about him.

Canterbury District Health Board’s chief of psychiatry, Associate Professor Philip Brinded, told the jury that Weatherston was not insane but was a “grossly narcissistic individual”. Victoria University’s head of psychology, Associate Professor Marc Wilson, says research shows if you confront someone whose narcissism is based on the belief that they are brighter than other people, or more attractive, and you disputed that, “that is where you get problematic situations”.

He says renowned US psychologist Roy Baumeister has noted that narcissistic self-esteem is fragile – it doesn’t stand up to threats in the same way that normal self-esteem would. “So, if you feel good about yourself, and someone says ‘but you’re crap at pool, mate’, for most of us, that’s fine. But if a narcissistic person’s self-esteem is threatened, they’re not likely to turn around and decide to make themselves better. They’re more likely to do something to themselves or other people. Self-esteem for most of us should be a buffer against that type of reaction.”

Canadian psychologist Delroy Paulhus has done work on what he calls “the dark triad” of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. “Although these three things are subtly different, they do share a number of traits, and one is a lack of empathy with others.” Far right extremist Anders Breivik, on trial in Norway for the bombing and shooting of 77 people, is an extreme example of the atrocities associated with some kinds of personality disorders, Wilson says.

“Breivik clearly has a lot of narcissistic traits. He’s been enjoying his time on the stand, he’s enjoying presenting to the world the persona that he has worked on crafting. “Although many narcissists can be very unpleasant and may not make much of a positive contribution to the lives of others, the difference here is that Breivik has gone out of his way to murder people, and apparently remorselessly. And this is where one of those boundaries has been crossed.

“Breivik, I think, is a little more aware of how he comes across to others than Weatherston was. Weatherston clearly misread how he was being perceived on the stand – some of those little smiles and throwaway lines.” Wilson says 1-4% of the population display psychopathic personality traits, but very few become killers.


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