Friday 16 May 2014 1:56PM Lynne Malcolm
According to new research, young people today are significantly more narcissistic than during the 1980s and 1990s. Are we in the middle of a narcissism epidemic and, if so, who or what is to blame? Lynne Malcolm investigates.
The term narcissism comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, the handsome young man who falls in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Narcissism is also a concept in psychoanalytic theory introduced by Freud, and it appears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatry as narcissistic personality disorder.
Professor Jean Twenge from San Diego State University points out that narcissism is distinct from the concept of self-esteem.
‘Somebody high in self-esteem values individual achievement, but they also value their relationships and caring for others,’ she says. ‘Narcissists are missing that piece about valuing, caring and their relationships, so they tend to lack empathy, they have poor relationship skills. That’s one of the biggest differences, those communal and caring traits tend to be high in most people with self-esteem but not among those who are high in narcissism.’
There’s a perception that we have, especially in western culture, that self-esteem is very important, that it is the key to success, but it turns out it’s not.Professor Jean Twenge
Professor Twenge had been studying self-esteem in young people when she teamed up with Keith Campbell, who specialises in narcissism. They joined forces to investigate whether people born in more recent generations score higher against narcissism measures than in previous generations. They documented their findings in the book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. The tool they used to assess their subjects is the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, which was created in 1988.
The Narcissistic Personality Inventory consists of 40 items. On each item the respondent chooses whether they agree with one statement or another: one of those statements is narcissistic and the other is not. So, for example, ‘If I ruled the world it would be a better place’ is the narcissistic statement, and then the non-narcissistic one is, ‘Ruling the world scares the hell out of me’.
Professor Twenge and Campbell analysed data from 15,000 American college students who responded to the Narcissistic Personality Inventory before 2006. They found that there was a relationship between the birth year of the people filling out the scale and their narcissism score, and those narcissism scores were significantly higher in the 2000s than they were in the 1980s and 1990s.
To make sure that the results weren’t due to other factors, they used subjects who were all about the same age, ethnicity and gender over that time period.
Professor Twenge acknowledges that as part of their normal development 18- and 19-years-olds are generally self-focused and narcissistic, but she says they are a lot more narcissistic now than they were in previous generations. They also found that men scored a little higher in narcissism than women, but women are catching up fast.
Professor Twenge identifies a number of symptoms or correlates of narcissism and how it’s expressed in the larger culture.
In the area of vanity, for example, they observe that plastic surgery rates in the US have gone through the roof since the late 1990s. Even invasive procedures such as breast augmentation or liposuction have increased two or three times over this time period. There is a greater drive to be unique, to stand out rather than fit in. This is evident in the names that people give their children. They drew from the Social Security Administration database of all American names going back to the 1800s and found that in recent decades parents are much less likely to give their children common names and more likely to give them unique names. They also observed a change in relationships.
‘People who score high in narcissism tend to have trouble in their relationships, basically because they are focused on themselves rather than on anyone else,’ says Professor Twenge. ‘There is certainly evidence for relationships not being as stable as they once were. More and more babies are born to unmarried couples rather than to married couples. People don’t stay married for as long; they get married later in life. There’s a trend toward hooking up rather than being in a committed relationship.’
According to Professor Twenge, increasing narcissism correlates with materialism and a greater focus on money, fame and image.
‘We did another paper looking at big national representative samples of high school and college students and found that the younger generations were much more likely to say, for life goals, things like “being very well off financially”. The latest data from 2013 for entering university students here in the US, 82 per cent say that that is an important life goal. And back in the late ’60s and early ’70s only about 45 per cent said that was an important life goal. So that’s an indicator of materialism which is consistent with the rise in narcissism.’
What about some of the trends that we are seeing in social media? Is narcissism reflected in the way we are using social media?
Professor Twenge cites a number of studies that have found that people who score high in narcissism have more friends on Facebook. It certainly does not mean that everybody on Twitter or Facebook is high in narcissism, but there is a correlation between those who have more Facebook friends and narcissism.
‘What that means is the average person you’re connected with on Facebook is probably a little more narcissistic than the average person you’re connected with in real life because narcissists are skilled at those online connections,’ says Professor Twenge.
According to Professor Twenge, there are likely a number of drivers for the rise of narcissism, including easy bank loans, celebrity culture and the internet. She also singles out the emphasis on children’s self-esteem in parenting and education.
‘Roy Baumeister, along with some colleagues, did a big research review on this a few years ago, and found that self-esteem doesn’t actually cause good grades, it doesn’t cause better work performance, it doesn’t really cause much of anything,’ she says.
‘There’s a perception that we have, especially in western culture, that self-esteem is very important, that it is the key to success, but it turns out it’s not. The small correlation between self-esteem and, say, children getting good grades is almost all due to things like family background. The children who come from a nice stable middle-class home have higher self-esteem and do better.’
‘You take that out of the equation, self-esteem in and of itself doesn’t really help you. It doesn’t really hurt you but it doesn’t help you.’
Professor Twenge is the mother of three girls and believes parents often get blamed for things that really are part of a larger cultural trend, and it can be very difficult to go against that cultural tide. However, she says there are some things that parents can do to counter their children’s inflated sense of themselves.
‘People often ask me, “If I’m not supposed to say to my kid that you’re special, then what should I say?” And my answer is, “Say I love you”. It’s what you mean anyway and that’s a much better message to get across to your child than “you’re special’’ because … that child may be special to you, of course she is, she is your child, but what is going to happen when she goes out into the world and the world doesn’t treat her as special?’
The evidence is also starting to build for this rise in narcissism beyond America and the west, in countries like China. Professor Twenge points to a study of the fears of Finnish teens that compared the 1980s to now. It found the teenagers in the 1980s were much more concerned with global concerns, while teens today are much more likely to mention personal fears like loneliness or unemployment.
‘I think the first thing that we have to do as a culture is realise that narcissism is not beneficial for success, in the workplace or in relationships,’ says Professor Twenge. ‘What that means is kind of a really good news piece, that the key to success is self-efficacy, which is different from self-esteem. Self-control and hard work, that’s beneficial. Perspective-taking, something that narcissists don’t do very well, to take someone else’s perspective, to think about what it’s like to walk around in their shoes, is so useful for getting along with people, whether that’s at work or in your relationships.’
‘So for emphasising those qualities—self-efficacy, self-control, perspective-taking—not only are those things the right thing to do but they are actually more likely to lead to success than self-esteem or narcissism.’