What's fueling the rise in narcissism?
The four causes that we identify in the book are parenting, celebrity culture, media and the Internet, and easy credit. For example, with parenting, in an attempt to raise kids with self-esteem, many parents will tell their kid they're the best ever and they'll treat them like royalty, placing the child at the center of the household. In a limited way, that's fine, but it's often taken too far. When you put a kid on a pedestal, that type of parenting, it's been shown, leads to narcissism.
With celebrities, you watch the Real Housewives of New York City [or] My Super Sweet 16, and the narcissistic traits are just obvious in every episode. Reality TV shows in general are highly narcissistic, and [reality TV stars] are the most narcissistic of all celebrities, in the study that Dr. Drew Pinsky did. What concerns me about that is that those are the shows that are really popular among young people. They're supposed to show real life; they're not supposed to be scripted or fictionalized. What they really are is a showcase for narcissistic people and behavior that makes narcissism seem normal.
What about the Internet and easy credit?
MySpace and Facebook often encourage people to highlight only narcissistic parts of their personality. People rarely talk about how much they like reading War and Peace on MySpace. Instead, it's that picture that makes me look hot, it's that cool party I went to, it's the cool friends that I have, it's here's my cool music. With young teens, I wonder if that will shape their identities so that in real life they'll start emphasizing those parts of their personalities more.
Finally, easy credit allows people to look better off than they actually are. It fuels their sense of entitlement because they can get something without having to pay for it [immediately]. We're now seeing the consequences of that because, guess what, you do have to pay for it.
Are other cultures as narcissistic as ours?
If you look around the world, narcissism does seem to be spreading. In China, there's Little Emperor syndrome—there's a lot of talk about the new generation being very self-centered. In Scandinavia, there's this great study showing that in newspapers, individualistic words are going way up and communal words are going way down. But the U.S. is pretty high in narcissism. I like to say that we're not necessarily No. 1 in terms of performance, but we're No. 1 in thinking that we're No. 1.
What's at risk if we don't slow this narcissism epidemic?
We're in danger of becoming a nation of people who are just focused on themselves and don't care if they harm other people in the process of their own success.
What's the cure? To promote self-hatred?
People ask us that sometimes. Parents will say, "Oh, do you mean we should start insulting kids?" No. But it's really common for parents to tell children, "You're special." That [promotes] narcissism. That's not [building] self-esteem because being special is being unique and better than other people, and it connotes things like special treatment. I think what parents mean is, "You're special to me." You don't need to tell your kid that they're the best ever, but you can say, "I love you." It's probably what you mean anyway, and it also promotes connection rather than difference and standing out.
In general with kids, place more focus on empathy. While most parents do try to teach their kids to be nice, the overall cultural push is to teach them to succeed and to believe in themselves, instead of teaching empathy for others. We really need to shift that. Ironically, empathy for others will actually help you succeed more than believing in yourself.