Narcissism, or excessive self-love, is marked by bloated confidence, vanity, materialism, and a lack of consideration for others. Yet narcissistic personality traits have become so pervasive in American culture that they threaten to transform us into a nation of egomaniacs, research psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell say in their new book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.
Twenge and her team at San Diego State University also report today in a new study that narcissism continues to spread quickly among college students, especially young women. Considering how cultural influences on girls have changed in the past decade, that's not surprising, says Twenge. Plastic surgery rates have jumped since the 1990s, and materialism is increasingly being emphasized in song lyrics, for example, she says.
U.S. News caught up with Twenge to discuss the trend. Edited excerpts of the interview:
We're constantly being told by talk shows and pop psychology that we need to love ourselves. Is that advice wrong?
Having a basic sense of self-worth is a good thing. But when those feelings cross over into narcissism, it becomes toxic for other people, for the society, and for the individual in the long run.
The world seems increasingly cutthroat and competitive. Don't we have to be narcissistic in order to succeed?
Sure, the world is competitive, no argument there, but narcissism isn't going to help you succeed. Narcissists aren't any more successful than anybody else. Narcissism helps you succeed in the short-term—it's great for trying out on American Idol—but in most professions and in the long run, nobody likes a jerk.
When things are going well, [for example, during] the boom market, narcissists do pretty well. When things don't go so well, narcissists crash even more spectacularly than anybody else. That's actually a really good metaphor for our economy in the last two years.
What's an example of how narcissism can have that result?
Narcissism contributed to the economic crisis. Many people had narcissistic overconfidence [when they said], "Yeah, I can afford that million-dollar house," and lenders said, "Sure, I know you'll pay off that loan," and, well, fantasy collided with reality, and the consequences have been worse for the economy than anything since the Great Depression. Obviously, there were lots of causes for that, but I think an unrecognized cause is that narcissistic overconfidence.
There are these great studies where you bring people into the lab and ask them questions, then ask them how confident they are in their answers. Then, they bet a certain amount of money based on how confident they are. Well, narcissists are always very, very confident, so in those situations, they end up losing a lot of money because they think they're smarter than they actually are. A twist on that study is to ask them made-up questions, like, "Have you ever heard of..." and make up the name of somebody. Narcissists will say, "Yeah. Of course I've heard of him."
Your book title calls narcissism an "epidemic." That's a strong word. Is narcissism really on the rise to that degree?
This all started when we did a study a couple years ago finding that narcissism was increasing substantially among a nationwide sample of college students. We compared that effect to the obesity epidemic, and we found that the rise in narcissism was just as big as the rise in obesity in adults. That got us thinking: If obesity is an epidemic, then we may have an epidemic of narcissism on our hands.
This past summer [a study of] a nationally representative sample of 35,000 Americans found that 6 percent of Americans, or 1 out of 16, had experienced [clinical narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)] at some point in their lives. And there was a big generational effect. You'd expect that people who are older would have a higher percentage of having experienced this because they've lived so many more years. But only 3 percent of people over 65 had had any experience with NPD, compared with almost 10 percent of people in their 20s. Given that you can only diagnose this when someone is 18, that's a pretty short number of years in which to have this experience. That was another pretty big indication that this was an out-of-control epidemic.