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.
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.
You're a parent of a young child, with one on the way. Any advice for parents who want to steer clear of raising a little Narcissus?
With young kids, be careful how much you ask them what they want. Give limited choices instead of having them direct the whole situation. With 2- and 3-year-olds, it's not a good idea to ask, "What do you want for dinner?" because the answer is, "Cookies." And it's not a good idea to ask, "Do you want to go to bed now?" because the answer is, "No." When you do that, you put the situation in the control of the child and you feel like you have to go along with what they've expressed. That type of parenting does seem to lead to more narcissism later on.
You're better off giving limited choices: "Do you want to eat chicken or fish?" Kids love that. It's a win-win. They love having control, but then as a parent, you're not letting the 2-year-old run the household.