Narcissism Is Alive and Well in America

May 17th, 2011

By Dr. Jim Taylor

NarcissismDo you know the story of Narcissus? The very handsome fellow in Greek mythology who, because of his indifference and disdain toward others, was punished by the gods by falling in love with his own image. He was so enraptured by his beauty that he was unable to pull himself away from his own reflection that he wasted away and died.

Well, according to recent research, Narcissus has spawned many offspring in our current generation and narcissism is alive and well and living in America. Just so we are all on the same wavelength, narcissism is a personality characteristic associated with self-absorption, egocentrism, an overestimation of one’s own importance and abilities, a sense of entitlement, and a disregard for others.

One study found that 30 percent of young people were classified as narcissistic according to a widely used psychological test. That number has doubled in the last 30 years. Another study reported a 40 percent decline among young people in empathy, a personality attribute inversely related to narcissism, since the 1980s.

These findings aren’t surprising to anyone who pays attention to the “it’s all about me” culture in which we currently live. My questions are where this rise in narcissism is coming from and what impact it will have on our society in the future.

One obvious place where young people are learning about narcissism is our omnipresent and unrelenting popular culture.  A study by the celebrity psychiatrist Dr. Drew, in which 200 “celebrities” (I put the word in quotes because the threshold for being considered a celebrity these days has declined significantly) completed the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, found that, here’s a shocker, they were significantly more narcissistic than the general population. Interestingly, the celebrities who actually had a talent, for example, musicians, tended to be less narcissistic. Guess who were the most self-absorbed celebrities? Female reality-TV stars! Not surprising that those celebrities who were famous for being famous were the most narcissistic; their narcissism drove them to become celebrities.

Another fascinating study that was just published explored the changes in music lyrics over the past three decades. The researchers found a significant shift toward lyrics that reflect narcissism (“I” and “me” appear more often “we” and “us”) and hostility (change from positive to angry words and emotions). And these findings aren’t just due to the increased popularity and influence of hip-hop music (which is known for its aggrandizement of the artists and its venom), but rather are evident across musical genres.

And you don’t need to go far to collect your own data on narcissism. Do these names ring a bell: Charlie Sheen, Terrell Owens, and Kanye West?

It’s not surprising to see a rise in narcissism in this generation given that young people are being bombarded by these messages 24/7 through every form of media. And here’s the truly disturbing part: How can young people these days avoid being infected with this “disease” when, thanks to the “wired” world in which they live, the majority of messages they receive venerate and encourage narcissism.

The self-esteem movement has likely contributed to this increase in self-adoration. Many parents these days do everything they can to make their children feel good about themselves. The result has been a decline in real self-esteem and an increase in self-love and unjustifiable personal “exceptionalism.”

Also, technology and social media have done their part to promote narcissism. All of the time spent absorbed in screens has reduced the amount of actual human (i.e., face-to-face) interaction that children have, thus depriving them of the experiences needed to develop essential social skills such as empathy, compassion, and consideration for others.

Certainly, the shift in societal values away from collectivism and toward individualism (“You’re on your own”), away from civic responsibility and toward self-gratification, and away from meaningful contributions to society and toward personal success (as defined by wealth, power, and status), have also contributed to the cultural messages of narcissism in which young people are presently immersed.

It’s one thing to see that there are an growing number of narcissists in America today. But the real concern is not the individual narcissists among us, but when our society embraces and, OMG!, accepts narcissism as the norm. And that time may have arrived. That’s when we have to start asking the next question which is far scarier: What effect will this increasingly normalized culture of narcissism have on our society?

You might argue that narcissism has existed for as long as homo sapiens have populated planet Earth and we’ve managed to survive. In fact, some researchers have argued that the recent rise in narcissism is due more to this generation’s willingness to express what they really believe rather than an actual increase in narcissism. But there seems to be a qualitative, rather just a quantitative, shift in so many aspects of our culture that I just don’t buy that explanation.

The answer that came most readily to my mind, and an apocryphal one at that, is a gradual, yet inexorable, tear in the fabric of our society. Think of all the qualities that enable us to form a functioning and vital nation — respect, compassion, tolerance, selflessness — and you will see that they don’t exist in the narcissistic personality (or culture). Gosh, I just had a really terrifying thought. The indifference, egotism, disrespect, and lack of consideration that are central to narcissism are also reflective of the increasingly polarized and vitriolic tone of our current body politic, recent unethical corporate behavior, the rise in cheating among students in school, and the gamut of bad behavior among professional athletes. As Pogo noted so famously, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Definitely not a rosy picture and definitely not one to encourage an optimistic view of the future. Should we see this trend as just another sign of the impending death of the American empire? The cynic in me (and, for those who follow my writing, know that it fills a big portion of my brain) would offer an emphatic “Yes!”

Yet the optimist in me (small, but stubborn) holds out some hope. I don’t mean to demonize and indict this entire generation. In fact, There are a lot of amazing young people out there. I speak at schools around the U.S. and I meet kids (I know I’m getting old when I call them that!) who are motivated, engaged, respectful, and compassionate. Many young people are bucking the trend and are resisting the lure of the “dark side.” And they are our best hope of beating back the onslaught of narcissism and keeping the best of humanity alive and well and living in America.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

(Visit Dr. Jim Taylor’s YouTube channel to see TV interviews and Prime topic discussions.)

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6 Responses to “Narcissism Is Alive and Well in America”

  1. Brian |

    Dr. Taylor, we’ve never been more “collectivist” than we are now. As Tom pointed out a few days ago, only 49% of households actually pay income tax. What could be more collectivist than the minority carrying the majority?

    Only a narcissist would be capable of believing that he has a moral claim to money that someone else earned.

  2. Brianna |

    Brian, I think you’re letting the objectivist vocabulary get in the way of your analysis. I don’t accept that narcissism and egoism as defined by Objectivists are the same thing, but that’s the common assumption and Jim was writing in those terms. And in those terms, Jim’s absolutely right about a rise of narcissism in our culture.

    I do take issue with lumping the issue in with that of collectivism/individualism though. Both a collectivist and an individualist culture could easily promote narcissism and empty self-esteem divorced from actual achievement. Just in an individualist culture, such promotion is done through empty stunts designed to garner attention (exhibitionism), or empty accomplishments devoid of meaning (for example, good grades garnered by cheating), whereas in a collectivist culture it is done by trying to best exemplify the characteristics of the collective. Actually, I would argue that narcissism is necessarily a collectivist trait, because no matter how one displays it, what narcissism is at heart is an exhibitionist attempt to stand out from the pack for the mere sake of standing out. No matter how you break down narcissism, it is an other-centric attitude, which in my book makes it collectivist no matter how it’s practiced.

    As an aside, I would like to note that egoism in the objectivist parlance is defined (by me, anyway) as 1) attaching great value to your own life, 2) committing yourself to achieving genuine, long-term happiness in your own life, and 3) turning yourself into an exemplary individual through hard work and the achievement of worthwhile goals. Objectivists would probably recognize me as an egoist, but the general population would never, in a million years, think to term me as a narcissist.

  3. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Brian: My use of the term collectivist was not intended to carry the political ideological baggage that you ascribe to you.

    @Brianna: Truly wonderfully said! An interesting perspective that I hadn’t fully considered. Many thanks.

  4. Brian Bagent |

    If by “collective” you mean the tradition of neighbors helping neighbors, I can only suggest that you get away from the big cities. In my little burg with a population of less than 700, we still do stuff like that.

    I apologize if this comes off as chest-thumping, but what follows is an easy example. Late last Fall or early Winter, I was coming home from the hospital, still in my scrubs. It was late, maybe 8PM, and the sleet was starting to fall. I got about a mile from home and noticed one of my neighbors driving really slowly up the highway. When I got closer, I realized that she was rounding up stray cattle. When I got out to help her, she said that they weren’t her cattle but that she couldn’t see the brand in the dark and sleet, so she didn’t know to whom they belonged. We put them in one of her pastures until she could figure out who they belonged to.

    No small thing, that. It was probably about $20000-$30000 worth of livestock, and they didn’t belong to either one of us. That’s the way things work in “flyover country.”

    Shortly after I moved in here last summer, one of my neighbors’ cattle kept getting into my front pasture. It wasn’t really a big deal, except that I usually leave my front gate open and I don’t have a cattle-guard at the gate. Since I hadn’t met any of my neighbors yet and they weren’t generally home when I was, I called the Sheriff’s Dept to find out who they belonged to. One of the cattle was a pure-bred Angus bull, easily worth 5 figures. I have good grazing and water on my place, but since I leave my gate open, there’s a chance they could get out onto the highway and be stolen or cause a wreck.

    And this may sound like a small thing, but it isn’t. If anybody around here sees feral hogs on my place, they call me if I’m home, or they shoot them if I’m not. I do the same for my neighbors.

    We actually do look out for each other around here.

  5. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Brian: That’s the collectivism that I love and wish America had more of, both at the neighborhood and national levels. To be fair though, I have lived in cities and the ‘burbs and find it everywhere in which people have been in one place for a while. As they say in the ‘hood, “We take care of our ‘peeps’.”

    That, of course, opens up an entirely new kettle of fish (mixed metaphor intended) of why that collectivism is dying a slow and inexorable death. But that’s left for another post.

  6. Brian Bagent |

    As I opined above, the code which declares that a human has a moral right to the fruits of someone else’s labor will produce people who think that their mere existence is a justification for an imposition on their neighbor will produce narcissism.

    That morality declares “I am so important that no matter what I do (or more accurately, don’t do) I must be taken care of.” Is there a more self-centered, narcissistic position than that? It is disrespectful and worse, uncivilized because it justifies the use of force against someone that has harmed no one.

    Here’s a good article by Walter Williams that describes it in a nutshell.

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