The Narcissism Epidemic
The Growing Narcissism in American Culture
We didn’t have to look very hard to find it. It was everywhere.
On a reality TV show, a girl planning her sixteenth birthday party wants a major road blocked off so a marching band can precede her grand entrance on a red carpet. A book called My Beautiful Mommy explains plastic surgery to young children whose mothers are going under the knife for the trendy “Mommy Makeover.” It is now possible to hire fake paparazzi to follow you around snapping your photograph when you go out at night—you can even take home a faux celebrity magazine cover featuring the pictures. A popular song declares, with no apparent sarcasm, “I believe that the world should revolve around me!” People buy expensive homes with loans far beyond their ability to pay—or at least they did until the mortgage market collapsed as a result. Babies wear bibs embroidered with “Supermodel” or “Chick Magnet” and suck on “Bling” pacifiers while their parents read modernized nursery rhymes from This Little Piggy Went to Prada. People strive to create a “personal brand” (also called “self-branding”), packaging themselves like a product to be sold. Ads for financial services proclaim that retirement helps you return to childhood and pursue your dreams. High school students pummel classmates and then seek attention for their violence by posting YouTube videos of the beatings.
Although these seem like a random collection of current trends, all are rooted in a single underlying shift in the American psychology: the relentless rise of narcissism in our culture. Not only are there more narcissists than ever, but non-narcissistic people are seduced by the increas
ing emphasis on material wealth, physical appearance, celebrity worship, and attention seeking. Standards have shifted, sucking otherwise humble people into the vortex of granite countertops, tricked-out MySpace pages, and plastic surgery. A popular dance track repeats the words “money, success, fame, glamour” over and over, declaring that all other values have “either been discredited or destroyed.”
The United States is currently suffering from an epidemic of narcissism. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines an epidemic as an affliction “affecting…a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population,” and narcissism more than fits the bill. In data from 37,000 college students, narcissistic personality traits rose just as fast as obesity from the 1980s to the present, with the shift especially pronounced for women. The rise in narcissism is accelerating, with scores rising faster in the 2000s than in previous decades. By 2006, 1 out of 4 college students agreed with the majority of the items on a standard measure of narcissistic traits. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), the more severe, clinically diagnosed version of the trait, is also far more common than once thought. Nearly 1 out of 10 of Americans in their twenties, and 1 out of 16 of those of all ages, has experienced the symptoms of NPD. Even these shocking numbers are just the tip of the iceberg; lurking underneath is the narcissistic culture that has drawn in many more. The narcissism epidemic has spread to the culture as a whole, affecting both narcissistic and less self-centered people.
Like a disease, narcissism is caused by certain factors, spreads through particular channels, appears as various symptoms, and might be halted by preventive measures and cures. Narcissism is a psychocultural affliction rather than a physical disease, but the model fits remarkably well. We have structured the book according to this model, explaining the epidemic’s diagnosis, root causes, symptoms, and prognosis.
Like the obesity epidemic, the narcissism epidemic has not affected everyone in the same way. More people are obese, just as more people are narcissistic, but there are still those who exercise and eat right, and still those who are humble and caring. Even the less self-absorbed have witnessed narcissistic behavior on TV, online, or in real-life interactions with friends, family, or coworkers. The mortgage meltdown that led to the financial crisis of 2008 was caused, in part, by the narcissistic overconfidence of homebuyers who claimed they could afford houses too
expensive for them and greedy lenders who were willing to take big risks with other people’s money. In one way or another, the narcissism epidemic has touched every American.
In the last few years, narcissism has become a popular buzzword, used to explain the behavior of everyone from hooker-obsessed former New York governor Eliot Spitzer to famous-for-being-famous Paris Hilton. Others have diagnosed themselves: former presidential candidate John Edwards explained his extramarital affair by stating, “In the course of several campaigns, I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic.” As the New York Times noted, narcissism “has become the go-to diagnosis by columnists, bloggers, and television psychologists. We love to label the offensive behavior of others to separate them from us. ‘Narcissist’ is among our current favorites.”
Despite the popularity of narcissism as a label, it is difficult to find scientifically verified information on it outside academic journal articles. Many websites on narcissism are based on some combination of conjecture, personal experience, and poorly understood psychoanalytic theories. Christopher Lasch’s 1979 bestselling book, The Culture of Narcissism, though fascinating, was written before any serious research explored the personality and behavior of narcissists. Books such as Why Is It Always About You? and Freeing Yourself from the Narcissist in Your Life were written by established psychotherapists and use case studies of individuals with NPD. This approach is important, but largely ignores the scientific data on the topic.
We take a different approach in this book, describing the now-extensive scientific research on the truth about narcissists and why they behave the way they do. We believe that with a topic as complex as narcissism, the empirical research is the place to begin.
Narcissism is an attention-getting term, and we do not use it lightly. We discuss some research on NPD, but primarily concentrate on narcissistic personality traits among the normal population—behavior and attitudes that don’t go far enough to merit a clinical diagnosis but that can nevertheless be destructive to the individual and other people. This “normal” narcissism is potentially even more harmful because it is so much more common. Of course, much of what we discuss applies to individuals with NPD as well.
Narcissism is not simply a confident attitude or a healthy feeling of
self-worth. As we explore in chapters 2 and 3, narcissists are overconfident, not just confident, and—unlike most people high in self-esteem—place little value on emotionally close relationships. We will also address other myths, such as “narcissists are insecure” (they’re typically not), and “it’s necessary to be narcissistic to succeed today” (in most contexts, and long term, narcissism is actually a deterrent to success).
Understanding the narcissism epidemic is important because its long-term consequences are destructive to society. American culture’s focus on self-admiration has caused a flight from reality to the land of grandiose fantasy. We have phony rich people (with interest-only mortgages and piles of debt), phony beauty (with plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures), phony athletes (with performance-enhancing drugs), phony celebrities (via reality TV and YouTube), phony genius students (with grade inflation), a phony national economy (with $11 trillion of government debt), phony feelings of being special among children (with parenting and education focused on self-esteem), and phony friends (with the social networking explosion). All this fantasy might feel good, but, unfortunately, reality always wins. The mortgage meltdown and the resulting financial crisis are just one demonstration of how inflated desires eventually crash to earth.
The cultural focus on self-admiration began with the shift toward focusing on the individual in the 1970s, documented in Tom Wolfe’s article on “The Me Decade” in 1976 and Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. In the three decades since, narcissism has grown in ways these authors never could have imagined. The fight for the greater good of the 1960s became looking out for number one by the 1980s. Parenting became more indulgent, celebrity worship grew, and reality TV became a showcase of narcissistic people. The Internet brought useful technology but also the possibility of instant fame and a “Look at me!” mentality. Using botulinum toxin to smooth facial wrinkles to perpetuate a youthful face birthed a huge industry. The easy accessibility of credit allowed people to look better off financially than they actually were.
Jean’s first book, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before, explored the cultural shifts in self-focus that affected people born after 1970 and—because the trends continued to accelerate—especially those born in the 1980s and ’90s. In The Narcissism Epidemic, we widen
our focus to Americans of all ages, and to the entire culture. Younger people bear the brunt of the changes because this is the only world they have ever known, but retirement ads promising extravagant fantasies (own your own vineyard!) suggest that the epidemic has reached far up the age scale. And although we present data on the growing number of narcissistic individuals, we concentrate on the rise in cultural narcissism—changes in behavior and attitudes that reflect narcissistic cultural values, whether the individuals themselves are narcissistic or simply caught up in a societal trend.
When observing cultural change—especially changes in the negative direction—one runs the risk of mistaking one’s aging for a true shift in culture. Change is difficult to take when you’re older, and it’s easy to conclude that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. We have tried to avoid this bias by finding as much hard data and considering as many perspectives as we could. Many cultural changes were eminently quantifiable: the fivefold increase in plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures in just ten years, the growth of celebrity gossip magazines, Americans spending more than they earn and racking up huge amounts of debt, the growing size of houses, the increasing popularity of giving children unique names, polling data on the importance of being rich and famous, and the growing number of people who cheat. We also journeyed outside the research data by gathering stories and opinions through our online survey at www.narcissismepidemic.com (we have changed respondents’ names and, in some cases, identifying information). Since this is a book about culture, we explore media events, pop culture happenings, and Internet phenomena. We also talked to our students to get perspectives from the younger generation. We were somewhat shocked to find that many graduate students—most in their mid-twenties—think things have gotten worse in their lifetimes. Undergraduates are more accepting of the current culture but often report feeling tremendous pressure to self-promote and keep up in a materialistic world.
The kernel of the idea for this book was planted in 1999 in a basement office at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. We were both working as postdocs—a kind of research limbo between graduate school and hoped-for professorships—in the lab of Roy Baumeister, a well-known social psychologist. There’s not much to do in Cleveland, especially in the winter, so we ended up talking a lot in our shared office.
Sometimes we were actively procrastinating—Jean recalls one conversation about weight loss in which our fellow postdoc Julie Exline described a diet pill that supposedly contained a tapeworm. Before she could even finish the story, Keith began yelling “Urban legend!” and looked it up on the nascent Internet (he was right). Most of the time, though, we talked about ideas. Keith would describe his latest study on the behavior of narcissistic people, and Jean would talk about trends in American culture and how they were showing up in personality traits. Almost immediately we thought about looking at trends in narcissism, but in 1999 the standard measure of narcissism had only been around for 10 years, which wasn’t long enough to do a solid study of change over time.
That study would have to wait for the summer of 2006, when Jean was seven months pregnant and couldn’t do much but sit at her computer. By then, we had both married and settled into jobs across the country from each other (Keith at the University of Georgia, far from where he grew up in Southern California, and Jean at San Diego State University, far from where she grew up in Minnesota and Texas). Our coauthors on this project were renowned narcissism and aggression researcher Brad Bushman and two former students (now faculty), Joshua Foster and Sara Konrath. The rise in college students’ narcissism over the generations was clear, and when we released the study in February 2007, it was covered by the Associated Press and many other news outlets. It was an interesting first day back on the job for Jean after a four-month maternity leave. One TV crew setting up a standard “walking” shot asked Jean to carry her briefcase so she would “look more professional.” “Guys,” Jean said, “That’s not my briefcase. It’s my breast pump.”
When Jean got home that night, the full impact hit her: the story had been covered by the NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel, and National Public Radio, and both Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien made jokes about it. The AP story appeared in more than one hundred newspapers around the country, prompting a slew of editorials, newspaper columns, and e-mails. Much of the feedback was positive, but we also received intense questioning and harsh criticism, some of it based on misunderstandings about what narcissism is and how it is measured.
That was when we realized we’d hit a nerve. We also realized that the narcissism epidemic went far beyond the changing personalities of college students. The American culture was shifting in a fundamental way,
and we wanted to document it—and figure out how to stop it. Every time we turned on the TV, it seemed that another symptom of narcissism was rearing its ugly head—Botox ads, the mortgage meltdown, fake paparazzi. We found so many examples of narcissism in American culture that we had to stop collecting them. This book could have been twice as long.
The rise in cultural narcissism is a complex story, often with nuanced arguments. We urge you not to jump to conclusions too quickly, and to refrain from overgeneralizing. When we show that narcissism doesn’t usually lead to success, that doesn’t mean it never does. When we link materialism to narcissism, that doesn’t mean that wanting a big house necessarily makes you a narcissist (and the same goes for wanting plastic surgery). When we say parents shouldn’t tell kids they are special, that doesn’t mean we think they should say, instead, “You’re not special.” When we note that narcissism is linked to aggression, that doesn’t mean all crime will rise along with narcissism. Some religions now promote self-admiration, but that doesn’t mean those religions are bad. And although the culture is now more narcissistic, of course there are exceptions like people volunteering to help others or serving in the military. Although we certainly use sound bites sometimes, we also try to explain the complexities as much as we can. In some cases, we go into the necessary detail in the notes and appendices, available at www.narcissismepidemic.com.
We focus most of our discussion on narcissism in the United States, because we are both American citizens and most of the data are from the U.S. However, many global trends originate in the United States, and outbreaks of the narcissism epidemic have popped up in Europe, Asia, and Australia. These range from made-for-video school shootings in Finland to “Little Emperor Syndrome” in China. We discuss the global reach of the narcissism epidemic in Chapter 16.
We spend a good amount of the book on solutions—our prescriptions to salve (if not entirely cure) the narcissism epidemic. Some are personal, such as practicing gratitude, changing the way you parent, or avoiding narcissistic relationship partners. Others are more structural, such as teaching children friendship skills and rewarding the practice of saving money instead of spending. Most chapters end with some solutions, and we expand on these ideas in the final chapter.
Our hope is that this book becomes the starting point for a discussion about the current state of American culture. We have a personal interest as well: between us, we have three young daughters, and we are concerned about how the culture will affect them as they grow up. While they are young, it’s relatively easy to steer clear of the “Little Princess” onesie and the “Bling” pacifier, but then the culture creeps in the door—especially since exposure to adolescent values now begins at about four, with young girls (including Keith’s older daughter) watching tween shows like Hannah Montana and eight-year-olds having makeover parties for their birthdays. The narcissism epidemic seems to have hit girls especially hard. Who knows—by the time our daughters graduate from high school, one of the most common graduation presents might be a breast augmentation. (We’re not kidding; the number of teens getting breast augmentations jumped 55% in just one year from 2006 to 2007, and some parents do indeed pay for them as graduation gifts).
We want this book to be a wake-up call. In contrast to the obesity epidemic, which has been widely publicized, Americans have become inured to the incivility, exhibitionism, and celebrity obsession caused by the narcissism epidemic. It’s taken for granted that a baby bib saying “Supermodel” is “cute.” “Having changed ourselves, we no longer perceive our transformation,” wrote Roger Kimball in the New Criterion. We’ve gotten so turned around that some people now argue that narcissism is good (as we discuss in Chapter 3, narcissism has some short-term benefits to the self, but is not good for other people, society, or even the narcissist himself in the long run). Even when trends are recognized for their negative effects—such as the fistfights on YouTube or teens posting inappropriate pictures of themselves online—people rarely connect the dots to see that these trends are all related to the rise in narcissism.
Recognizing the narcissism epidemic is the first step to stopping it. The analogy to the obesity epidemic is useful here. Definite steps are being taken to combat obesity: soda machines are being removed from schools, exercise programs suggested, and nutrition education plans implemented. Not so with narcissism. In many cases, the suggested cure for narcissistic behavior is “feeling good about yourself.” After all, the thinking goes, fourteen-year-old Megan wouldn’t post revealing pictures of herself on MySpace if she had higher self-esteem. So parents redouble their efforts, telling Megan she’s special, beautiful, and great. This is like
suggesting that an obese person would feel much better if she just ate more doughnuts. Megan wants everyone to see just how beautiful and special she is, and it’s not because she thinks she is ugly—it’s because she thinks she’s hot and, perhaps more importantly, because she lives in a narcissistic society where she might garner praise, status, and “friends” by displaying blatant sexuality.
In fact, narcissism causes almost all of the things that Americans hoped high self-esteem would prevent, including aggression, materialism, lack of caring for others, and shallow values. In trying to build a society that celebrates high self-esteem, self-expression, and “loving yourself,” Americans have inadvertently created more narcissists—and a culture that brings out the narcissistic behavior in all of us. This book chronicles American culture’s journey from self-admiration, which seemed so good, to the corrosive narcissism that threatens to infect us all.