Judging from Google search, narcissism is the new black, to borrow a phrase from the fashionistas. Well, maybe it’s not so new—Ovid wrote about the original Narcissus in his Metamorphoses
over two thousand years ago and the story is doubtless much older than that —but its iterations certainly are. The word “narcissism” alone yields five million search results; add in “narcissistic mother/father” or “dating a narcissist” or a similar combination, and you’ve got a few million more. For the cognoscenti, there’s a vocabulary of acronyms to go with: NM (narcissistic mother), DONM (daughter of same); NH/NW (narcissist husband or wife), NGF/NBF (girl/boyfriend), and more.
Is there really a narcissist on every corner? Keep in mind that research indicates they comprise some one to six percent of the population.
This isn’t to minimize the need to make sense of a run-in with a narcissist or to deny the fact that an intimate connection with one isn’t a life-altering situation. (One of my most-read posts on this site was about the initial appeal of these people.) I appreciate the fact that when anyone caring and truthful is matched against someone without empathy, who simply doesn’t care about what happens to his or her supposedly close other, or is a self-aggrandizing liar, the caring person is sorely outmatched.
But, as a layperson—I am neither a psychologist nor a therapist—I now wonder about the “epidemic.” (Confession: I wrote about this a few years ago from a very different point of view.) First of all, it seems important to distinguish cultural narcissism from the individual kind, and to wonder whether they are one and the same. (Please note: I wrote “wonder,” and did not use the word “question.” I will use “wonder” throughout since this blog is about inquiry, not supplying definitive answers.) Christopher Lasch’s huge 1979 bestseller The Culture of Narcissism was the book that launched a thousand ships and a host of dire predictions. Lasch’s book was part of the zeitgeist of an era I’m old enough to remember which included an influential piece called “The Me Decade” written by Tom Wolfe in 1976 which was about Baby Boomers, and leveled some of the same observations that are now applied to their offspring, the Millennials, long before the digital age. Torn from our Puritan roots, we were going to hell on a Me Wheelbarrow.
It’s true enough that many of the hallmarks of the digital age—YouTube, selfies, Facebook, Instagram—all seem to point in the same cultural direction: “Look at ME!” Does this mean that narcissistic behavior is more the norm than not? Or that other characteristics associated with narcissism—a lack of empathy, an inflated sense of self, a propensity for game playing, among other things—will necessarily follow?
Numerous and well-documented studies show a steady rise in narcissistic traits among college students as indicated by the results of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) which has been administered since the 1980s. In a smart blog on this site, Peter Gray took on the “why” of this increase, providing a good summary of current thinking in the process. The possibilities he lists, with the fourth and final one being his explanation, are: 1) students are answering the questionnaire more honestly, admitting to more selfish behaviors than young people did years ago; 2) the “self-esteem” movement gave young people an inflated sense of themselves and their abilities; 3) the emphasis on achievement defined as “beating others in competition” and the need to build a resumé to impress; 4) a decline in cooperative free play, without adult direction which, Gray argues, “ is also the primary means by which children overcome narcissism and build up their capacity for empathy.”
Dr. Gray’s discussion got me thinking and I became curious about the NPI itself which I’d never looked at, much less taken. Handily, there is a link to it here: http://personality-testing.info/tests/NPI.php The questionnaire is composed of 40 doublets, and you are to choose which of the two you agree with most. A composite score tells you exactly how narcissistic you are. (A shorter version, consisting of sixteen pairs, has been developed by Daniel R. Ames, Paul Rose, and Cameron P. Anderson.)
While I’m a layperson when it comes to psychology, I am trained when it comes to language and I was a bit surprised by how reductionist some of the pairs were. For example:
a) Compliments embarrass me.
b) I like to be complimented.
Choosing b puts you in the narcissist camp but, gee, what ever happened to healthy self-esteem? Why should a well-earned compliment embarrass anyone? Then there are a series of questions which would doubtless confound any girl who’s ever watched a Dove commercial:
a) My body is nothing special.
b) I like to look at my body.
a) I don't particularly like to show off my body.
b) I like to show off my body.
a) I like to look at myself in the mirror.
b) I am not particularly interested in looking at myself in the mirror.
Okay, all you dudes and gals, fat or thin, in shape or not, with a modicum of self-acceptance or vanity: If you answered b, b, a, you’re displaying narcissism! At age 65, I am now officially an a, a, b girl but you can bet that even as recently as fifteen or twenty years ago, that was not the case. And certainly not at the age of 20. Color me “N” I guess.
The perspective of the inventory is a bit old-fashioned, harkening back to values that seem more Eisenhower-era than not. Take a look at the following questions:
a) I’m assertive.
b) I wish I were more assertive.
a) I prefer to blend in with the crowd.
b) I like to be the center of attention.
a) I really like to be the center of attention.
b) It makes me uncomfortable to be the center of attention.
a) I get upset when people don’t notice how I look when I go out in public.
b) I don’t mind blending into the crowd when I go out in public.
a) I don’t care about new fads and fashions.
b) I like to start new fads and fashions.
The “good” answers are, of course, b, a, b, b, a. To me at least, the “good” answers speak more to modesty and conformity than anything else, the way good girls were brought up in the early 1960s. Why is it bad to like being the center of attention or what’s good about shriveling up if people pay attention to you? Is it more noble or healthier to be “above” fads and fashion? In the age of the hashtag, the question seems quaint. Apparently, even a bit of self-caring here qualifies as vanity. If you’re going to answer this, you need to stay away from Karaoke nights and stop consulting your mirror. And you, Lady Gaga and Lena Dunham, stop loving your bodies now! And showing them, of course.
Reading the questionnaire makes it clear to me why kids are “more” narcissistic, and maybe I can see it precisely because I’m a layperson: The questions seem to harken back to the day when televisions were black-and-white and Lasssie was on Sunday night which happens to be when I grew up. Yes, Christopher Lasch country, where it all started..
While some of the narcissistic statements are so jerry-rigged that it’s hard to imagine any young person choosing them except as a goof—“I can make anybody believe anything I want them to,” “ I have a strong will to power,” [What does that mean, anyway?] “I find it easy to manipulate people”—there are others that seem grandiose only when a young person is answering them. What would be wrong for someone even more slightly seasoned than a college kid—say five or six years out into the working world— saying: “I would prefer to be a leader” or “I consider myself a good leader” or “I like to take responsibility for making decisions.” Are these really displays of narcissistic traits? I’m just wondering, by the way.
Where exactly does healthy self-esteem end and narcissism begin? After all, anyone who does anything creative—painting, writing, designing, inventing, for example—has to believe that he or she has something important and unique to produce and that no other person on the planet can do it in precisely the same way. That’s as true for the twenty-something entrepreneur in New York or Silicon Valley as it is for me and my artist and author peers.
So, back to the question of whether there’s a narcissist on every corner, or whether this is just a meme that has our attention. I discover, after exploring the NPI on my own, that researchers too have tried to puzzle the question out, though from a decidedly more technical point of view. Part of the problem is that the NPI is so widely used that, while criticizing it, psychologists have to come up with a viable alternative or try to salvage it. Ryan P. Brown and his colleagues in article called “On the Meaning and Measure of Narcissism” challenged the dependence of research on the NPI and its validity, especially when composite scores are relied on. In part, they argue for a more complex view of narcissism than the NPI suggests, noting the paradox of narcissism which reflects “ a high degree of agency (e.g., a sense of power, status, and independence)” and “a low degree of communion (e.g., a lack of interpersonal warmth and a rejection of affiliative qualities.)” They suggest instead that the working model of narcissism should encompass both “an intrapersonal sense of grandiosity and an interpersonal sense of entitlement.” In their general discussion, they opine that perhaps a sense of entitlement—not a rise in grandiosity—is part of the cultural change in America.
In a similar vein but with a different tack, Robert A. Ackerman and his colleagues in an article titled “What Does the Narcissist Personality Inventory Really Measure,” try to take on the way the NPI seems to conflate healthy or normal narcissism with the malignant kind. What’s healthy narcissism? It fosters a positive self-image, leadership qualities, and strivings for success; yes, that’s the kind of narcissism writers and other creative types appear to display. As the authors write, “These attributes are not conventionally understood to reflect problematic aspects of personality.” On the other hand, Entitlement and Exploitativeness are part of the pathology of narcissism which are maladaptive self-regulatory processes. To that end, they suggest scoring the NPI in such a way that distinguishes normal narcissism (Leadership/Authority) from its socially toxic cousin (Exhibitionism and Entitlement/Exploitativeness). From an outsider’s point of view, it’s an effort to keep a widely-used baby from being thrown out with the bathwater.
So, is there a narcissist on every corner? Is there a cultural epidemic? I think the jury is still very much out.
The model, by the way, scored low on the NPI unlike the author.
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Peter Gray, “Why is Narcissism Increasing among Young Americans?”http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201401/why-is-narcissism-increasing-among-young-americans
Raskin, Robert and Howard Terry, “A Principal-Components Analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory and Further Evidence of Its Construct Validity,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology(1988), vol.54, no.5, 890-902.
Ames, Daniel R., Paul Rose, and Cameron P. Anderson, “The NPI-16 as a Short Measure of Narcissism,” Journal of Research in Personality (2006), 40, 440-450.
Brown, Ryan P., Karolyn Budzek, and Michael Tamborski, “On the Meaning and Measure of Narcissism,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (July, 2009), vol. 35, no.7., 951-964.
Ackerman, Robert A., Edward A. Witt, M. Brent Donnellan, et. al.,”What Does the Narcissistic Personality Inventory Really Measure, Assessment (2011), 18(1) 67-87.