The Narcissism Epidemic

Narcissism is on the rise among individuals and in American culture.

Alec Baldwin: It's the Narcissism, Again

Is celebrity narcissism adaptive?

Not every narcissist who gets thrown off a plane makes the news, but actor Alec Baldwin did today. According to the airline, Baldwin refused to turn off his iPad after repeated requests and then -- with the seatbelt sign on -- went to the airplane bathroom to try to continue playing a game ("Words with Friends") on the device. The airline also says he swore at the flight attendants and slammed the bathroom door.

Is this necessarily narcissistic? (I do research the trait, so could be accused of seeing nails everywhere because I have a hammer). But here the answer is pretty clear: Yes. When playing a game is more important than following FAA rules, and more important than not abusing underpaid flight attendants, a good deal of self-centered thinking is clearly involved. It's the classic thought of a narcissist: The rules do not apply to me.

Baldwin's previous history also provides some clues. In 2007, Baldwin was caught on tape calling his then-11-year-old daughter a "thoughtless little pig." Sure, everybody loses it occasionally with their kids. But his language in the rest of the message was even more telling, especially this line: "You have insulted me for the last time." It sounds like a line from a Hollywood shoot-‘em-up movie, not like a conversation between a father and a daughter.

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It also sounds exactly like a narcissist. Research studies find that narcissists react to insults and (sometimes only perceived) slights with anger and aggression. If you insult them, you will pay. How dare anyone treat them as anything less than the royalty they are?

Another study found what we have all suspected for some time: Celebrities are more narcissistic than the rest of us. Does that mean one has to be narcissistic to be successful in entertainment? Narcissism does have some short-term benefits for public performance, so it may give an initial boost to entertainers. But in the long term, behavior like Baldwin's will only alienate people.

Charlie Sheen, whose obsession with "winning" is very typical of narcissists, is another vivid example of a celebrity who flamed out when his aggressive, narcissistic behavior blew up in his face.

These are also good examples to illustrate an ongoing debate in narcissism research: Is there a difference between adaptive and maladaptive narcissism? Many researchers say no - narcissism is a tradeoff, and you can't really separate the good from the bad. Narcissists are extraverted and like to perform, but when insulted they become aggressive. If you take out the "good parts" and call it adaptive narcissism, it's not really narcissism anymore - it might just be extraversion or self-esteem. The benefits and negatives are intertwined, because the narcissist who seems so confident in the short term will show his true colors eventually. At that point, all you can do is get out of the way as fast as possible.

Unfrotunately, that's not always what happens in our current culture. Apparently, the company that makes the game Baldwin was playing has already contacted him for a possible celebrity endoresement. In other words, act like a complete jerk and ruin the day of some airline employees, and you're rewarded with a lucrative advertising contract.

Just another reason why narcissism marches on, when instead we should be stopping it in its tracks.

Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, the author of Generation Me, and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic.

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