Why Are There So Many Narcissists?

Is it culture, child rearing, or are we just more aware of narcissism?

Posted Jun 15, 2017

We encounter them every day.  They may be our boss, a potential dating partner, or a coworker.  I’m talking about people who are overly self-focused and full-of-themselves – the narcissists.  Is narcissism on the rise?

In one article published in the APS Observer, psychologists W. Keith Campbell and Jean M. Twenge explore the apparent rise in narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).  They point to culture as part of the cause. 

Research on NPD suggests that Americans in their 20s are three times as likely to have experienced NPD than people over age 60.  Comparing similar-aged people across decades also shows a dramatic increase in narcissism.  As evidence, the researchers discuss some of the impact that increased narcissism has.  Young people are more likely to focus on achieving success, making money, and personal fame.  They are more likely to have cosmetic surgery, report higher levels of self-esteem, and measure lower on empathy.

How can culture contribute to a rise in narcissism?  Well, certainly media is to blame, with its focus on personal image. And, the rise of social media may also play a part.  In many ways, social media is “all about me.”

Other cultural elements that these researchers point to are the fact that parents are more likely to encourage their children to be unique.  Overly doting parents might also be a factor.  I am surprised that I’ve seen a huge increase in “helicopter parents” at all levels of education – even in college.

At the leadership level, there is evidence that narcissists are over-represented in high-level leadership positions.  If many of our admired leaders are narcissistic, this may also encourage narcissism as we notice that these self-focused people seem to be “getting ahead.”

Of course, another possibility is that we are simply more attuned to narcissistic behavior in others, and we are quick to label.  This creates a sense that there is a “narcissism epidemic.”

Regardless of whether or not there is a narcissism epidemic, it is clear that the antidote to narcissism is empathy.  Focusing on other people, gaining an understanding of their situation, and sympathizing with others’ emotions and concerns helps to combat narcissism.  While narcissism may be on the rise, there seems to be another cultural element that may be an antidote, and that is the growing awareness in young adults of social problems and injustice.  A healthy outlet for self-focused attention is to reach out and help others.  Empathy and caring for others is the key.

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W.K. Campbell & J. M Twenge.  Narcissism unleashed.  Association for Psychological Science Observer, Vol. 26(10), pp.28-29.