The Narcissism Epidemic and What We Can Do About It
Looking in the mirror at our love of narcissists, part 3.
Posted July 8, 2016 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
“Mirrors would do well to reflect a little more before sending back images.”
If you take a look around, it’s hard not to conclude that narcissism in America is on the rise and out of control. We spend hours a day on social media posting about ourselves and checking out the posts of our “friends.” We worship celebrities, some of whom have done little other than engage in relentless self-promotion. We have presidential candidates boasting about the size of their genitalia and supportive crowds chanting, “USA! USA! USA!”
And selfies. Let’s not forget selfies.
The self-esteem of our children apparently hinges on them, with teenage girls incessantly monitoring how they’re received by peers they barely know. In the past few years, the annoying ubiquity of the “selfie-stick” has necessitated bans at the Smithsonian, Disneyland, and Lollapalooza. There’s even a Wikipedia page that tallies a growing list of “selfie-related injuries and death,” suggesting just how powerful the need to take a picture of oneself can be these days.
In this final installment of “Looking in the Mirror at Our Love of Narcissists,” we’ll examine whether we’re really living amidst an epidemic of narcissism and if so, what we might be able to do about it.
To begin with, let’s consider whether the apparent excess of narcissism is really a new phenomenon. It has been argued that American individualism and exceptionalism aren’t new at all, but have been defining features of our country since its very inception. In the modern era, historian Christopher Lasch was one of the first to claim that narcissism had spun out of control in his bestseller, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. But that book, which labeled baby boomers as the new “Me Generation,” was published in 1979. Today’s narcissism therefore hardly seems novel. So much for blaming cellphone photography, reality TV, the internet, social media, and Millennials.
If it’s not exactly new, is narcissism really increasing, and does a “narcissism epidemic” really exist at all?
San Diego State psychologist (and Psychology Today blogger) Jean Twenge tells us that yes indeed, there’s ample evidence to show that we’re living in a culture of escalating narcissism. Dr. Twenge has outlined this claim in two books, first in 2006 with Generation Me and again in 2010 with The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (with co-author W. Keith Campbell).
Dr. Twenge’s claim is largely drawn from tracking scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) across multiple generations of college students (see Part 1 of "Looking in the Mirror at Our Love of Narcissists" for more details about this scale and its suitability as a measure of narcissism). As anyone who has taken Psychology 101 knows, college students, obliged as they are to fill out all manner of questionnaires for their professors, have long served as the guinea pigs of human psychology research. Accordingly, the NPI has been completed by thousands of college students through the years, allowing Dr. Twenge and her colleagues to perform a meta-analysis of 85 different samples comprising a total of 16,475 NPI scores collected between 1982 and 2006.1 Based on this database, they found that average NPI scores steadily increased over that 24 year period, albeit modestly by only about 2 NPI points (the scale is scored from 0 to 40).
Just as Dr. Twenge’s study was published however, another research group led by University of Western Ontario psychologist Kali Trzesniewski published their own similar study that found no increase in NPI scores over the period from 1996 to 2007.2 Although their dataset was drawn from a more narrow sample of college students at UC Berkeley and UC Davis, their overall sample size was larger with 25,849 students. The authors concluded that any claims about a rise in narcissism were therefore unfounded, if not downright unfair.
If Dr. Twenge, whose claims about a narcissism epidemic have garnered her a fair amount of popular fame from innumerable media interviews associated with her books, has a kind of arch-nemesis in psychology, it would seem to be Dr. Trzesniewski. Along with their respective colleagues, the two have exchanged competing views based on one or another re-examination of the data throughout the past decade.3,4,5
Who’s right? As always, the devil is in the details, or in the case of scientific research, the study methodology. Suffice it to say that since each research group has used different datasets, their results and conclusions have differed accordingly, raising more questions than answers. For example, Dr. Trzesniewski’s analysis used NPI scores collected from different UC campuses at different time points and may have also been affected by increases in Asian minorities (who may tend to score lower on the NPI) in those schools over time.3,4 Looking at change within single campuses and within student ethnicities, there does indeed seem to be an increase in narcissism. But the rise in narcissism detected by Dr. Twenge stemmed in part from an increase in NPI scores among college women over time,1 which might reflect increases in self-esteem and agency as opposed to more problematic aspects of narcissism (again, see Part 1 of “Looking in the Mirror at our Love of Narcissists" to understand the limitations of the NPI and multifaceted meaning of the psychological construct that we call “narcissism”). So, if there is an increase in narcissism, maybe it’s not such a bad thing.
In 2010, Dr. Trzesniewski and colleagues attempted to avoid limitations associated with the NPI and the sampling of college students by analyzing data from the Monitoring the Future Project, which has assessed various psychological attributes among nationally representative samples of high school seniors from the 1970s to the present.6 The authors found little evidence for change in attributes related to narcissism, such as self-esteem, egotism, or individualism. For that matter, they found little evidence for change in happiness, life satisfaction, hopelessness, loneliness, time spent watching TV, and the importance of social status either. Apparently, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Narcissism Essential Reads
A number of other researchers have sided with Dr. Trzesniewski as naysayers concerning the existence of a narcissism epidemic. Brent Roberts and his colleagues merged the college student datasets of Dr. Twenge and Trzesniewski’s respective studies while adding more data from their own research of University of Illinois students and concluded that there’s been no increase in NPI scores among college students from 1982 to 2009.7 These researchers also performed a smaller analysis that confirmed previous findings that average NPI scores decline substantially with age (losing an average of 4 NPI points from college students to parents and another 4 points from parents to grandparents). This decline is much larger than the small increase in NPI scores among college students over time reported by Dr. Twenge (-8 points over a lifetime vs. +2 points between two generations), leading the authors to conclude that “Generation Me is a developmental, not a generational, phenomenon as every generation of younger people are more narcissistic than their elders” and that “every generation is Generation Me.”
Clark University psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who proposed the term “emerging adulthood” to describe the tendency of today’s 20-somethings to delay conventional adult roles of marriage, parenthood, and long-term careers, agrees.8 He theorizes that emerging adulthood is often misinterpreted by grumbling older generations as being selfish or narcissistic, whereas it may instead reflect a deeper search of identity and meaningful work along with greater optimism for the future than previous generations were able to enjoy.9
And yet, Dr. Twenge has stuck to her guns through all the debate,10 even taking Millennials to task for their narcissism and lack of civic-mindedness with a 2012 article in The Atlantic. Following a rebuttal later that year that featured Dr. Arnett defending Millennials’ generosity and a 2013 New York Times piece that presented both sides of the seemingly unending debate, Dr. Twenge penned a Psychology Today blog post including “all the evidence that’s fit to print” with a long list of references in defense of her thesis. In 2014, she published a revised and updated version of Generation Me.
In the absence of a definitive answer as to whether narcissism has increased to epidemic proportions, my own take is that from where we sit, older generations do find it irresistible to deride adolescents and young adults as narcissistic and excessively self-focused. Current economic conditions more than anything have facilitated the ability of Millennials to delay traditional adult responsibilities and older generations would likely have jumped at the chance were they able to do so when they were young (it’s not for nothing that John Updike’s novel Rabbit, Run was a national sensation in 1960). And although I myself am inclined to blame the internet, cellphone photography, reality TV, and social media for today’s apparent cultural obsession with mirror-gazing, Dr. Trzesniewski may be right in suggesting that while these technological advances may make our narcissism more overtly visible, that heightened visibility doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re actually more narcissistic than we used to be as a society.6 Finally, whatever findings we have based on NPI scores from college students enrolled in psychology courses offer only a narrow peek at the problematic narcissism in society as a whole. It seems likely that the inter-generational increase in narcissism detected by Dr. Twenge might simply reflect a prolongation of the usual youthful elevation of NPI scores due to delayed adolescence/emerging adulthood. In any case, even if we take Dr. Twenge’s data at face value, a 2-point increase in NPI scores over the past few decades of college students might indeed be “much ado about nothing”3 and hardly qualifies for an epidemic.
Regardless of where one stands on the debate over whether narcissism is on the rise, most would likely agree that narcissism can be problematic in excess. It’s therefore worth thinking about what we can do to curb problem narcissism while promoting healthy self-esteem.
For all the Psychology Today articles telling readers how to identify “narcissists” so that they can turn and run the other way, we seem to spend disproportionately less time looking in the mirror and taking responsibility for the possibility that we’re rearing narcissists as children and reinforcing narcissism in adults (in case you missed it, see Part 2 of "Looking in the Mirror at Our Love of Narcissists" for an explanation of why narcissism is so attractive when searching for mates and leaders). In Generation Me, Dr. Twenge places a good deal of blame for narcissism on the modern-day “self-esteem movement,” with its unconditional support of children even in the absence of achievement.
The role of parental overvaluation in fostering narcissism has been yet another subject of psychological debate through the years. Briefly stated, the traditional psychoanalytic view developed by Heinz Kohut on the one hand holds that narcissism arises due to inadequate “mirroring,” a term used to describe the way parents validate a child’s innate sense of “vigor, greatness, and perfection.”11 According to this theory, a deficit in mirroring as a child results in a developmental arrest in which mirroring is craved as an adult in the hopes of providing what was never given, whereas children who receive adequate mirroring eventually develop a less grandiose and more reality-based sense of self as they mature. On the other hand, social learning theory, developed by Albert Bandura, theorizes just the opposite – that excessive mirroring as a child fosters narcissism that never dissipates as an adult.
Researchers in the Netherlands, led by psychologist Eddie Brummelman, recently published an experiment that sought to resolve these competing theories.12 The study monitored 565 children ages 7-12 and their parents over a 2-year period, tracking four variables – child self-esteem, child narcissism, parental warmth, and parental overvaluation – each measured using a validated scale. Over time, parental overvaluation predicted child narcissism, but not child self-esteem whereas parental warmth predicted child self-esteem and lack of warmth did not predict child narcissism. These results, therefore, support the social learning theory explanation of narcissism and suggest that the self-esteem movement based on overvaluation may very well contribute to narcissism as Dr. Twenge claims.
While a full analysis of the self-esteem movement is beyond the scope of this blogpost, this finding suggests that if a narcissism epidemic exists, it exists because we’re all guilty of excessive mirroring, not only of our children but of the mates that we select for romance and of our myriad “friends” on social media. If we want to temper our collective cultural narcissism, we need to stop uncritical mirroring in favor of more honest feedback and praise based on actual achievements. That holds for our children, our peers, our leaders, and our country too.
Narcissism decreases with age because we are humbled by both success and failure over time and our focus gradually shifts from ourselves to our children and grandchildren. For those with excessive narcissism, the inability to achieve perfection and to orient towards others can be experienced as crushing defeat as life goes on. Trying to instill more of a collective sense of humility and altruism as opposed to self-promotion might go a long way towards achieving better mental health for would-be narcissists as well as America as a whole.
1. Twenge JM, Konrath S, Foster JD, et al. Egos inflating over time: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Journal of Personality 2008; 76:875-901.
2. Trzesniewski KH, Donnellan MB, Robins RW. Do today’s young people really think they are so extraordinary? An examination of secular trends in narcissism and self-enhancement. Psychological Science 2008; 19:181-188.
3. Donnellan MD, Trzesniewski KH, Robins RW. An emerging epidemic of narcissism or much ado about nothing? Journal of Research in Personality 2009; 43:498-501.
4. Twenge JM, Konrath S, Foster JD, et al. Further evidence of an increase in narcissism among college students. Journal of Personality 2008; 76:919-928.
5. Twenge JM, Foster JD. Birth cohort increases in narcissistic personality traits among American college students, 1982-2009. Social Psychological and Personality Science 2010; 1:99-106.
6. Trzesniewski KH, Donnellan MD. Rethinking “Generation Me”: A study of cohort effects from 1976-2006. Perspectives on Psychological Science 2010; 5:58-75.
7. Roberts BW, Edmonds G, Grijalva E. It is developmental me, not Generation Me: Developmental changes are more important than generational changes in narcissism–Commentary on Trzesniewski and Donnellan (2010). Perspectives on Psychological Science 2010; 5:97-102.
8. Arnett JJ. Oh, grow up! Generational grumbling and the new life stage of emerging adulthood–Commentary on Trzesniewski and Donnellan (2010). Perspectives on Psychological Science 2010; 5:89-92.
9. Arnett, JJ. Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist 2000, 55:469-48
10. Twenge JM, Campbell WK. Birth cohort differences in the Monitoring the Future dataset and elsewhere: Further evidence for Generation Me–Commentary on Trzesniewski and Donnellan (2010). Perspectives on Psychological Science 2010; 5:81-88.
11. Kohut, H. The disorders of the self and their treatment: An outline. In H. Kohut, The Search for the Self: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut: 1978-1981. Madison: International Universities Press, Inc., 1978.
12. Brummelman E, Thomaes S, Nelemans SA, et al. Origins of narcissism in children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2015: 112:3659-3662