Why Narcissism, Greed and Power Go Hand in Hand

The new gilded age and our culture of narcissism have much in common.

Posted Oct 05, 2015

By now, most people have become familiar with the two main features that define narcissism: an inflated sense of self-importance, and little or no ability to empathize with other people. Beginning with Christopher Lasch in 1979, experts have been telling us that we live in a Culture of Narcissism.

Thomas Piketty, Robert Reich, and other economists also tell us that we have entered a New Gilded Age defined by income inequality. Most of the new wealth that has been created in the last few decades has gone to “the 1%” — plutocrats often criticized as greedy, with a selfish indifference to the plight of others.

Narcissism and greed. Might there be a connection?

In fact, greed and narcissism go hand in hand — especially in those individuals I refer to as “Extreme Narcissists” in my new  book. They lack empathy and have a grandiose sense of self, but may fall short of the diagnostic threshold for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. These people view the world almost exclusively in terms of “winners” and “losers” and are constantly driven to prove they are among the winners of this world, often at the expense of the losers they despise. (Think about it for a moment and a prominent businessman-turned-politician may come to mind.)

Like the comic who relies on a "straight man" to make himself funny, the Extreme Narcissist needs a loser over whom he can triumph. So he is always competing. He constantly seeks to prove that he knows more than you, has traveled more extensively and is more au courant about the newest restaurants and hottest clubs. He might enter a crowded room with an attitude suggesting his good looks and muscular body make him superior to everyone else.

At work, she’s the one perpetually comparing herself to co-workers and competing with them, often ruthlessly, for promotions and prime assignments. She wants to appear highly successful, with a prestigious job and an impressive salary. Certainly more than the minor ducats you earn.

Extreme Narcissists envy and resent people who are wealthier or more powerful than they are, which means that they will do anything to surpass these people and make them feel like losers in comparison.

This brings us to greed.

Amassing great wealth is another way that the Extreme Narcissist strives to prove himself a winner. But because there will always be someone more successful and wealthier, the Extreme Narcissist is never satisfied. He needs to continue amassing an ever-larger fortune and flaunting it to everyone around him — all those contemptible losers.

Soaring executive pay has received a lot of press lately, most of it negative. Scholarly research on the high incidence of narcissists in the corner office has also been in the news. Extravagantly compensated CEOs like Larry Ellison and Elon Musk are regularly denounced as both greedy and narcissistic. Hyper-competitive, too. Larry Ellison’s drive to build a fortune larger than Bill Gates’ is legendary.

Here’s where power comes in.

Because the Extreme Narcissist proves himself a winner by having more power and money than his competitors, the battle for supremacy is fierce at the highest business echelons. The competitive urge to prove oneself the biggest winner of them all may be driving up executive compensation. As one executive’s salary rises, so do all the others. And then there’s the mansions they must build, the exotic cars they must drive, the private planes and beach houses they must acquire, and on and on and on.

Developing true empathy for other people is part of the “cure” for Extreme Narcissism. Any remedy for the evils of this New Gilded Age would likewise seem to involve less focus on self-aggrandizement and a greater concern for the less fortunate. Just as greed and narcissism go hand in hand, so do empathy and a sense of social responsibility.

About the Author

Joseph Burgo, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst, and the author of the blog "After Psychotherapy."

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