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Is Narcissism All Bad?

Narcissists may be better adjusted for social media.

Our social lives are being transformed by electronic networks. We no longer operate as autonomous individuals so much as elements in social networks. That social hothouse may encourage narcissism as a defensive strategy.

Social psychologists documented a steep rise in narcissism over the past several decades (as measured by questionnaires). We do not really know why but psychologists point to education with its constant focus on grades, scores, and other forms of public evaluation as plausible causes. Smaller families and the constant attention focused on children by indulgent parents may foster narcissism. Exposure to social media also makes people more conscious of their social profile than was true in the more private real-life social networks of the past.

The Social Network and Narcissism

Electronic social networks generally foster trust and sharing of personal information.1 Participants are nevertheless under pressure to meet social expectations. In particular, their activities, accomplishments, and photos, are visible to others, and are constantly updated for social effect. This dynamic may boost narcissism.

Young people are more worried about how they are seen by others than was true in earlier generations. This may be an adjustment to living constantly in the social limelight.

Narcissism and self-monitoring may be exaggerated by frequent posting of personal information that exposes the individual to constant evaluation and comparison with others, not to mention feedback such as comments and “likes.”

Social media friendships differ from those in real life for two key reasons. First, real friends are emotionally supportive of each other. They enjoy what psychologists call “unconditional positive regard” meaning that whatever they say or do, they know that a genuine friend will always be there to support them. Second, in genuinely intimate relationships, the individuals can reveal their true feelings without fear of being judged.

In other words, a conversation with a close friend is not a test in the same way that posting personal information on Facebook can be. Our confidences are accepted for what they are and we do not expect a true friend to evaluate their allegiance to us based on what we might say to them in any particular conversation. Real friendships are simply not evaluative in the same way as social communication with a larger group usually is.

Narcissism is usually perceived in a negative light and considered a symptom of having a fragile ego, or personality disorder (now removed from DSM). Yet, it may be healthy if it serves a defensive function. A narcissist is forever putting their best foot forward so that they can shine amongst their peers. In that sense, the narcissism of the Internet generation may be a healthy adjustment to their high-profile lifestyle.

Narcissism has other advantages: it renders people vulnerable to social influences in potentially positive ways. Perhaps for that reason, younger people are more politically engaged than earlier generations.

In particular, they are environmentally conscious, espousing green living, green commerce, recycling, green architecture, and green transportation. Such views are part of the received wisdom of many social media sites about what should be done to deal with threats from climate change. In a strongly networked world, it is difficult go against such consensual views.

So we have a younger generation whose political consciousness is as high as it ever was. If that is partly the product of narcissism in a networked world, we should be happy that there is so much narcissism around. As poet Alexander Pope pointed out. self love and social love can be equivalent (“self love and social are the same”).

1. Rifkin, J. (2014). The zero marginal cost society. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.