Money Can't Buy You (Self) Love

The economic downturn may have slowed the trend toward narcissism--for now.

Posted Sep 24, 2014

For those who worry that America is rapidly devolving into a culture of narcissistic malcontents, recent research from Emery University offers both good and bad news.

First, the good. In a June 2014 paper, psychologist Emily Bianchi reports that individuals coming of age during economic hard times are less likely to view themselves as special or entitled as they age, and also score lower on standardized tests for narcissism, than are those raised in more prosperous times. Why? Some research suggests that less-well off youngsters simply feel less entitled or special. As such, writes Bianchi, “the Great Recession may produce a cohort of less self-focused young adults.”

And the bad news? What goes down may go back up. If the economy continues to recover, there is no reason to imagine we won’t see a return of the earlier trend toward narcissism and self-absorption. In fact, one could easily argue that, given changes in the marketplace, the trend could get worse.

Some background. Researchers have long been aware of a link between prosperity and a more individualistic and self-focused personality. In the 1970s, University of Michigan socialist Ronald Inglehart showed that as economic conditions improved in the United States and Europe after World War Two, citizens were more and more likely to focus on individual pursuits and “self-expression.” The shift was striking. People born before the Second World War, who had grown up insecure, tended to give higher priority to economic stability, political order, and other traditional “materialist” values, even if it meant sacrificing some individual liberties. But those born after the war had quite different concerns. Raised in a time of economic growth, these baby boomers had been relatively free to focus on less urgent “post-materialist” objectives: entertainment and leisure, but also education, cultural enrichment, travel, political activism, and other more elevated individual pursuits.

To be sure, this shift to post-materialism led to many positive social and political changes, including greater support for liberal social institutions, such as democracy, freedom of speech, gender equality, workers’ rights, and environmental regulations. But also brought something else. As societies become more postmaterialist, Inglehart found, citizens tend to become steadily more individualistic in outlook, and to be less inclined, for instance, to support traditional, collective values and institutions. Inglehart and his colleagues insisted that any such surge in individualism wouldn’t lead to “asocial egoism.” But one could argue that this hopeful outlook hasn’t always been borne out. The famous self-absorption of the 1970s was, by many accounts, a reflection of the fact that Baby Boomers had enough discretionary income to pursue, “the polishing one’s very self,” as Tom Wolfe put it in his famous essay, “The Me Decade.”

By the 1980s and 1990s, these journalistic appraisals were being confirmed by clinical data suggesting an increase in narcissism. Psychologists and counselors were reporting a growing numbers of people—patients, but more important, members of the general population—with symptoms of clinical narcissism. The inflated self-importance, the tendency toward aggressive self-promotion, the need for constant affirmation, the deep sense of entitlement that easily turns to anger—it was all becoming more common.

Granted, the percentage of people with full-blown narcissistic personality disorder was fairly small. But according to social psychologists Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, the number of people exhibiting one or more of the identifying traits was growing much more rapidly than with other disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. By the early 2000s, write Twenge and Campbell, authors of The Narcissism Epidemic, symptoms of narcissism in the general population are growing as rapidly as other public health problems, such as obesity. And why is narcissism on the rise? Standard explanations have focused on cultural and family factors, notably the heavy emphasis, beginning in the 1960s, on building self-esteem in children. But Twenge and Campbell have argued that there is likely an economic element at play here.

One component of the narcissistic personality is the refusal to accept limits. For whatever reason, the narcissist comes of age without having learned to temper his or her own desires, and so goes through life expecting to be fulfilled and gratified by others—and upset when it doesn’t work out. For most of human history, such an expectation of limitless gratification could happen only to the wealthy. For the rest of us, life imposed a more realistic self-conception—Freud’s reality principle in action. But as Twenge and Campbell argue, over the last century, and in the last four decades in particular, soaring levels of personal financial power may have allowed a narcissistic avoidance of reality to take root among a much broader population.

Of particular interest to Twenge and Campbell is the rise of easy credit, which enabled the narcissistic personality to simultaneously avoid the reality of financial limits while using overconsumption to affirm his or her massively inflated sense of self-worth. By the 1980s and 1990s, Twenge and Campbell suggest, the financial revolution and narcissism were feeding off each other. They write: “The availability of easy credit—in other words, the willingness and ability of some people to go into tremendous debt—has allowed people to present an inflated picture of their own success to them- selves and to the world.”

What’s more, some researchers have argued that a growing sense of entitlement and self-centeredness may have contributed to the recklessness of many corporate executives, especially during the run-up to the financial crisis. As Campbell, now head of the psychology department at the University of Georgia, argues, narcissistic business executives fit in all too well to a corporate world that, from the 1980s on, prized fast results and wasn’t overly concerned with long-term consequences. “With a lot of these CEOs, you end up with these high-risk, sometimes high-reward outcomes,” Campbell told me. Unfortunately, these kinds of high-risk personalities are also associated with “poor ethics—they kind of go together.”

What’s more, although the financial meltdown and the end of easy credit appears to have slowed economic-related narcissism, it seems likely to return. In fact, even though economic recovery has been lopsided, with fewer of us enjoying the sort of prosperity we experienced in the 1990s and early 2000s, there are new economic developments that may be just as conducive to self-absorption.

Thanks to the accelerating digital revolution, we’re increasingly surrounded by products and services that provide the narcissistic personality an even cheaper and more efficient way to present an inflated self-image to the world (and to itself). Take the “self-tracking” movement. Ever-cheaper sensors and smarter software mean we can monitor, analyze and posting everything about ourselves, from how many calories we burn to how many steps we take to our mood fluctuations and our home office productivity. In short, we now have an “objective” reflection of ourselves that is, almost by definition, encouraging the tendency toward self-focus.

Or consider the burgeoning practice of photographing and displaying every piece of our lives—reality that can only fuel the narcissistic love of celebrity. “We film everything,” Campbell told me. “People will film themselves at the concert and that becomes the experience itself. Rather than ‘being there,’ it’s ‘showing people that you were there.’ It’s like, ‘God, I’ve got to get a picture of this so I can post it and get all this feedback.’ ”

Where will this pattern of economic development and narcissism take us? The pessimistic view is that any resurgence in prosperity will only rekindle our self-absorption and narcissism and recreate the conditions for yet another financial calamity.

But there may be a silver lining. As Bianchi’s work suggests, any subsequent downturn could well produce individuals who are less narcissistic and entitled—and, perhaps, a little more inclined to work toward goals that benefit not just themselves, but society generally. For example, surveys find that Millennials, who came of age during the worst recession since the Great Depression, are often more socially engaged than their predecessors, and are more likely volunteer and to incorporate their political values in all aspects of their lives. As the Millennial generation matures and takes on decision-making authority, they might restore some economic stability--and, at least temporarily, rein in a culture all too focused on “me” and “now.”

Paul Roberts is an author and journalist. His latest book, "The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification," explores the complex connections between the marketplace and the self. You can see more of his work here and follow him @pauledroberts


Emily C. Bianchi, “Entering Adulthood in a Recession Tempers Later Narcissism”

Goizueta Business School, Emory University

Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 149.

Tom Wolfe, “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening” New York Magazine, August 23, 1976

Twenge, Jean, and W. Keith Campbell. The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. New York: Free Press, 2009.

About the Author

Paul Roberts is a journalist and author of the books The End of Oil and The End of Food. His most recent is The Impulse Society.