Does Watching TV Encourage Narcissism?

Research links TV with narcissism, but causality remains unclear

Posted May 31, 2016

Recent research suggests that in the last few decades, college students have become increasingly narcissistic. There is also evidence that during this period, there have been increases in a number of personality traits associated with narcissism, including extraversion, and self-esteem. The reasons for these changes across generations remain unknown, yet there has been considerable speculation that developments in media and communication technology have played some sort of role in facilitating increases in narcissism. For example, some have suggested that certain kinds of TV programs, particularly reality TV shows, encourage narcissism. There have been studies that have shown an association between narcissism and preferences for viewing such shows. However, whether watching these shows is a cause or a symptom of narcissism is far from clear.

Wikimedia Commons, public domain photo
A narcissist is their own no. 1 fan. 
Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain photo

Narcissism essentially means having an inflated, grandiose view of oneself, e.g. having an exaggerated sense of one’s own power, importance, and attractiveness. I have discussed narcissism in some detail in a previous post, but to recap briefly, narcissists often have many superficially attractive qualities, such as social skills, self-confidence, and charm, yet also tend to be highly competitive and respond aggressively to perceived insults, and derogate those they see as rivals (Back et al., 2013). According to a review of studies on narcissism dating from the early 1970s to 2006, levels of narcissism in American college students have increased by a moderate amount in this period (Twenge, Konrath, Foster, Keith Campbell, & Bushman, 2008).[1] The authors of this paper note that other studies have found that there have also been generational increases in a number of personality traits associated to some extent with narcissism, specifically extraversion, assertiveness, agentic traits (independent, individualistic, leadership ability), and self-esteem.[2] For example, studies in the 1950s found that only 12% of teenagers agreed with the statement “I am an important person”; however, in the 1980s, more than 80% of teenagers agreed with this statement. It is not known if these changes are directly related to increases in narcissism, but they are quite intriguing. The reasons for these changes are not clear, although they may be related to broader social and cultural developments related to increases in individualism.

Some scholars have speculated that developments in the media and technology have played a significant role in encouraging increased narcissism, although evidence for this is lacking. For example, there have been claims that social media use cultivates narcissism. However, the rise in narcissism predates the invention of social media by decades. Another theory suggests that particular media genres, such as reality TV in particular, encourage narcissism. According to cultivation theory, TV programs and other media influence and even distort the way people see the world. A recent study (Lull & Dickinson, 2016) suggested that cultivation theory can be applied to personality development, and argued that certain TV genres, such as reality TV, encourage people to become more narcissistic. According to this view, viewers might think of the people they see on TV as models for their own personality, and through a social learning process come to adopt the attributes of these models. Reality TV stars are known to be highly narcissistic and there is also evidence that narcissists enjoy reality TV, particularly programs that feature narcissistic stars. Furthermore, modern sporting culture, particularly in America, may encourage displays of narcissism. Hence, the authors suggested that viewing sports may also cultivate narcissism. To test their ideas, the authors conducted an online survey of college students, asking them about how much TV they watch and their preferences for 15 different TV genres; participants also completed a measure of narcissism. They found that viewer preferences for political talk shows, reality TV, sports programs, and suspense/thriller/horror were positively associated with narcissism, while preference for viewing news was negatively associated with narcissism. They also found that narcissism was more strongly related to the specific content of what was viewed rather than the sheer amount of viewing time. The overall association between narcissism and viewing preferences was fairly small though as genre preferences accounted for about 6% of the variance in narcissism. Interestingly they also compared the average level of narcissism in their sample to the average level observed in 2006 and found that their sample had a higher average score, suggesting that narcissism has continued to grow over time.

The authors of this paper interpret their results as evidence in support of cultivation theory, specifically that “TV is an aspect of culture that may be responsible for cultivating greater narcissism in college students” (Lull & Dickinson, 2016). I found this rather striking, since this was a purely correlational study, and hence there is no way to determine from the results how narcissism and TV genre preferences are causally related. That is, does watching particular TV shows cultivate narcissism, or do people choose to watch these shows because they appeal to the viewer’s narcissism? Or even a bit of both? The authors acknowledge this but argue that the cultivation model is more “theoretically interesting.” They elaborate on this like so: “The notion that TV might subtly contribute to narcissism is more interesting than the notion that narcissism might relate to watching a few more minutes of TV each day and slight preferences for a few specific genres.”

Of course, what one considers “interesting” is a matter of personal taste. Furthermore, considering a hypothesis “more interesting” does not mean it is true. Social learning models of media influence, of which Lull and Dickinson’s model is an example, have been criticized as “hypodermic needle models” that imply that media consumers are passive recipients of an external influence process. An alternative model, uses and gratifications theory, suggests that rather than being passive, people select media, such as TV shows, based on their preexisting personality traits and motivations (Ferguson, 2014). Hence, people with narcissistic desires may be more inclined to watch shows that vicariously gratify these desires. In support of this view, one study found that people who like watching reality TV shows, tend to have a greater desire to feel self-important, as well as greater desires relating to vengeance and competitiveness, compared to people who do not watch these shows (Reiss & Wiltz, 2004). These sorts of desires are particularly characteristic of narcissism. So although it might be “interesting” to consider that watching certain TV programs cultivates narcissism, this view does not explain why people choose to watch such programs in the first place, while uses and gratifications theory does. In order to get a better understanding of the causal relationship between narcissism and TV viewing, studies that monitor people’s viewing habits and any changes in their levels of narcissism over a longer time frame would be helpful.

Returning to the original issue of the apparent rise in narcissism levels in college students, whether or not recent developments in TV programming have contributed to this phenomenon remains unclear. If TV has contributed to this, its effects seem to be fairly small. On the other hand, we need to consider that TV programs are developed in response to viewer demand, so if there has been a rise in the popularity of shows focusing on self-centered people, such as those who tend to appear in reality TV, then this is a reflection on viewers’ choices. Hence, such shows need to be considered as a reflection of the broader social context. Some scholars have argued that Western society is becoming increasingly individualistic, perhaps more so than ever before (Foster, Keith Campbell, & Twenge, 2003). As I discussed in a previous post, there is evidence from the World Values Survey that a country’s values are linked to its level of economic and human development. There is a general trend suggesting that as a country’s economic development continues and its standard of living rises, then its societal values will move in the direction of becoming more focused on individual self-expression and greater permissiveness. Perhaps narcissism tends to rise in countries that experience long-term improvements in economic development? A study using personality and IQ data from 51 countries found that out of the Big Five personality traits, higher levels of extraversion and openness to experience were significantly associated with higher levels of a country’s GDP (Stolarski, Zajenkowski, & Meisenberg, 2013). Interestingly, extraversion remained a significant predictor of GDP, even after accounting for national IQ, a much stronger predictor. In individuals, narcissism tends to be associated with higher extraversion and openness to experience (although it is unrelated to IQ). Hence, highly prosperous societies may be more prone to narcissism. One study suggests that individualistic societies, specifically those in North America and Europe, tend to have somewhat higher levels of narcissism than collectivistic societies, specifically those in Asia and the Middle East (Foster, et al., 2003). Admittedly, this was one survey, and more research needs to be done to confirm how robust this finding might be. The following is highly speculative on my part, but there may be something about rising economic development that has an influence not only on society’s values but also on the personality traits of people within the society. One of these effects might be to facilitate the developments of traits related to reward sensitivity in general, a core feature of extraversion, and to self-enhancement in particular. This might be because narcissistic individuals can flourish more readily in an environment where there are greater opportunities to fulfil selfish desires, whereas poorer, more restricted environments might discourage such tendencies. Hence, trends such as the popularity of reality TV and other shows that depict self-centred individuals, may actually be a symptom of broader trends fostering selfishness, rather than a cause of increased narcissism. To be fair, whether such trends bode good for ill for society, or whether they are relatively harmless, and how far they might extend beyond college students into the general population, are yet to be determined.

Image credit: Vanity by Auguste Toulmouche, 1870. 

Footnote

[1] These claims have been disputed though (see Donnellan, Trzesniewski, & Robins, 2009; Trzesniewski, Donnellan, & Robins, 2008). Twenge and colleagues have replied to these criticisms (Twenge & Foster, 2008). This appears to be a complex issue and further studies are needed. 

[2] Please note, that although self-esteem and narcissism overlap, they are not the same thing, and it is possible to have high self-esteem without being narcissistic. The same applies to the other traits I have mentioned here. 

References

Back, M. D., Küfner, A. C. P., Dufner, M., Gerlach, T. M., Rauthmann, J. F., & Denissen, J. J. A. (2013). Narcissistic admiration and rivalry: Disentangling the bright and dark sides of narcissism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105(6), 1013-1037. doi: 10.1037/a0034431

Donnellan, M. B., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Robins, R. W. (2009). An emerging epidemic of narcissism or much ado about nothing? Journal of Research in Personality, 43(3), 498-501. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2008.12.010

Ferguson, C. J. (2014). Is Reading "Banned" Books Associated With Behavior Problems in Young Readers? The Influence of Controversial Young Adult Books on the Psychological Well-Being of Adolescents. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, & the Arts, 8(3), 354-362.

Foster, J. D., Keith Campbell, W., & Twenge, J. M. (2003). Individual differences in narcissism: Inflated self-views across the lifespan and around the world. Journal of Research in Personality, 37(6), 469-486. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0092-6566(03)00026-6

Lull, R. B., & Dickinson, T. M. (2016). Does Television Cultivate Narcissism? Relationships Between Television Exposure, Preferences for Specific Genres, and Subclinical Narcissism. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, in press.

Reiss, S., & Wiltz, J. (2004). Why People Watch Reality TV. Media Psychology, 6(4), 363-378. doi: 10.1207/s1532785xmep0604_3

Stolarski, M., Zajenkowski, M., & Meisenberg, G. (2013). National intelligence and personality: Their relationships and impact on national economic success. Intelligence, 41(2), 94-101. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2012.11.003

Trzesniewski, K. H., Donnellan, M. B., & Robins, R. W. (2008). Do Today's Young People Really Think They Are So Extraordinary?: An Examination of Secular Trends in Narcissism and Self-Enhancement. Psychological Science, 19(2), 181-188. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02065.x

Twenge, J. M., & Foster, J. D. (2008). Mapping the scale of the narcissism epidemic: Increases in narcissism 2002–2007 within ethnic groups. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(6), 1619-1622. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2008.06.014

Twenge, J. M., Konrath, S., Foster, J. D., Keith Campbell, W., & Bushman, B. J. (2008). Egos Inflating Over Time: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Journal of Personality, 76(4), 875-902. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2008.00507.x