Narcissus was a man of myth so in love with the beauty of his reflection in a pool of water that he could not stop looking at it … until he died, that is. Thousands of years later, our word narcissism evokes that sense of excessive self-love, often to the detriment of others—and oneself. It's also a word that has been showing up in more and more news reports and scientific studies as researchers seek to document our collective descent into it.
In 2007, researchers Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, consistently at the forefront of research on narcissism and its cultural influence, published data that compared college students' responses on a test known as the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. The test included statements (meant to be agreed with or disagreed with) such as, "If I ruled the world, it would be a better place," "I insist upon getting the respect that is due me," "I think I am a special person" and "I can live my life any way I want to." Its result? Among nearly 16,500 college students surveyed between 1982 and 2006 there was a 30% rise in narcissism.
Twenge and Campbell also contributed to a recent study conducted by C. Nathan DeWall and Richard S. Pond Jr. (both from the University of Kentucky) that investigated the increase of narcissism in pop music between 1980 and 2007. Published in March by the American Psychological Association, the research shows that incidents of the words I and me in pop music have increased, while uses of we and us have decreased. "I'm teaching people to worship themselves," pop queen of the moment Lady Gaga says, as if to prove the point.
Narcissism has apparently increased so much that the forthcoming fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the resource used by psychiatrists and psychologists to diagnose psychiatric disorders) has eliminated "narcissistic personality disorder" from its entries. So if enough people meet the criteria for a mental disorder, does it cease to be a disorder and become … the new normal?
Self-Esteem's Unintended Consequences
Twenge and Campbell have faced questions from peers about whether they might be overstating the case for narcissism's increasing prevalence. But as they report in the introduction to their 2009 book The Narcissism Epidemic, "Many cultural changes [related to narcissism] were eminently quantifiable: the fivefold increase in plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures in just ten years, the growth of celebrity and gossip magazines, Americans spending more than they earn and racking up huge amounts of debt, the growing size of houses, the increasing popularity of giving children unique names, polling data on the importance of being rich and famous, and the growing number of people who cheat."
Twenge and Campbell are careful to say that the origins of cultural trends are notoriously difficult to pin down with objective exactitude. But they investigated anyway. And their search for the source led them to the 1970s. That's when the blossoming self-esteem movement may have had some significant unintended consequences. Instead of merely helping people feel appropriately good about who they were, the self-esteem movement's momentum crossed over into an unhealthy level of self-admiration … and then full-on narcissism.
"America has always been an individualistic nation," the authors observe. "but it was founded on ideas of individual liberty, freedom from tyranny and fundamental equality—values that emphasized independence, not narcissism. But when these powerful ideas were supplemented by the new values of self-admiration and self-expression, the results were ugly. In the 1970s, self-indulgence and self-absorption were rampant, as was a sense of malaise. Once these values took hold in the '80s and beyond, the malaise of the '70s faded, replaced by a more extraverted, shallow and materialistic form of narcissism. … Parents began to raise their children to think highly of themselves, and educational practices began to emphasize self-admiration and self-expression."
It's no accident, then, that People magazine launched in 1974. The magazine's birth corresponded precisely with the emergence of a celebrity-focused industry that's consistently helped to mold both "common man" narcissism and celebrity self-fascination. The authors quote a journalist talking about this newer cultural mindset, which at times borders on self-deification. "I interviewed hundreds of well-known actors and actresses over a 10-year period," the journalist said, "and this, basically, is how the interview went: 'I think … I believe … I am … My passion is … I'd like to think what I do makes a difference to the world … Me … Me … More Me … Major Me … did I mention Me? I am a role model to so many … I am, in fact, God incarnate.' [They,] and not only the mega-stars, were so self-absorbed, so self-obsessed, that my attendance at the interview wasn't totally necessary. They blurted out their Me-ness unprompted."
And here's the other side to the People problem: By 2006, 51% of 18- to 25-year-olds reported that "becoming" famous was an important goal to them—nearly five times more than those who said "becoming more spiritual" was important to them.
Then, of course, came YouTube and, simultaneously, the social media revolution of Myspace and Facebook. While these online hives of humanity aren't inherently narcissistic, they're more than a little predisposed to it.
Summarizing their thoughts on the relationship between these sites and narcissism, Twenge and Campbell note that such digital outlets enable "narcissism [to sneak] into the picture … in many ways." Among them, "The Internet allows the fantasy principle to trump the reality principle. The Internet makes it very easy to become someone you're not, and that alternative persona is usually better, or cooler, or more attractive. Second, most Internet communication is through images and brief self-description, placing attention on the shallower aspects of the person. … Third, people who are desperate for attention have access to a huge potential audience on the Web. … All of this encourages narcissism."
Turning Away From the Mirror
It's impossible, of course, to turn the hands of the clock back in our culture. And much of Twenge and Campbell's work serves as something of a cultural postmortem. But that doesn't mean selflessness and empathy can't be revived on an individual level. And the authors offer several concrete suggestions for blunting the influence of narcissism in our children:
Say no … and stick to it. Children who are told no by parents that subsequently cave in to emotional manipulation are taught that whining gets results.
Don't let children have too much power. Increasingly, some families invite children to participate in many household decisions … even some as big as purchasing a new car or a new house. Giving children the choice between two options (like which clothes to wear) is good. Allowing them undue influence in steering big decisions, however, can cultivate an entitlement mentality.
Be careful about buying your children anything with a blatantly self-absorbed message. "A shirt that says 'Spoiled Rotten' is cute until the kid does something bratty," Twenge and Campbell write. "[And] unless you're Prince William or Harry, don't dress your daughter in an outfit claiming that she is a 'Princess.' She's not. Get over it."
Emphasize your children's similarities with others, not how "special" or "unique" they are. Twenge told CBS News in 2007, "We need to stop endlessly repeating 'You're special' and having children repeat that back. Kids are self-centered enough already."
Beware overindulgence. In child psychologist Dan Kindlon's 2001 book Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age, he says, "Compared to earlier generations, we are emotionally closer to our kids, they confide in us more, we have more fun with them. But we are too indulgent. We give our kids too much and demand too little of them."
One of the final observations that these two psychologists make is that participation in a spiritual tradition and community also helps to rip out the roots of narcissism. That makes a lot of sense. Because as Christians we understand that narcissism is, above all else, a spiritual problem. And as we seek to know Jesus and become more like Him, He is the One who can transform our self-focused agendas and give us hearts that naturally beat for others and eyes to see the spiritual and physical needs all around us. John 3:30 succinctly states the goal: "He must become greater; I must become less."