The Narcissism Epidemic
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About The Narcissism Epidemic: An FAQ on narcissism

Q: What is narcissism?

Narcissism means having an inflated or grandiose sense of self. A narcissist thinks she is special, unique, and entitled to better treatment than others. Narcissists aren’t particularly interested in warmth and caring in their relationships. They might enjoy being around people — and certainly can be charming, flattering, exciting and likable — but they are in relationships for their own narcissistic needs. Narcissists also spend a good deal of their time and energy doing things to make themselves look and feel good and pumping up their egos. A narcissist might brag, turn all conversations back to himself, try to associate only with important people, want to have the best and newest of everything, or steal credit from others. When things don't go his way, the narcissist might get angry or even violent. Narcissists can be fun to be around in the short term, but awful to work for or be in a close relationship with in the long term.

Much of the research we discuss in the book measures narcissism as a personality trait – some people are higher in narcissistic traits than others. There is no agreed-upon "cut-off" for narcissism, so when we use the term “narcissist” we mean someone who is very narcissistic — just like an "extravert" is someone who is very extraverted. There is no absolute point where someone crosses the line from normal to narcissistic.

There is a cut-off, however, for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), the clinical disorder that includes high levels of narcissism. Someone with NPD has at least 5 of 9 documented narcissistic traits that occur over an extended period of time and cause significant problems for the person or others. Only a trained professional can make a clinical diagnosis of NPD.

Q: How do we know there is a narcissism epidemic?

The narcissism epidemic involves two related processes. The first is the rise in narcissism among individuals, and the second is the change in the larger culture’s values, beliefs, and practices. We address the cultural-level change later on the page.

An epidemic is usually declared when more individuals are affected than would be expected in a population. If we use the recent past to formulate those expectations, there is clearly an epidemic of narcissism.

We know that narcissism has increased over time among individuals based on several datasets. College students now endorse more narcissistic traits than college students did in the 1980s and 1990s; in one large sample the change seemed to be accelerating after 2002. An Internet sample of the general population also showed higher narcissism scores among younger people than older people. Perhaps most disturbing, a 2005 study using a large, randomly selected sample of Americans found that nearly 1 out of 10 people in their twenties had experienced NPD — the more severe, clinical-level form of the trait. Only 1 out of 30 people over 64 had experienced NPD in their lifetime — even though they had lived 40 more years than the people in their twenties and thus had that much more time to experience the disorder. This suggests a large increase in NPD over time.

Q: But my kids/friends/students aren’t narcissistic.

First, they might be the exception. These are changes in the average, so there are still plenty of people who are not narcissistic. Second, change over time follows the pattern of data that falls into the classic “bell curve” of variation among people, with small changes at the average multiplying into larger changes at the low and high ends. The change in narcissism is a great example of this, as the changes at the average are noticeable but not enormous — the average person is only moderately more narcissistic now than 15 years ago. But at the high end — clinical-level NPD — there are three times as many young people vs. older people with the disorder. That means there are many more highly narcissistic people now than just a decade or two ago.

We have witnessed this as professors. The average student today is only a bit more entitled than when we started teaching in the early 1990s — in fact, most students are great — but the number of very entitled students (those who expect exams scheduled around their vacations, hint at lawsuits over course requirements, and have parents call to complain about grades) seems to have gone up dramatically.

Q: What are some signs of the narcissism epidemic in the culture?

The Narcissism Epidemic covers a broad range of cultural symptoms, including increases in materialism, entitlement, public violence and aggression, self-promotion, and the desire for uniqueness. We discuss specific, measurable changes in many variables, including plastic surgery rates, credit card debt, the use of "my" in web addresses, and the square footage of personal homes. Then there are the reality TV shows, the narcissistic song lyrics, and the fake paparazzi one can now hire to experience what it’s like to be famous.

Our suggestion: just look around. People yearn to look and act like celebrities. They broadcast violence against others on the web, or just leave vicious comments on someone else’s video. The current economic crisis was, in part, caused by overconfidence and greed (both key components of narcissism). To read our thoughts on the latest cultural happenings and how they relate to narcissism, see our blog.

Q: How did we get here?

There is no single cause of the narcissism epidemic; instead we point to several contributing factors in the book. Admiring oneself is now considered crucial to success in life. This began in earnest in the 1970s, became more influential with the self-esteem movement in the 1980s and 1990s, and today is taken for granted in American culture. We see this in slogans like "You have to love yourself before you can love others" and at preschools with young children singing, "I am special/Look at me."

At the core of narcissism is the fantasy that you are better than you really are (and better than those around you). Any process that allows that fantasy to exist despite the less glamorous reality is an opportunity for narcissism to thrive. For example, the Internet allows people to create phony images of themselves and seek fame and attention. Easy credit has allowed average Americans to pretend they are wealthy and successful (at least until the foreclosure sign went up). The inflation of grades and other feedback in schools has lets kids believe they are better students than they really are. And the list goes on.

Finally, the explosion of shallow celebrity culture promotes narcissism as not just acceptable but desirable. Celebrity gossip and happenings are now found on mainstream news channels. The social models we see are often advertisements for a narcissistic lifestyle.

Q: How is The Narcissism Epidemic different from other books and websites about narcissism?

We tried to differentiate this book and website from many others by basing it on the research data available on narcissistic people and their behavior (and the data on changes in the culture that are rooted in narcissism). We certainly dive into popular culture and speculate on some things, but our first goal was to be consistent with what the best science had to say.

Q: How is The Narcissism Epidemic different from Jean Twenge’s previous book, Generation Me?

Generation Me explores all of the differences between the young generation (born in the 1970s and especially the 1980s and 1990s) and older ones. Self-focus is only one of these differences -- other chapters addressed anxiety and depression, feelings of control, sexuality, need for social approval, opportunities for women and minorities, and prejudice and tolerance. Generation Me has only a few pages on narcissism. The Narcissism Epidemic is different in three ways: It examines narcissism in depth; it looks at changes for all generations; and it addresses cultural changes as well as individual-level changes.

Q: Has the narcissism epidemic affected everyone?

Yes and no. No, not everyone is narcissistic. But the epidemic has sucked in non-narcissistic people too. At one time, only Hollywood types did things like get plastic surgery, whiten their teeth, and shape their eyebrows; now these appearance enhancers have trickled down to ordinary people. And many humble people have had to deal with the consequences of working with, dating, or otherwise associating with a narcissist at one time or another.

The epidemic has reached most groups in society. The trend appears in poor neighborhoods and rich ones, in all regions of the U.S., and across many different ethnic groups. As we explore further in the book, the epidemic — now strongest in North America — also appears to be spreading to many cultures around the world.

There was one difference by group: Most data shows that the increase in narcissism is larger among girls and women. Males still score higher on narcissistic traits than females on average, but girls and women are catching up. This is not entirely surprising in an era of pedicure parties for 5-year-olds and breast implants for high school graduation. As parents of girls, we’re scared too.

Q: Is narcissism really that bad?

This is a more complex question than it first appears. Narcissism is certainly bad for other people most of the time in close relationships and in the workplace. However, narcissism is often beneficial to the narcissist in the short-term. Narcissism feels good and leads to success in some situations (like performing publicly, or meeting people at a cocktail party). Narcissists' troubles often show up later, when their relationships fall apart or their work suffers due to overconfidence and blaming others for problems.

Q: Isn’t narcissism necessary in an increasingly competitive world?

Some degree of self-promotion is more necessary now than it was in the past. However, there is a big difference between being able to talk about your strengths at a job interview and talking about how great you are to your wife, kids, co-workers and anyone else who will listen. Not only is this kind of pervasive narcissism not necessary, but it will hurt you in the long run. Narcissists also tend to be overconfident and take too many risks. This works great during boom times but causes spectacular failure when things turn south. (If you remember 2008, this might sound familiar.)

Q: How do I know if my co-worker/boyfriend/mother is a narcissist?

Someone who is narcissistic is arrogant, self-involved, vain, and cocky. Narcissists make many efforts to get positive attention from others — bragging, name-dropping, materialism, stealing credit and not taking responsibility for bad behaviors, and other self-promotion. However, they often also display positive traits such as charm, confidence, and likability in new relationships. NPD — the clinical variant of narcissism — is associated with a lack of empathy, a sense of entitlement, and arrogance.

Q: Can I change him/her?

Personality is difficult to change in general. The added difficulty with changing narcissism is that people who are narcissistic often don't want to change. In those cases, changing another person is very, very difficult.

Q: Pretty please?

Manipulate, yes. Change — unlikely. Although we can’t give advice on specific relationships, narcissism is fairly resistant to change.

Q: If narcissists make bad relationship partners, why was my relationship with a narcissist so good in the beginning?

Narcissism is seductive because it has both good and bad qualities. Narcissists can be outgoing, confident, charming, exciting, and likable; they also can be controlling, self-centered, manipulative, unfaithful and even violent. Here is the catch: the good parts of narcissism are what get you into a relationship, and the bad stuff doesn't show up until much later. Then you wonder what you did to make the person change (the correct answer is "nothing" — it’s just the way narcissists work). Relationships with narcissists are a little like eating chocolate cake — it begins with an emotional high from all the chocolate and sugar, but then inevitable sugar crash sets in and you hate yourself for eating all those empty calories rather than something a little less exciting but a lot more healthy.

If you are looking for specific advice about relationships with narcissists, there’s more in Keith's book, When You Love a Man Who Loves Himself.

Q: I’m a parent. How does the narcissism epidemic affect my kids and what can I do about it?

Children today are growing up in a world that is much more accepting of narcissistic behavior and values. Many parents and teachers believe that the way to counteract this is to teach children to feel special. Unfortunately, feeling special is narcissism, not true self-worth. As we explain further in the book, parents are more likely to raise less narcissistic children if they set limits, dial back on excessive praise, and don’t let their children have too much power. We have three young children between us, so we know this can be a struggle, but the fight is worth it.

Here are two things to teach children, just as a start:

1. Instead of teaching people "You have to love yourself before you can love others,” teach them something much closer to the truth: If you love yourself too much, you won’t have enough love left for anyone else.

2. Get across the message that being self-centered does not lead to success, and often leads to failure in the long run. It is not necessary to be narcissistic to succeed, even in a competitive world; in fact, those who are confident without being overconfident, and have self-worth while still caring about others, will be the most successful.

Q: What can we do about the epidemic of narcissism?

In the book, we outline a wide range of changes, from societal (e.g., teaching empathy and social skills in schools instead of self-focus; reining in easy credit) to the personal (parenting differently, practicing gratitude, caring for others, and self-compassion). We believe action at both levels is necessary to effectively curtail the epidemic.

All Content Copyright © 2008, 2009 Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell. All Rights Reserved.