Table of Contents
The Narcissism Epidemic by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell
Introduction: The growing narcissism in American culture
SECTION 1: THE DIAGNOSIS
Chapter 1: The many wonders of admiring yourself
Chapter 2: The disease of excessive self-admiration and the top five myths about narcissism
Chapter 3: Isn’t narcissism beneficial, especially in a competitive world? Challenging another myth about narcissism
Chapter 4: How did we get here? Origins of the epidemic
SECTION 2: ROOT CAUSES OF THE EPIDEMIC
Chapter 5: Parenting: Raising royalty
Chapter 6: Superspreaders! The celebrity and media transmission of narcissism
Chapter 7: Look at me on MySpace: Web 2.0 and the quest for attention
Chapter 8: I deserve the best at 18% APR: Easy credit and the repeal of the reality principle
SECTION 3: SYMPTOMS OF NARCISSISM
Chapter 9: Hell yeah, I’m hot! Vanity
Chapter 10: The spending explosion and the impact on the environment: Materialism
Chapter 11: Seven billion kinds of special: Uniqueness
Chapter 12: The quest for infamy and the rise of incivility: Antisocial behavior
Chapter 13: The chocolate cake trap: Relationship troubles
Chapter 14: All play and no work: Entitlement
Chapter 15: God didn’t create you to be average: Religion and volunteering
SECTION 4: PROGNOSIS AND TREATMENT
Chapter 16: How far, and for how long, will narcissism spread?
Chapter 17: Treating the epidemic of narcissism
Book excerpts from The Narcissism Epidemic
From the Introduction:
Narcissism is not simply a confident attitude or a healthy feeling of self-worth. As we explore in Chapters 2 and 3, narcissists are overconfident, not just confident, and – unlike most people high in self-esteem – place little value on emotionally close relationships. We will also address other myths, like “narcissists are insecure” (they’re typically not), and “it’s necessary to be narcissistic to succeed today” (in most contexts, and long-term, narcissism is actually a deterrent to success).
Understanding the narcissism epidemic is important because its long-term consequences are destructive to society. American culture’s focus on self-admiration has caused a flight from reality to the land of grandiose fantasy. We have phony rich people (with interest-only mortgages and piles of debt), phony beauty (with plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures), phony athletes (with performance-enhancing drugs), phony celebrities (via reality TV and YouTube), phony genius students (with grade inflation), a phony national economy (with 11 trillion dollars of government debt), phony feelings of being special among children (with parenting and education focused on self-esteem), and phony friends (with the social networking explosion). All this fantasy might feel good, but, unfortunately, reality always wins. The mortgage meltdown and the resulting financial crisis are just one demonstration of how inflated desires eventually crash to earth.
From Chapter 3: Isn’t narcissism beneficial, especially in a competitive world? Challenging another myth about narcissism
Narcissists have a high tolerance for risks, because they are so confident they are right and that things will go well. For this reason, narcissists are successful when investing in bull markets, when their overconfidence and willingness to take risks pays off. In a study using a simulated stock market, narcissists did better than others in when the market was headed up. Of course, this superior performance disappeared as soon as the market turned south – then narcissists lost their shirts due to their higher tolerance for risk. …
U.S. high school kids have not improved in academic performance over the last 30 years, a time when self-esteem has been actively encouraged and boosted among American children. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 17-year-olds’ math scores have risen slightly, from 304 to a 307, but reading scores have stayed completely flat at 285. So, at best, there has been less than a 1% improvement in academic performance. At the same time, high school students’ grades have inflated enormously. While only 18% of students said they earned an A or A- average in 1976, 33% said they were A students in 2006 – a whopping 83% increase in self-reported “A” students. So, we have had less that a 1% improvement in actual learning over 30 years, but an 83% increase in A grades. Apparently, our culture has decided to go with the strategy of boosting the fantasy of success rather than success itself, similar to the amplifiers in the movie Spinal Tap that “go to eleven.”
From Chapter 6: Superspreaders! The celebrity and media transmission of narcissism
Very young girls now watch TV shows like Hannah Montana and High School Musical. Even though these shows are about teens, their biggest fans are elementary school and even preschool kids as young as 3. Girls are now exposed to “tween” culture at age 5 or younger, eschewing Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer for Hannah Montana, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, and other preteen shows. Although these shows are free of inappropriate sexuality and crass language, they are unfortunately not free of narcissistic attitudes. “You get the limo out front,” sings Hannah Montana in the show’s theme song. “Yeah when you’re famous it can be kinda fun.” She then goes on to sing about going to movie premieres and getting your face in magazines. Hannah Montana draws more viewers age 6 to 14 than any other show on cable, reaching 164 million viewers around the world.
Sweet & Sassy, a Texas-based salon for girls, offers a package in which the girl is picked up at her door by a pink limo. Some girls go to adult salons and have manicures and pedicures – at age 7, sometimes as a birthday party event. First- through third-graders are also wearing makeup more often: in a 2007 survey, 55% of 6- to 9-year-old girls said they used lip gloss or lipstick, and 65% said they used nail polish. Cosmetics companies now refer to this age group as “the starter market.” “We live in a culture of insta-celebrity,” said marketing executive Samantha Skey. “Our little girls now grow up thinking they need to be ready for their close-up, lest the paparazzi arrive.”
From Chapter 8: I deserve the best at 18% APR: Easy credit and the repeal of the reality principle
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 themselves and to the world. This, of course, forced others to go into debt simply to “keep up.” Unfortunately, buying flashy consumer goods on credit in order to look and feel like a winner is similar to hitting the crack pipe in order to improve your mood. Both are initially cheap and work really well – but only for a very short period of time. In the long-term both leave you penniless and depressed. Even bankruptcy no longer offers much relief: In 2005, Congress passed the Bankruptcy Reform Act, which made discharging debts much more difficult. As getting credit got easier, the end reality got tougher.
The economic meltdown of 2008 was caused, in part, by overconfidence and greed, two key symptoms of narcissism. Lenders, drawn by the lure of high fees, were overconfident and took the risk of writing mortgages too expensive for people to pay, and some homebuyers were overconfident in taking out those mortgages – plus, they really wanted that McMansion. Builders borrowed big and constructed acres and acres of subdivisions, many of which now sit empty. Investment banks borrowed 30 to 40 times their available capital, using mortgages 10 times the size of homeowners’ incomes as the supposedly reliable collateral. Everyone was on a narcissistic risk-taking binge and failed to anticipate the downside. As we discussed in Chapter 3, narcissistic thinking works very well in a rising market as risks pay off – banks got lots of mortgage money, and people got their houses. But narcissism is inherently an unstable, short-term strategy. When things went south, the crash was larger than usual because the risks were bigger, and narcissistic thinking was proven spectacularly wrong. Goodbye fantasy; hello reality! That, in a nutshell, was 2008.
From Chapter 13: Relationship troubles: The chocolate cake trap
Imagine sitting at the table with two plates of food. On one is a beautiful chocolate cake, covered in a delicious chocolate fudge frosting; on the other is a plate of steamed broccoli. Your job is to pick one plate to eat. If you are like us authors, you pick the chocolate cake. Chocolate cake is awesome. It tastes great, gives you a rush of sugary goodness, and can almost make you feel loved. There is nothing better than chocolate cake . . . for the ten minutes you’re eating it. After that – especially if you’re trying to eat healthily – the chocolate cake that you loved so much turns on you. You feel depressed as the sugar leaves your system. Crawling under your desk and taking a nap sounds nice. You realize that you and chocolate cake have no long-term future together because the cake will increase your weight and give you cavities. The cake might even cheat on you by getting eaten by someone else. You feel vaguely guilty and confused about why you still want chocolate cake even though you know it’s bad for you.
On the other hand, had you eaten the broccoli, it would have been a much different story. You wouldn’t have gotten the big rush at the beginning, but it would have been okay – broccoli isn’t that bad. Twenty minutes later you would have felt good, healthy, positive about your eating choices and there would have been no sugar crash. You would sit at your desk and work rather than wanting to crawl under it and listen to an old Pink Floyd album. The bottom line is that broccoli is the better choice. . . . and the next time you are given the choice you will still eat the chocolate cake.
This same pattern holds in many relationships with narcissists. There is a rush of excitement in starting a relationship with an exciting and charismatic figure. You feel flattered that the narcissist is paying attention to you and bringing you into his or her life. You feel pretty special, too, because the narcissist shines brightly in social situations.
Narcissists save the bad stuff for later in the relationships. Your fiancé tells you that your best friend can’t be in the wedding because she is too fat and will ruin the pictures. Your wife racks up an enormous credit card bill paying for her plastic surgery, and then runs away with the plastic surgeon. The seemingly “fun and cool boss” steals your ideas and gets you transferred. A co-worker starts sabotaging your performance and you’re fired.
Narcissists may seem like a tasty treat when you first meet them, but they are not. Narcissism is absolutely corrosive to social relationships. People who have been deeply involved with narcissists can tell you this. These relationships destroy trust in others. You learn not to trust anyone after being mistreated by someone so charming and likable. You also lose trust in yourself. If you couldn’t see this coming, what does that tell you about your judgment? And then, to dip the wound in salt, relationships with narcissists are remembered and ruminated about for a long time. People ponder what went wrong; they ruminate about the warning signs they should have seen; and they waste a lot of time trying to figure out what made the narcissist into a narcissist.
(For more on narcissists and relationships, see Keith’s first book, When You Love a Man Who Loves Himself.)