In early May, with Donald Trump on the verge of solidifying the Republican nomination, his opponent Ted Cruz ranted to the press:
Journalists and psychiatrists have agreed with his characterization of Trump. He’s been called “remarkably narcissistic,” “a textbook case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder” and even “a total narcissist … who will be the destruction of the United States.”
The rise of Trump has surprised many. But it shouldn’t surprise those who are familiar with personality trends over the last several decades.
When we think someone’s a narcissist, there’s a chance they have subclinical narcissism – the technical term for a personality trait characterized by grandiosity, entitlement, envy, a tendency to exploit others and a preoccupation with fame and success. It’s not considered pathological, like the more serious and clinically diagnosable Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). But it’s disconcerting nonetheless. (People who do develop NPD almost always have the subclinical narcissism trait.)
In 2008, psychologists were able to show that scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, which measures subclinical narcissism, have been steadily increasing in the United States since the 1970s.
A year later, two popular books, “The Narcissism Epidemic” and “The Mirror Effect,” analyzed the phenomenon, floating potential reasons for the rise of narcissism in America. They both concluded that the rapid growth and reach of entertainment media and celebrity culture shared much of the blame.
However, neither of those books tested this claim, so we recently conducted a study on television viewing habits that was designed to do just that.
How college students responded
We were interested in three particular questions:
- Is narcissism related to television exposure?
- Are preferences for specific television genres related to narcissism?
- Are narcissism trends continuing?
For the study, we administered a survey to 565 college students. We asked them to complete several questionnaires, with questions that included how much television they watch and their preferred genres, in addition to the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). Participants selected which of a pair of statements best describes them. Each pair contained one narcissistic and one non-narcissistic answer, with an individual’s score determined by the total number of narcissistic options selected.
By comparing results from our sample, taken in 2012, with a hypothetical 2006 sample constructed from a prior meta-analysis of narcissism research, we found that our sample of college students had an average NPI score approximately 1.5 points higher. This evidence suggests that narcissism among college students is continuing to increase.
We also found that people who watched more television were more likely to score higher on the NPI. However, once we accounted for genre, this correlation diminished and a different one emerged.
Regardless of how much TV they watched, people who liked political talk shows, reality shows, sporting events and horror shows tended to score higher on the NPI. But those who preferred news broadcasts – even if they watched a lot of TV – usually had lower scores on the NPI.
Taken together, these results suggest that there is a relationship between television exposure and narcissism. Furthermore, the type of show one prefers is more influential than the amount of TV watched.
A model to mimic
On the surface, these results make sense. Take horror shows: the villains often exhibit narcissistic personality traits as they profess their grand plans for destruction or domination.
Meanwhile, political talk shows (“The O'Reilly Factor,” “Real Time with Bill Maher”), sporting events and, in particular, reality shows (Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice,” “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”) all feature plenty of narcissistic personalities who viewers might then mimic in their everyday behavior. Contestants and stars typically brag of their accomplishments, insult their opponents and demand special treatment during and after filming. Meanwhile, a baseball star, after hitting a game-winning home run, might claim he’s been “blessed."
On the other hand, the results for those who prefer news broadcasts corroborate previous studies showing that news consumers are more civicly engaged and less individualistic.
Our findings come as reality TV series and partisan political shows have proliferated in recent years. In 2000, there were four reality television shows. By 2010, that number had ballooned to 320. Meanwhile, some cable news networks today, like Fox News and MSNBC, feature “wall-to-wall” opinion shows.
When viewers are exposed to so many characters and personalities exhibiting narcissistic behavior and being rewarded, they have reason to model such behaviors themselves.
The Kardashians receive lucrative television contracts, while golfer Tiger Woods nets massive endorsement deals. In Donald Trump, we’re now seeing a reality star being rewarded with the Republican presidential nomination.
While correlation doesn’t mean causation…
Of course, it’s important to remember that this was a survey rather than a controlled experiment. Therefore, we cannot infer whether television exposure and genre preferences actually make people more narcissistic, or whether people who are more narcissistic are simply more likely to watch certain types of shows. We think that the first explanation is more compelling, but future research will be able to better determine the direction of these relationships.
We doubt many people consider these results a surprise. Estimates of average television exposure now range from three to five hours per day, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Nielsen. It’s a reasonable assumption that any leisure activity that occupies about 20-30 percent of the average person’s waking hours will have some influence on someone’s personality. And that’s just “traditional” viewing in front of a television. The average person will spend even more time consuming television shows on portable devices like laptops and smartphones.
This level of media exposure becomes concerning when the shows feature individuals who model rampant self-interest, disregard of others’ well-being and a focus on the individual above all else.
We think it partially explains the rise in narcissism since the 1970s. And perhaps in that, there is an explanation for the attraction to a candidate like Donald Trump.