Have We Become a Nation of Narcissists?


What do rapper Kanye West, tennis star Serena Williams, and Congressman Joe Wilson have in common, besides lots of publicity over their recent public outbursts?

It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to conclude that all three individuals placed their momentary emotional needs over the feelings and wishes of others — and that they failed to play by the proverbial rules of the game. Though their intrusive behavior may be rationalized as “off the cuff” or “from the heart,” the fact remains that each of these individuals performed a calculation over a period of seconds, minutes, or perhaps hours: they calculated that their anger or resentment was more important than the decorum others expected of them.

Sure, we all “lose it” from time to time, and impolite outbursts have probably been with us since our Neanderthal forebears first learned to growl. Furthermore, the impression that manners have gotten worse and worse over the years may not be supported by historical data. John F. Kasson, in his book, Rudeness and Civility, points out that people in medieval times behaved far more boorishly than our modern-day, “It’s all about me!” crowd. Citing the work of sociologist Norbert Elias, Kasson writes that, compared to more recent times, “…people in the late Middle Ages expressed their emotions—joy, rage, piety, fear, even the pleasure of torturing and killing enemies—with astonishing directness and intensity.”

Maybe so — but the recent tripleheader of West, Williams and Wilson made many of us wonder if we are turning into a nation of self-absorbed boors. (A Boston Globe editorial on 9/15/09 proclaimed, “Shouting is the New Opining.”) This thesis is hardly new. Thirty years ago, Christopher Lasch put forward essentially the same argument, in his book The Culture of Narcissism. But Lasch’s claims were mainly impressionistic. Now, however, a number of researchers and mental health professionals point to studies showing that, indeed, excessive self-absorption is on the increase.

For example, in their book, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D and W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D. provide ample evidence for what they term “the relentless rise of narcissism in our culture.” Twenge and Campbell identify several social trends that have contributed to this problem, including what they term “the movement toward self-esteem” that began in the late 1960s; and the movement away from “community-oriented thinking” that began in the 1970s. But the root causes go far deeper. For example, in a chapter entitled “Raising Royalty,” Twenge and Campbell point to “…the new parenting culture that has fueled the narcissism epidemic.” In effect, the authors argue, there has been a shift away from limit-setting toward letting the child get whatever he or she wants.

Twenge and her colleagues have empirical data to back up their claims. For example, in a paper published in the August 2008 Journal of Personality, the authors report on 85 samples of American college students, studied between 1979 and 2006. The subjects were evaluated using an instrument called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). Compared with their peers in the 1979-85 period, college students in 2006 showed a 30 percent increase in their NPI score. That’s “the bad news.”. If there is some good news, it might be this: Twenge and her colleagues Sara Konrath, Joshua D. Foster, W. Keith Campbell, and Brad J. Bushman point to a rise in several “positive traits” correlated with narcissism, such as self-esteem, extraversion, and assertiveness. Of course, a cynic might reply that these traits are “positive” only up to a point: When someone’s idea of “assertiveness” involves jumping up on stage and grabbing the microphone from an award-winning singer, assertiveness has arguably crossed the line into loutishness.

Twenge and Campbell take pains to knock down the myth that all narcissists are basically insecure folks with very low self-esteem. Their research suggests otherwise — most narcissists seem to have a heaping helping of self-esteem! But Twenge and Campbell focus mainly on individuals they call the “socially savvy narcissists who have the most influence on the culture.” These high-fliers may be the sort one of my colleagues had in mind when he defined a narcissist as “somebody who, at the moment of peak sexual bliss, cries out his own name!”

These celebrity narcissists are not, for the most part, the kind of individuals I have treated in my own psychiatric practice. My patients tended to fall into the group Twenge and Campbell call “vulnerable narcissists.” These unfortunate souls seem to cloak themselves in a mantle of gold, while feeling that, on the inside, they are nothing but rags. They suffer, to be sure — but they also induce suffering in others, by acting out their insecurities in a thousand provocative ways. And, like some of their celebrity counterparts, these vulnerable narcissists are prone to outbursts of anger, verbal abuse, or just plain rudeness — usually when they feel rejected, thwarted, or frustrated. They remind one of philosopher Eric Hoffer’s observation that “rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.”

If we are indeed producing increasingly self-obsessed individuals in our society, what can we do about it? There is clearly no simple prescription for what are evidently deep-seated cultural and familial ills. There is almost certainly no “Prozac for Narcissists” anywhere on the pharmacy shelves. As Twenge and Campbell argue, there is much in the way that we raise our children that may need to change. In my view, it is not simply a matter of refusing to spoil or over-indulge our children. Rather, we must also instill positive values that will help inoculate our children against narcissism.

In my book, Everything Has Two Handles: The Stoic’s Guide to the Art of Living, I argue that the values of the ancient Stoics can help us achieve personal happiness. I believe that these same values can help our children grow into strong, responsible, and resilient citizens. And what are Stoic values? It’s not just a matter of keeping a stiff upper lip, nor does Stoicism hold that you should tamp down all your feelings. Rather, Stoics believed that the good life is one characterized by virtuous beliefs and actions—in brief, a life based on duty, discipline, and moderation. The Stoics also believed in the importance of taking life on its own terms–what they would have described as “living in harmony with nature.”

Stoics did not whine when they were passed over for an award, nor did they throw a hissy fit when they didn’t get their way. As the Stoic philosopher, Seneca (106-43 BCE) put it, “All ferocity is born of weakness.” Perhaps most important, Stoics understood the tremendous value of gratitude — not only for the gifts we have received, but also for the grief we have been spared. Maybe if more children were inculcated with these teachings, we would find our celebrities showing more gratitude and less “attitude.”

Ronald Pies MD is Professor of Psychiatry and Lecturer on Bioethics and Humanities at SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse NY; Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston; and Editor-in-Chief, Psychiatric Times. He is the author of Everything Has Two Handles: The Stoic’s Guide to the Art of Living. This article was provided by PsychCentral.com.