Narcissism: On the Rise in America?

Do you know the story of Narcissus? He was the very handsome fellow in Greek mythology who, because of his indifference and disdain toward others, was punished by the gods by falling in love with his own image. He was so enraptured by his beauty that he was unable to pull himself away from his own reflection, and he wasted away and died.

Well, according to recent research (to be discussed below), Narcissus has spawned many offspring in our current generation, and narcissism is alive and well and living in America. Just so we are all on the same wavelength, narcissism is a personality characteristic associated with self-absorption, egocentrism, an overestimation of one’s own importance and abilities, a sense of entitlement and a disregard for others.

One study found that 30 percent of young people were classified as narcissistic according to a widely used psychological test. That number has doubled in the last 30 years. Another study reported a 40-percent decline among young people in empathy, a personality attribute inversely related to narcissism, since the 1980s.

These findings aren’t surprising to anyone who pays attention to the “it’s all about me” culture in which we currently live. My questions are where this rise in narcissism is coming from and what impact it will have on our society in the future.

One obvious place where young people are learning about narcissism is our omnipresent and unrelenting popular culture. A study by the celebrity psychiatrist Dr. Drew, in which 200 “celebrities” (I put the word in quotes because the threshold for being considered a celebrity these days has declined significantly) completed the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, found that -- here’s a shocker -- they were significantly more narcissistic than the general population. Interestingly, the celebrities who actually had a talent (for example, musicians) tended to be less narcissistic. Guess who were the most self-absorbed celebrities? Female reality-TV stars! It’s not surprising that those celebrities who were famous for being famous were the most narcissistic; their narcissism drove them to become celebrities.

Another fascinating study that was just published explored the changes in music lyrics over the past three decades. The researchers found a significant shift toward lyrics that reflect narcissism (“I” and “me” appear more often "we" and "us") and hostility (change from positive to angry words and emotions). And these findings aren’t just due to the increased popularity and influence of hip-hop music (which is known for its aggrandizement of the artists and its venom), but rather are evident across musical genres.

And you don’t need to go far to collect your own data on narcissism. Do these names ring a bell: Charlie Sheen, Terrell Owens and Kanye West?

It’s not surprising to see a rise in narcissism in this generation given that young people are being bombarded by these messages 24/7 through every form of media. And here’s the truly disturbing part: How can young people these days avoid being infected with this “disease” when, thanks to the “wired” world in which they live, the majority of messages they receive venerate and encourage narcissism?

The self-esteem movement has likely contributed to this increase in self-adoration. Many parents these days do everything they can to make their children feel good about themselves. The result has been a decline in real self-esteem and an increase in self-love and unjustifiable personal “exceptionalism.”

Also, technology and social media have done their part to promote narcissism. All of the time spent absorbed in screens has reduced the amount of actual human (i.e., face-to-face) interaction that children have, thus depriving them of the experiences needed to develop essential social skills such as empathy, compassion and consideration for others.

Certainly, the shift in societal values away from collectivism and toward individualism (“You’re on your own”), away from civic responsibility and toward self-gratification, and away from meaningful contributions to society and toward personal success (as defined by wealth, power and status), have also contributed to the cultural messages of narcissism in which young people are presently immersed.

It’s one thing to see that there is a growing number of narcissists in America today. But the real concern is not the individual narcissists among us, but when our society embraces and accepts narcissism as the norm. And that time may have arrived. That’s when we have to start asking the next question, which is far scarier: What effect will this increasingly normalized culture of narcissism have on our society?

You might argue that narcissism has existed for as long as Homo sapiens has populated planet Earth, and we’ve managed to survive. In fact, some researchers have argued that the recent rise in narcissism is due more to this generation’s willingness to express what they really believe rather than an actual increase in narcissism. But there seems to be a qualitative, rather just a quantitative, shift in so many aspects of our culture that I just don’t buy that explanation.

The answer that came most readily to my mind, and an apocryphal one at that, is a gradual yet inexorable tear in the fabric of our society. Think of all the qualities that enable us to form a functioning and vital nation -- respect, compassion, tolerance, selflessness -- and you will see that they don’t exist in the narcissistic personality (or culture). Gosh, I just had a really terrifying thought. The indifference, egotism, disrespect and lack of consideration that are central to narcissism are also reflective of the increasingly polarized and vitriolic tone of our current body politic, recent unethical corporate behavior, the rise in cheating among students in school and the gamut of bad behavior among professional athletes. As Pogo noted so famously, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

This is definitely not a rosy picture and definitely not one to encourage an optimistic view of the future. Should we see this trend as just another sign of the impending death of the American empire? The cynic in me (and those who follow my writing know that it fills a big portion of my brain) would offer an emphatic “yes!”

Yet the optimist in me (small, but stubborn) holds out some hope. I don’t mean to demonize and indict this entire generation. In fact, there are a lot of amazing young people out there. I speak at schools around the U.S. and I meet kids (I know I’m getting old when I call them that!) who are motivated, engaged, respectful and compassionate. Many young people are bucking the trend and are resisting the lure of the “dark side.” And they are our best hope for beating back the onslaught of narcissism and keeping the best of humanity alive and well and living in America.