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This Week in Narcissism

Posted May 14th, 2012 by Andrew Goodman

If you ever make the mistake, as I recently did, of reading Twenge and Campbell’s The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in an Age of Entitlement, you’ll have more than a few “whoa! that’s scary!” moments, when you begin recognizing vivid examples of the shift they’ve documented as they happen in slow motion in day-to-day life. Scary, as in “they really got that right.”

This study of the rise in narcissistic qualities in the general (especially, youth) population is no casual observation. The authors actually document rises in self-reported and externally-evaluated scores of clinical narcissism. On many counts, those numbers have been rising for nearly 30 years. There is an interesting dip that occurred in one of the graphs; in my generation (for a brief moment in time in the late 1980′s), for about two years college-age students actually reversed the trend. But then the inexorable rise continued.

Not everyone is clinically narcissistic today. But more people than ever believe that utter self-belief and lack of regard for others is “normal” behavior.

The “originating” root of the trend is the self-esteem movement, which you can trace all the way back to the 1970′s. By the 1990′s, over-the-top efforts to boost self-esteem at every turn had infected child-rearing and education at all levels.

An accelerator of that trend seems to be social media. Many people who get caught up in the exercise of preening and bragging in social media venues appear to lose all sense of perspective.

According to the authors, extreme narcissists take on personas like “school bully.” These bullies don’t lack self-esteem; their problem is that they have too much of it, and too little regard for others. In today’s environment — whether in real school incidents or relentless messages portrayed in pop culture — it’s well documented that bullies like this can actually be the object of pity because they don’t have enough self-esteem. The prescription to handle someone who is terrorizing others? Coddle them and help them to work on gaining even more self-esteem, so the situation can normalize itself. Prop them up just a bit more, and they might stop trashing others! Instead, the opposite is likely to happen. They love themselves so much, their sense of entitlement only grows.

Last week, a so-called photographer from Arkansas, Meagen Kunert, was exposed for ripping off the wedding photos of pro photographer Sean McGrath of Saint John, NB, Canada. In addition to passing off McGrath’s photos as her own, she added insult to injury by creating fake personas and narratives connected with people in the wedding party. The real people involved felt creeped out by the whole turn of events.

After the firestorm went viral and global, Kunert had no choice but to apologize for what she’d done. She added, though, that she felt driven to it by the intense pressures of competing out there. In other words, a few words of apology were barely out of her mouth when she began cooking up a rationalization… one that ended in “It’s sad.” The full quote: “The photography industry has come to the point where you feel like you have to take other peoples’ work just to compete and to feel better about yourself. … It’s sad.”

Just another exemplar in the long line of cases that back up Twenge and Campbell’s thesis: not only has the self-esteem movement (accelerated by social media) flown out of control, millions of people are being given blatantly misguided ideas every day about what self-esteem is, and how to achieve it… and a warped model that wrongly assumes that good things spring from developing self-esteem unattached to any basis.

Kunert’s problem wasn’t pressure or some gap in how she felt about herself, it was an unwillingness to take the needed steps to accomplishment. It certainly seems like a competitive world when you mentally compare yourself to people who have already reached the top rungs in your field. It’s less insanely pressurizing when you focus on bottom-rung stuff like customers, working hard, strategy, and caring about those around you.

In other news… I’m betting there is no nice, shiny, flattering explanation to explain multibillionaire Eduardo Saverin renouncing his US citizenship in order to avoid a large tax bill. The press have been supplied with one and are willing to give it equal time: he has a family history of moving to escape kidnapping by “ransom gangs,” so why maintain U.S. citizenship now, since that might have been a reason to move on from the U.S. to Singapore?

Some are calling such wealthy tax evaders the “stateless rich,” but is a life led with half that wealth, with some sense of roots that come with full and conscious citizenship, in fact much richer?

The alternative explanation to the “afraid of kidnapping” theme, then, is that Mr. Saverin is a U.S. citizen when it is convenient to him, and that his primary fear is of petty pickpockets: namely, that his multiple billions will shrink slightly. Only Mr. Saverin knows the real truth.

3 Responses to “This Week in Narcissism”

  1. Sylvain says:

    By the way Andrew, it is pretty clear that advertising in general bears part of the guilt for that. So many advertising campaigns aim at stimulating the ego in one way or another that after several decades, they are bound to have a profound effect on people. There is just so many examples: TV ads for cars are playing entirely on that front, clothing companies, and what about this campaign about the “most interesting man in the world”? (ironic but still…). Isn’t the aim of every company selling consumer products to make its clients think they are special and really important (and that they will look cool and smart if they buy their stuff)?

  2. Andrew G says:

    Hal Niedzviecki’s book on this is really entertaining — I highly recommend it. Hello, I’m Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity –

    2006 — nice job in catching the trend early. Hal’s a good Canadian, too. :)

  3. Dr. LL says:

    This article is spot-on as it was centered around Kunert’s own comments where she said “… it’s sad”. This example speaks volumes about the growing pervasiveness of narcissism. Somewhere along the way, kids haven’t learned the lesson that it’s okay to fail, to do so simply means try again until you find something that you enjoy doing and are reasonably good at or even, heaven forbid, just “average” at doing. Today, I know kids who have received trophies even if the team didn’t win the league – and even if they never made the team at all but they showed up for try-outs! We all understand increased pressure in the world, the difficulty competing in a global marketplace, the challenges of growing up, and how you must adapt to a shifting economy in this era where job loss is commonplace, but we have to teach our kids that’s it not always about them. Sometimes, somebody else *is* better than you and that’s ok: be proud of who you are and what you’ve achieved, but celebrate others and be inspired by those who have achieved their own successes.


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