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The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement

A website promoting a particular religious outlook, directs this message to its visitors:

No other person has ever been born—nor will there be ever be one who is just like you. Yes, God created you to be different from everyone else and that is why you are special.

No one else has your point of view, your personality, your character or your passions. No one can parent your children, listen to your spouse, care for your parents, or siblings, or friends like you. No one else has your ideas, your talents, your abilities, your creativeness or your unique point of view. No, there is truly nobody like you.

And on the National Association for Self-Esteem site, a “Self-Esteem Booster” offers tips such as this one to increase self-esteem:

  1. Use affirmations to boost your self-esteem. On the back of a business card or small index card, write out a statement such as “I like and accept myself just the way I am,” I am the master of my destiny,” “I am somebody, I love myself, I believe in myself.” Carry the card with you. Repeat the statement several times during the day, especially at night before going to bed and after getting up in the morning. Whenever you say the affirmation, allow yourself to experience positive feelings about your statement. (National Association for Self Esteem).

While the above examples imply that being special, or loving oneself, is crucial for a person’s well-being, self-absorption and self-centeredness have pejorative meanings in our culture. A self-centered person who puts her own interests above others is unprincipled, we would say, and, as a result, cannot be trusted. Is it possible for an individual to love herself, think she is special, and not be self-centered? How have attitudes about humility and self-love evolved in American life over the past few decades? How has the Internet, which can change unknowns to celebrities by providing sophisticated tools for self-expression and self-promotion, influenced our estimations of ourselves and our relationships to others? The answers to these questions are relevant to higher education faculty and administrators because the behaviors and attitudes of college students, like those of others in society, are affected by cultural trends and the societal undercurrents that drive them.

In The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, authors Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell address these questions and set out to convince their readers that the number of people in the US who are self-promoting and self-absorbed is increasing to the point that there is a narcissistic epidemic, that, like any other menacing contagion, is having far-reaching negative consequences.

Twenge and Campbell describe narcissists as those who are overconfident. They demand special treatment because they think they are entitled to it—not because of hard work, kind deeds, or accomplishment—but because of who they perceive themselves to be. In their lives, they have little time for anyone else but themselves, and most likely do not have caring and reciprocal relationships. They often take advantage of others in order to advance their self-interest and tend to display symbols of affluence (though they may not be affluent) because such symbols attract attention and envy.

The authors make it clear that those who have Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) are not the subject of their book. Having a diagnosed pathological level of narcissism is not synonymous with exhibiting narcissistic personality traits, which are measured by the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI, developed by Raskin and Terry). The authors focus on those who score high on the NPI, whom they call narcissists, but whose behaviors and attitudes are not extreme enough to warrant a clinical diagnosis. The actions and arrogant attitudes of narcissistic persons, however, are nevertheless harmful to themselves, others, and society, the authors claim.

To help explain the narcissism epidemic, the authors used the Mutual Constitution of Culture and Psyche model, developed by Markus and Kitayama, to indicate ways that individuals and cultures influence each other. Twenge and Campbell adapted it to fit their research on narcissism. According to the model, a particular culture is shaped by its underlying core values and ideas including those regarding the moral actions of the individual and her relationship to the society in which she lives. Twenge and Campbell argue that the core cultural values and ideas have evolved in such a way that a primary value is “feeling good about one’s self” (p. 306). Sociopyschological elements promote the core ideas and values of our current US culture, and these include educational institutions, parenting, and media influences. Other values that are prominent in American culture are independence, individuality, uniqueness, and exceptional talents.

While many factors influence the behaviors of individuals in a culture and their relationships to each other and to society as a whole, the authors provide some examples of factors that might lead to narcissism. These examples should not be generalized as the sole such influences, but are worth noting for those of us in the educational field.

For instance, at very early ages, many children in the US are given a wide range of choices about their interests and activities in contrast to children of many other cultures. Parents emphasize how special their children are, and this emphasis on being special evolves into a sense of entitlement. This attitude is reinforced in school by teachers who set out to make each student feel outstanding—even if he or she has done nothing to warrant such attention. The sense of feeling special, outstanding, exceptional, and entitled without actually earning these labels is exacerbated by self-promoting Internet and social network sites. As a result, these attitudes, while rare in the mid-twentieth century, according to the authors, have become common in our contemporary life.

Why Educators Should Be Concerned

It is obvious why higher education faculty, student affairs professionals, and others interested in the intellectual and moral development of college students should be concerned (if not alarmed!) about this phenomenon that Twenge and Campbell describe.

Learning From Mistakes

For example, those who exhibit narcissistic behaviors tend to delight in and live for praise but do not react well to criticism, and therefore have difficulty learning from their mistakes. Educators can imagine (or remember) scenarios when students might not admit that they themselves are the causes of their errors and, instead, blame others.

Connecting Accomplishment With Effort and Persistence

While much of the educational process is about learning from mistakes in order to develop and improve, self-absorption is an obstacle to such improvement. Narcissists lack the “motivation to improve because they believe they have already made it. . . ” (p. 42). Such overconfidence can hinder performance and discourage real effort and persistence. “The culture of self admiration tells us to love ourselves unconditionally for what we are. This is unfortunate because most personal change takes practice and time. . .” (pp. 284-285).

Learning With Others

Students with narcissistic tendencies most likely do not work well with their classmates. Because they see themselves as superior to others, they naturally see others as inferior—and as a consequence— treat others as inferior. Making themselves look good is more important than working cooperatively with their peers in order for fellow group members to succeed or to contribute to a constructive learning environment. The self is the primary source of value, not the knowledge or skills that may be acquired through collaboration with others or the reward that comes with challenging assignments and supportive teamwork.

Social Networking

While these three concerns are noted in the book, and are not the only ones mentioned, the authors particularly emphasize the second concern, that is, individuals not associating accomplishment and recognition with repeated effort and resilience. A chapter is devoted to what the authors see as an increasingly powerful force against human persistence and hard work. This is a force that has permeated society and helped to distort attitudes about one’s self so that excessive self-promotion is now perceived as “normal” behavior. This force is the allure of attention and potential celebrity generated by social networks.

According to Twenge and Campbell, “narcissists thrive on social networking sites” (p. 110), and “social networking sites reinforce narcissists in an endless loop” (p. 111). Promoting the self in order to create the image that one is popular and important by means of displaying pleasing photographs, detailed descriptions of interests and activities, and the largest number of Facebook-type friends is fundamental to the structure and purpose of social media. The authors report that college students who scored high on surveys measuring narcissistic behaviors were experts in focusing on their best qualities, attracting and building a large collection of friends on their sites, and more likely to interact with others who display similar behaviors (p. 111).

The authors point to reasons for concluding that Internet sites such as these promote narcissism. For one thing, Facebook and blog authors are tempted to create distorted images of themselves because emphasizing only what they think are the most attractive elements of their personalities is easy to do. The focus is often on superficial aspects–which are conveyed in posts of their every move and thought. The posts are justified, they think, because the reports broadcast aspects about themselves—so they must be of great interest to others. Often the superficial postings leave little room for subtle elements that characterize thoughtful face-to-face relationships.

In addition,

people who are desperate for attention have access to a huge potential audience on the Web, via sites such as YouTube, blogs, newspaper comment boards, and photo-rating sties. (p. 122)

Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can gain some amount of fame. (p. 121)

This new technology has done more than democratize entertainment—it has given millions of people the opportunity to seek the attention and fame that they crave. (p. 121)

What Educators Should Do

The following are suggestions that may be useful in helping young people temper tendencies to focus exclusively or mainly on themselves.

Learning How to Set Realistic Goals

Teaching young people to set reasonable goals is an important educational task. These goals should involve a certain degree of struggle and challenge that can help them build confidence in their abilities while also aiding them in awareness of their weaknesses and, as a result, help them to acquire humility.

Engaging in Activities That Help to Avoid Excessive Focus on Self

Goals should include high level activities that motivate students to become so involved that they lose focus on themselves. Such engagement often requires a connection between students and highly meaningful assignments. Paradoxically, a person can find an activity so interesting that she loses focus on her self. This is the concept of flow. Although the authors mention flow, they do not go into detail about flow activities. Csikszentmihaliyi (1993) indicates four characteristics that likely produce flow.

  • These activities have concrete goals and manageable rules;
  • make it possible to adjust opportunities for action to our capacities
  • provide clear information about how well we are doing
  • and screen out distractions and make concentration possible. (p. xiv)

Learning to Concentrate

Persons who have not been trained to discipline themselves to concentrate may be unusually distracted by thoughts centered on the self. When their thoughts are disrupted, their default button directs them to attend to details that relate to self.  Class activities that require students to concentrate for blocks of time on tasks may aid them in strengthening their attention abilities. As more online classes are added to the college curriculum, an important challenge for teachers and institutions is to create an online environment demanding that students devote their full attention to tasks for long periods of time.

Working Hard and Being Persistent Even in Failure in Order to Improve

Learning how to fail is a valuable skill and is much more complicated and difficult than one might think. Coping with failure in ways that improve performance is especially difficult for many students—especially when they see other students succeed with less effort. Yet, students who do poorly should be encouraged to try again. Constructive encouragement is one of the most fundamental and essential aspects of good teaching. It is also one of the reasons why effective teaching is a key factor in combating what the authors describe as the narcissism epidemic. Good teaching focuses on specific feedback whose purpose is improvement in specific skills and knowledge (intrinsic reward) rather than on competition and recognition (extrinsic reward).

Learning to Be Civil and Resolve Conflict

Students must not only learn to work hard but also to deal with others’ needs and, at times, others’ accomplishments. It is difficult for an individual to have patience when interacting with others while she is absorbed in her own problems and success. Yet, getting along with others while acknowledging their differences and successes is not only a necessary life skill but also an educational skill because it is essential in any learning environment—even a virtual one. Conflicts arise and must be dealt with maturely. Students should learn to balance self-reliance, initiative, and diligence with civil cooperation by means of engaging in both independent and group assignments and activities.

Rarely Engaging in Self-Promotion Activities

According to the authors, engaging students at an early age in self-promoting activities that emphasize themselves as special is detrimental to their well-being. Using anecdotal examples such as an “I am special” and “look at me” song proposed at a school (p. 16) or badges given out in class that ironically say, “[Blank]is special” with the name of the child written in (p. 189) expose the hollowness that the label special has become. These experiences contribute to the attitude that one need not exert one’s self in any way in order to have recognition and that the recognition really does not point to anything beyond itself; specifically, it is not a result of effort or merit. Such self-promoting activities should be limited.

Learning to Be Grateful and Humble

Having a thankful attitude about what one has, rather than a resentful attitude about what one desires but does not have is a quality that narcissists lack. Associated with a grateful attitude is humility, which is the recognition that as a member of a common humanity, one has faults, suffers, and must deal with obstacles. Although gratefulness and humility may not be easily learned in the classroom or larger college environment, such attitudes do influence the learning process. How can higher education institutions aid their students in acquiring these attitudes? Research suggests, claim the authors, that the following approaches do help to reduce narcissistic behaviors:

Practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness training has shown to help people subdue their ego (p. 284). This training tends to keep thoughts of self and desire for more superficial elements from invading every aspect of experience. For example, being mindful aids in resisting misinterpreting others’ words and actions as judgmental and thus can assist in reducing anger and unnecessary conflict. Generally, it helps persons to be content with what they have, while aiding in improving mental faculties and moral behaviors. More and more campuses are seeking to provide training in mindfulness (e.g., Contemplative Studies and Practices).

Drawing on sources of faith. The authors write that “drawing on the compassionate, mindful aspects of . . . faith is a great way to quiet the ego. Almost all world regions teach love, compassion and forgiveness” (p. 284). For examples of campus programs and resources, see Interfaith Dialog and College Programs: Faith and Spirituality.

Serving with focus on others’ needs . Although the authors acknowledge that volunteering among young adults has increased in recent years, they also suggest that such an increase may be an indication of a “growing compatibility with the rise in narcissism” (p. 250). In order to attract volunteers, agencies and organizations often present the primary good of service experience as helping the volunteer. Because so many others are garnering attention through easy postings on media, Twenge and Campbell suggest that narcissists may see voluntary service as a better means to get recognition. Thus it is recommended that service-based programs emphasize to student that the purpose in their service should be the welfare of others rather than themselves.

Looking to the Future

Here are just a few minor points that might have strengthened the authors’ argument for the spread of narcissism.

Social networks since the publication of the authors’ book in 2009 have raised consciousness about social justice in ways that may have not been feasible at the time of their writing of this work. For example, recent books have been written about the role of digital activism in the Arab Spring (e.g., Howard & Hussain, 2013). Yet, with only a few sentences dealing with the positive effects of Internet in general, in contrast to several pages describing the negative effects of social media, the authors, it may be argued, depict a mostly one-sided view of the potential influences of social media on narcissism.

The authors say that the spread of narcissism these days is “exactly” like Hitler’s use of core ideas from the existing culture in enabling his rise to power in the German culture. The discussion of how myths, stories, and symbols were used to indoctrinate German citizens alerts us to similar phenomena in our own culture that glamorize celebrity and convince us we can all be celebrities without our realizing how duped we’ve been in the process! However, there are no perfect analogies, and this comparison would have been enriched with a discussion of more nuanced contrasts.

Finally, the misplaced focus regarding the benefit of self over community that the authors criticize in some service-learning programs seems to be repeated on the cover of their book: a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle warns that that thinking about oneself puts one at a great “disadvantage” when competing in the “marketplace.” Should not the emphasis be on the harm narcissism does to society and others rather than the potential danger of being a narcissist to oneself? This seems to contradict the core message of the book.

. . .

Yet, this book is a very fascinating work that cautions us readers to question our attitudes about self and its place in society. We in the US are participants in a culture that in many ways reinforces and compounds greed, self-love, and a craving for attention. The book provides numerous valuable resources for educators, parents, and other individuals, but perhaps its most useful effect is its awakening us to the fact that we may be so immersed within a narcissistic society that we are not aware of the narcissism it is creating in each of us.

References

Csikszdntmihalyi, M. (1993). The evolving self: A psychology for the third millennium. New York: HarperPerennial.

Howard, P. N., & Muzammil M. H., (2013). Democracy’s fourth wave? Digital media and the Arab Spring. New York: Oxford University Press.

 

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