Every once in awhile you come across a book that could be called a Foundational Text, a book that so cuts to the heart of societal malaise you wonder that you never thought of the idea yourself. Often you did think of it but waited for someone more qualified to actually write it. These books can also be described as potential game changers, provided they reach a wide enough audience and do so at just the right time in history. Among such books I would include Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, The Energy of Slaves by Andrew Nikiforuk, The Corporation by Joel Bakan, This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein and now The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by psychologists Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell.
These works are foundational in that they address the root issues most critical in 21st century society: global climate change, the failure of capitalism, the socio-environmental impact of the oil industry, the neurological implications of 24/7 digital culture, and the ethos of narcissism.
Too often these days when reeling from the tsunami of global bad news—from climate change to despotic regimes—we react with the dog-eared lament: What’s the world coming to? Or: What’s going on? Has the world gone mad? While these concerns have often been seen as the preserve of the elderly or out-of-touch, they are no less real. And if you want to understand why society is now threatened by the multiple vectors of an increasing lack of compassion, an apparent inability to rally to the global crisis of climate change, and the continual injustices spawned by out-of-control capitalism, then read The Narcissism Epidemic.
Twenge and Campbell use psychological research to demonstrate that there has indeed been a plummeting scale of altruism during the past 35 years—in direct tandem with the global supremacy of monopoly capitalism. College students have been polled consistently during this period so there’s a reliable data set from which to draw conclusions. The results show that in a list of priorities for their future, students now overwhelmingly rate “becoming wealthy” at number one, followed closely by “becoming famous.” Consistently at the bottom of the list is “helping others” or “developing spirituality.”
Also measured in these surveys is the shifting ground of self-esteem over the decades. In one study, the largest change over time was the answers to the statement, ‘I am an important person.’ “Only 12% of teens agreed with this statement in the 1950s, but by the late ’80s more than 80% of girls and 77% of boys said they were important. A study called Monitoring the Future found that the number of high school students who said that “having lots of money” was “extremely important” increased 66% between 1976 and 2006.” The authors note that this is far from just elders finger-pointing; in a 2008 Harris Interactive poll, 20-somethings were more—not less—likely to agree that their generation is more selfish and greedy.
The paradox here is that while you’d think that an overall increase in self-esteem would be a good thing for society, the reverse has proven true. Twenge and Campbell are careful to distinguish between true self-confidence—which arises from actual accomplishment and justified pride in it—and narcissistic overconfidence. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a diagnosable mental illness and among its characteristics are people who have an inflated view of themselves that often does not match their actual abilities or accomplishments. It can reach the point of absurdity, as when they score low on academic tests yet tell everyone they did great.
Narcissistic CEOs of corporations, for example, consistently over-promise and under-produce. While they’re often great at cultivating a powerful media image of themselves, their actual performance is typically worse than a more humble, dedicated worker. The real performers are “not the charismatic, ultra-confident figures you’d expect. Instead, they are humble, avoid the limelight, never rest on their laurels, and continuously try to prove themselves.” This has rippled out to affect America as a whole, which has seen a continuous decline in actual economic production in recent years. Yet, like true narcissists, Americans continue to believe they are the best in the world. “We’re not number one, but we’re number one in thinking we’re number one,” write Twenge and Campbell. With the creep of American values injected into Canadian culture by Harper’s Conservatives, I would argue Canadians aren’t far behind in that equation.
There has also been a clear link between the rise in narcissistic values and the decline of empathy. Ironically, the self-esteem cultivation that has entered the mainstream of public education has only worsened the situation. By constantly telling kids they are “unique,” or “special,” or “a princess,” we emphasize children’s differences, not their similarities. Part of the diagnosis of NPD includes a sense of entitlement or even superiority. So by constantly harping on how “special” our children are, we’re cultivating people who believe they are entitled to special or exceptional treatment. This has been manifested in an education system that rewards everyone simply for showing up, not for the work they produce. And by passing kids whose work doesn’t make the grade, we’re just handing off the problem to post-secondary institutions, where students are shocked to learn that simply demanding an ‘A’ won’t get you one.
The shocking rise in school shootings fits within the context of rampant narcissism too. Twenge and Campbell note that within a year of its public launch in 2005, Facebook garnered 100 million users. By then, the cultural ground for narcissism had been well cultivated. Still, the authors definitely see social media as a major narcissism enabler. Now the goal is to become famous just for being famous, or for some extreme or horrendous act. The young man who shot several people at Virginia Tech before killing himself paused in his rampage to upload video footage of the shootings. Social media seems to have also become an enabler for ‘swarmings’ where an unpopular student is beaten by a gang, all on video. Often the only reason for the student’s unpopularity is that they disagreed with one of the gang. Persons with NPD are characterized by an outsized, often violent reaction to criticism of any kind.
Another question addressed by Twenge and Campbell is: Where have the parents been in all this? Although they see the change in parenting practice as having begun in the 1970s, it really began to take off in the materialistic ’80s, which was dubbed ‘The Me Decade.’ In reality this has persisted and only worsened up to the present. Call it ‘The Me Era.’ This has led to a reversal of parent-child roles. In the past, the parents were the clear authority in the family, and children sought their approval by their actions. Now, the children are in control, and parents seek approval from them. This of course ties in well with top research done in motivational psychology, which is employed in advertising with the precision of rocket science. It’s far easier to manipulate children, who lack experience and judgment, than adults, as was so well articulated in The Corporation. And if the children are in control…
Twenge and Campbell offer advice to educators and parents as to how they might ‘inoculate’ children from this epidemic. The three warning signs of parenting practice that lead to narcissistic children are: 1. Overindulgence; 2. Praising (being told you’re “great,” “special,” etc.) and 3. Putting the child in charge. Some children even tell their parents what car to buy even though they are making no financial contribution to the purchase. Typically, such purchases are designed to boost self-image in the eyes of their peers due to their status as a top-brand consumer item. The other advice the authors offer is that schools stop teaching children “I Am Special” songs and instead teach them the value of helping others. The two are often incompatible, so grafting one onto the other cancels out the intended benefit.
Given that Twenge and Campbell do such a masterful job of identifying the root cause of so many social problems now—even linking rampant narcissism with the environmental crisis—they somehow miss one of the root causes of this epidemic. Perhaps they should have read The Corporation before they sat down to write this book. As Naomi Klein has said, capitalism is at war with the planet. True environmental sustainability and capitalism are antithetical to one another. You can’t solve a problem with the tool that created it. The same applies to the social and psychological issues we face. It’s clearly in the interests of capitalism to cultivate narcissism, the view that humans are primarily interested in self-gratification. Advertisers have known this since the 1950s. Why encourage sharing and giving, when sales figures are more likely to be boosted by fostering individual acquisitiveness? Why encourage humility when humble individuals are unlikely to need expensive cars, clothes or jewelry?
The Narcissism Epidemic delineates the tragic effects of narcissism on close relationships. Current generations of young people seem incapable of forming long-term relationships. A narcissist is primarily self-concerned and self-promoting, so chances are, if their partner no longer fits the bill for sexiness or status, they’ll be summarily dumped. We need to stop teaching people nonsense like: “You can’t love anyone else if you don’t love yourself” (another misconception). Instead, the authors suggest a different proverb: “If you love yourself too much you won’t have enough love left for anyone else.”
NOTE: This book was published in 2009 and the authors speculated that the 2008 market crash would have a braking effect on rampant materialism, and perhaps even on the epidemic of narcissism. It’s worth noting that with youth unemployment at record highs, younger generations may soon discover the value in cooperation rather than competition. In Spain, where youth unemployment is 50%, the workers’ co-op movement has gained renewed vigour. And the Compassion Charter may be the leading edge of reversing societal narcissism: http://positivenews.org.uk/2015/wellbeing/16941/world-cornwall-signs-compassion-charter/
It’s also worth checking out Australian writer Anne Manne’s presentation on the narcissism epidemic at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. Her book on the topic is titled The Life of I but unfortunately doesn’t seem to be widely available. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smCxe_3Tq1E