The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement

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This book is very critical of the way (some) Americans lead their lives. The main thesis is the "American culture encourages self-admiration with the belief that it will improve our lives."

I tend of be skeptical of the research on "personality types",[1] and I am not knowledgeable enough about the field to assess whether the problem/epidemic is as serious (and unprecedented) as the authors suggest. That said, my hunch is that, in the aggregate, a lot of valuable time is probably spent/wasted on the presentation of self. It is not controversial that signaling can be wasteful (the standard argument is about education but it can easily be extended to signals of popularity, etc.).

The passages below summarize the arguments by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell. Presented below without endorsement/dispute. (Actually, I fully endorse the part about constant praise being ill-advised.)

Reality distortion

We have phony rich people (with interest-only mortgages and piles of debt), phony beauty (with plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures), phony athletes (with performance-enhancing drugs), phony celebrities (via reality TV and YouTube), phony genius students (with grade inflation), a phony national economy (with $11 trillion of government debt), phony feelings of being special among children (with parenting and education focused on self-esteem), and phony friends (with the social networking explosion). All this fantasy might feel good, but, unfortunately, reality always wins.

Myth: Narcissism is helpful...

In a convenient combination of the American core cultural values of self-admiration and competition, many people believe that always putting yourself first is necessary to compete.

... if self-admiration caused success, American children, who have the highest self-esteem of children anywhere in the world, would also be the most successful. This simple prediction, however, doesn’t match the data. In a recent study, 39% of American eighth-graders were confident of their math skills, compared to only 6% of Korean eighth-graders. The Koreans, however, far exceeded the U.S. students’ actual performance on math tests. We’re not number one, but we’re number one in thinking we are number one.

... Within the United States, the ethnic group with the lowest self-esteem, Asian-Americans, achieves the highest academic performance. So the group with “alarmingly low self-esteem” is actually doing the best in school

... but self-promotion is a valuable skill

Due to greater competition and the breakdown of this implied social contract, self-promotion is more necessary than it once was. When you switch jobs more often, you have to know how to polish your résumé and sound good in an interview. With college admissions more competitive, students must “package” themselves to get in.

Constant praise has real costs

When parents and teachers protect children from failure to cushion their self-esteem, kids may end up doing worse because they aren’t learning from their mistakes. It is just fine to feel a little bad about yourself as you learn something.

Fame is used as a carte blanche

In May 2007, Paris was sentenced to 45 days in jail because she drove with a suspended license after being convicted of driving while intoxicated. She immediately protested that it wasn’t her fault, claiming her publicist didn’t tell her she wasn’t supposed to drive. Before long she was meeting with California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, hoping for a pardon, and hundreds of people signed a “Free Paris” petition declaring that Paris should not be sent to jail because “she provides beauty and excitement [in] our otherwise mundane lives.”

Playing the lottery: not a rational path for advancement

In 2005, 31% of American high school students said they expected to become famous someday. Under-privileged kids buy into this dream just as much or more than those with more money; just as many kids from poor neighborhoods as from middle-class ones were sure they would become famous. As communications researcher Danah Boyd puts it, for “working class kids…the only path out [is] the ‘lottery’ (a.k.a. becoming a famous rock star, athlete, etc.). Over and over, working class kids tell me that they’re a better singer than anyone on American Idol and that this is why they’re going to get to be on the show.” When asked whether they would rather become famous, smarter, stronger, or more beautiful, 42% of black teens said famous, as did 21% of white teens.

The downside of relationships with Ns

For narcissists, relationships are fungible: one trophy spouse can be exchanged for another, and as long as the narcissist’s ego is being fed the same amount of admiration, that’s fine. For narcissists, relationships and material goods are almost interchangeable.

On leadership

Like many cultures, the Arab world has its share of narcissistic leaders and celebrities. Saddam Hussein plastered his face on every billboard he could find, had more than 100 homes, and killed those who defied him. One could argue that Islamic terrorists are incredibly narcissistic, willing to kill innocent people to advance their worldview. Between the forces of shallow Western materialism and extreme religious righteousness, much of the Muslim world has already been infected by narcissism.

The tools

The Internet doesn’t care if you focus on promoting yourself, making art, or helping the world; it facilitates all of these things. We suspect, however, that many of the ways people use the Internet will continue to increase narcissism. There are at least five reasons for this.

... Third, some people become addicted to Internet use. Many people talk about “MySpace addiction” or use the term “Crackberry” to describe their experience with checking e-mail on their BlackBerries. This addiction can also be linked to fame or notoriety. People can get hooked on the attention-seeking aspects of the Web.

An International Self-Esteem Day

When we authors began to assemble our predictions for the future, we guessed that in the future the United States might have a “national self-esteem day.” Just to make sure we weren’t predicting an event that had already happened, we Googled it. Sure enough, somebody had beat us to it—not only in the United States, but also in New Zealand, a country of self-reliant individuals that we’d hoped hadn’t bought into this whole mess. New Zealand Self-Esteem Day was the proud (of course) creation of a woman named Janice Davies. Recently, Janice decided to rename it International Self-Esteem Day.

One solution

Parenting is a good place to begin to slow the narcissism epidemic. Parents need to abandon the notion that their child is the center of the universe. ...

... You can love a child without thinking that he or she is by definition the greatest child in the world. In a way, that is the definition of mature love.

... Parents should also set limits. There’s a simple rule of parenting many seem to have forgotten recently: Kids should not always get what they want.

Relevant research

This paper[2] is not cited in the book, but it documents quite convincingly that this personality trait has broader social costs:

Using the size of CEO signatures in SEC filings to measure individual narcissism, we find that it is associated with several negative firm outcomes. We first validate signature size as a measure of narcissism in a laboratory experiment. We then use CEO signatures to study the relation between CEO narcissism, the firm’s investment policies, and firm performance. CEO narcissism is associated with overinvestment, particularly in the form of R&D and M&A expenditures, but not capital expenditures. Firms led by narcissistic CEOs are associated with lower innovative productivity in the form of patents and lower financial productivity in the form of profitability and operating cash flows. Despite this negative performance, narcissistic CEOs enjoy higher absolute and relative compensation.

  1. Joseph Stromberg and Estelle Caswell: Why the Myers-Briggs test is totally meaningless ↩︎

  2. Ham, Charles (Chad) and Seybert, Nicholas and Wang, Sean, Narcissism Is a Bad Sign: CEO Signature Size, Investment, and Performance (2014). UNC Kenan-Flagler Research Paper No. 2013-1. Available at SSRN: ↩︎

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