How Narcissism Works

Is the prevalence of selfies evidence of a larger cultural issue with narcissism? Or are old folks just irritated with whippersnappers?
Is the prevalence of selfies evidence of a larger cultural issue with narcissism? Or are old folks just irritated with whippersnappers?
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Narcissism is a complex phenomenon, and there are all sorts of manifestations. For one thing, some experts argue that it's more accurate to think of the traits as a spectrum of behavior. This spectrum can range from low self-esteem (sometimes called echoism, after Narcissus's ill-fated admirer) to a mid-range of "healthy narcissism" all the way to the deep end of narcissistic personality disorder. There's even an online test you can take to determine where you fall on the spectrum.

While data that correlates narcissism with certain occupations is thin on the ground, some research shows that in the work environment, narcissists tend to show up either at the top or the bottom of the food chain, depending on how effectively they deploy their entitled behavior to benefit or hinder others [source: Useem].

According to a 2008 study, the disorder occurs at a rate of 7.7 percent for men in the U.S. and 4.8 percent for women (Reich was right!). Among men the condition often shows up in tandem with alcohol and drug addictions, obsessive compulsive disorder and an excessive attention-seeking behavior called "histrionic personality disorder." For women, however, narcissism tends to be associated with bipolar II disorder, general anxiety and certain phobias. The average across genders is 6.2 percent [source: Stinson et al.]. So, for all the fuss being made about narcissism these days, it's hardly an epidemic. Or is it?

For some time now, narcissism has been about much more than individual behavior. Some cultural critics have seized on it as a way of making sense of contemporary society. There are those who even go so far as to call it the pathology of our time, replacing Oedipus with Narcissus as the Greek myth of the moment [source: Tyler]. Modern media and information technology are seemingly behind the trend.

Posting non-stop selfies to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or your social media outlet of choice is just reinforcing and rewarding narcissistic behavior. Reality TV shows in which competitors announce they're showing up to win, not make friends, are emblematic of an epidemic of narcissism. To make matters worse, questionnaires issued annually to college students tell a frightening story, with roughly 70 percent of those polled reporting lower empathy and higher narcissism than did their peers 30 years ago [source: Gray].

Some argue that social media has a particularly deleterious effect on young people who must necessarily go through a narcissistic stage as they seek to create individual identities for themselves. The fear is that the infinitely self-reflexive nature of social media could arrest them in that stage and prevent the development of empathy that comes with maturity [source: Fishwick].

But when it comes to behavioral pathologies, there are always arguments over how to assess them. And even if you agree on the assessment criteria, how do you read the data? Are young people, for instance, self-reporting their behavior more openly than they did in previous generations? The arguments continue, but, college surveys aside, most experts maintain that the rate of narcissistic personality disorder remains relatively constant as a rare pathology and can't be said to amount to an epidemic [source: Remes]. It's possible that we're becoming more narcissistic as a population, but the rates of clinical disorder aren't changing much.

It's also possible that all the fear of a narcissism "epidemic" is just another example of crotchety elders anxious about young people, as we always are. Since at least the 1970s, researchers have been worrying about increasing levels of "self-admiration." That's when the first so-called "me generation" is said to have surfaced [source: Levy]. And before that? Back before we got scientificky about our intergenerational anxieties, we used to just say, "Young people these days ... no respect!" Which is another way of saying, "No empathy." Which is yet another way of saying, "They're all narcissists!"

Then again, maybe those fears aren't entirely ill-founded. If we grow increasingly self-involved as a culture, could our resulting isolation put the most vulnerable of us at risk? Take Japan, for instance, where traditional social cohesion and respect for elders once safeguarded the livelihood of retirees. In today's highly industrialized, more individualistic context, some Japanese pensioners are so impoverished and isolated from their family support network that they've resorted to breaking the law. At least in prison they know they'll get three square meals a day and adequate medical attention [source: McCurry]. Are these senior jail birds the canaries in the narcissistic coal mine? Maybe. Or maybe it's just a question of crunching the numbers and realizing it's cheaper to top up pensions rather than rely on jails to deal with the crisis.

In an influential essay, Imogen Tyler argues that the cultural preoccupation with narcissism has to do with the rise of identity politics. Complaining about a culture-wide epidemic of narcissism, she says, is really a way of stigmatizing those groups associated with that rise. If you're already in a position of privilege, it's easy enough to look around and see nothing but a sea of people proclaiming their importance. Call them narcissists if you wish, but for previously marginalized people, a little narcissism could be a good thing.

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