Shedding Light in the Darkness

Are We Awash in a Sea of Narcissism?


A tweet after the tragic derailment of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia got me wondering about the subject of self-absorption. After the deadly wreck, a musician tweeted to Amtrak – “thanks a lot for derailing my train. Can I please get my violin back from the 2nd car of the train?”

The insensitivity to the situation was shocking. Was it just another example of rates of self-absorption skyrocketing in recent years with the advent of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, selfies etc? So what does the research say?

In their book The Narcissism Epidemic,” psychologists Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell argued that the United States is suffering from an epidemic of narcissism. And that there has been, “a relentless rise of narcissism in our culture. Not only are there more narcissists than ever, but non-narcissistic people are seduced by the increasing emphasis on material wealth, physical appearance, celebrity worship, and attention seeking.”

They write: “The rise in narcissism is accelerating, with scores rising faster in the 2000s than in previous decades. By 2006, 1 out of 4 college students agreed with the majority of the items on a standard measure of narcissistic traits. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), the more severe, clinically diagnosed version of the trait, is also far more common than once thought.

“Nearly 1 out of 10 of Americans in their twenties, and 1 out of 16 of those of all ages, has experienced the symptoms of NPD. Even these shocking numbers are just the tip of the iceberg; lurking underneath is the narcissistic culture that has drawn in many more. The narcissism epidemic has spread to the culture as a whole, affecting both narcissistic and less self-centered people.”

“America’s been sliding into self-obsession for a very long time,” says Dr. Twenge.

As for selfies, a 2013 study out of the U.K. found that the phenomenon may be damaging to real world relationships, concluding that both excessive photo sharing and sharing photos of a certain type—including self-portraits—makes people less likeable. The same study found that increased frequency of sharing self-portraits is related to a decrease in intimacy with others.

Dr David Houghton, a lecturer in marketing at Birmingham Business School and lead author of the report, said: “Our research found that those who frequently post photographs on Facebook risk damaging real-life relationships. This is because people, other than very close friends and relatives, don’t seem to relate well to those who constantly share photos of themselves.

A “Reflecting on Narcissism” article in the APA’s Monitor on Psychology wondered: “Are young people more self-obsessed than ever before?

“You can look at individual scores of narcissism, you can look at data on lifetime prevalence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, you can look at related cultural trends, and they all point to one thing,” says W. Keith Campbell, PhD, head of the University of Georgia psychology department. “Narcissism is on the rise.”

So there you have it, maybe we are awash in a sea of narcissism. But not everyone agrees.

A 2008 study by Michigan State University psychologist Brent Donnellan and Kali Trzesniewski, a psychologist at the University of California, concluded that some indicators of narcissism had increased while others had decreased. Over all, there was no significant change. “We were unable to find evidence that either narcissism or the closely related construct of self-enhancement has increased over the past three decades,” they write.

“Kids today are remarkably similar to previous generations, at least in terms of their traits and behaviors,” says Trzesniewski. “They are just as narcissistic as we were at their age.”

But we’ll let Twenge have the last word. Responding to 2008 study by Donnellan and  Trzesniewski, in a Psychology Today article she pointed out: “When I opened their datafile, I was floored: Narcissism increased over time in every ethnic group. In other words, the researchers who told the New York Times and Psychological Science that narcissism hadn’t changed were contradicted by their own data.”


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