It seems obvious that there is a narcissism epidemic in many countries: people taking selfies everywhere we look; adolescents saying that their goal in life is to become famous; celebrities behaving like gods; people exploding in rage in response to imagined affronts; charlatans, shysters and jerks everywhere betraying trust. Psychologists have been written books about it: “The Narcissism Epidemic”, by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, tracked scores of U.S. college students on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) across generations and found that there had been an increase in narcissism.
Claims based on the NPI have been disputed by Kari Trzensniewski, who conducted research using a slightly different data set and found no increase in NPI scores. In the face of ambiguous evidence, I wonder whether it might be narcissistic of me to continue to accept that there is a narcissism epidemic. Nevertheless, I will persist. A national survey conducted in the U.S. suggests that about 10 percent of people in their 20’s have experienced symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) at some time during their lives. So, even if narcissism hasn’t been increasing it might still be reasonable to view it as an epidemic.
NPD is a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, exaggeration of achievements and talents, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of understanding of others' feelings. The Mayo Clinic has published a longer list of symptoms that are referred to in the DSMv. Narcissism exists on a spectrum, ranging from exhibiting a few traits to the full-blown personality disorder.
Anne Manne, an Australian journalist has provided an interesting discussion of the nature and causes of narcissism in her book, The Life of I, The new culture of narcissism, updated edition published 2015.
She notes that Twenge and Campbell have taken aim at myths regarding the relationship between narcissism and self-esteem. They point out that narcissism is not just high self-esteem, in the sense of a quiet and sturdy confidence in oneself. Narcissists feel superior; they are arrogant and unwilling to accept criticism.
Twenge and Campbell also suggest that it is a myth that narcissism is a mask for low self-esteem. They are opposed to the psychodynamic view that narcissists are flawed people who are ‘hurt deep down inside’. According to their view a narcissist is ‘just a jerk’.
However, Manne notes that Erin Myer and Virgil Zeigler Hill found that narcissistic people revealed lower self-esteem than non-narcissistic people when a bogus lie detector test was used in assessing self-esteem and narcissism. Narcissists don’t like to admit weakness or vulnerability.
Manne points to a corresponding division of views on the causes of narcissism. Twenge and Campbell argue that what makes a child into a narcissist is spoiling, indulgence, an absence of moral discipline in building character, and a culture of excessive praise, of telling children they are special. However, findings of research by Lorna Otway and Vivian Vignoles, using recollections of young adults to test a range of views of the role of parenting in development of narcissism, support a Freudian view. Apparently future narcissists receive constant praise from their caregivers that is accompanied by implicit messages of coldness and rejection rather than warmth and acceptance. This helps explain the combination of grandiosity and fragility exhibited by many narcissists.
Manne also discusses evidence that infants whose dependency needs are rebuffed by parents tend to become aggressive adults. Studies by Alan Sroufe suggest that preschoolers forced to self-reliance too early tended to bully others and engage in repeated acts of cruelty. Their early experiences at home made such behaviour seem natural.
The author also draws attention to research suggesting that affluent families are not immune to problems arising from parents being emotionally distant from their children. While insisting on high levels of achievement, such parents are often indulgent towards bad behaviour.
Manne sees the problems of parenting as linked to limited government support for parental leave. After a brief discussion of this topic she concludes:
“This brave new world is a whole lot larger than its symptoms – the self-esteem movement or the college kids with unrealistic ambitions or the helicopter parents rushing in to rescue a child whose grades are poor. Another way of looking at narcissism is that it is a quality required for survival in the hyper-competitive paradise of the new capitalism”.
That is indeed another way to look at the issue. Manne attempts to support that view in the second part of her book, holding Ayn Rand responsible for the “new capitalism”. She refers to Rand as “a monstrously narcissistic character” and suggests that “she practiced what she preached” in her philosophy of selfishness.
The main problem I have with that claim is that some of Rand’s behaviour seems to me to have been more selfish – showing less regard for other people - than that of the heroes of her novels. The behaviour of the heroes of her novels was presumably intended to illustrate the selfishness that she saw as a virtue, but I have difficulty, as previously noted, in recognising these fictitious characters as being particularly selfish
At one point Manne states that Rand’s “heroes are all young, male, wealthy … “. That left me wondering whether Manne had ever taken the trouble to read Atlas Shrugged. If she had done so, or even if she had looked up the list of characters on the internet, she would have been aware that Dagny Taggart was female.
Manne’s claim that Rand promoted “an ideology of narcissism” can be much better answered by an Objectivist, than by a reader of Rand’s novels like myself. John Galt said:
“Happiness is not to be achieved at the command of emotional whims. Happiness is not the satisfaction of whatever irrational wishes you might blindly attempt to indulge. Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy – a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction, not the joy of escaping from your mind, but of using your mind’s fullest power, not the joy of faking reality, but of achieving values that are real, not the joy of a drunkard, but of a producer”. (Atlas Shrugged, p 1022)
Manne raves on about what she refers to as “the neoliberal revolution” as creating an ideological framework for narcissism to flourish at an individual level. Yet she doesn’t specify the nature of the incentives that could have caused that to occur. If “neoliberalism” means free markets, how do free markets provide an incentive for appointment of narcissistic business leaders? Under normal circumstances the last thing individual investors want is to have their wealth depend on the actions of a narcissistic chief executive.
Some investors might think it makes sense to take a punt on a narcissistic entrepreneur in highly regulated industries where there may be something to be gained by hoodwinking politicians and voters. Otherwise, why take the risk that the narcissist might run off with your money or spend it to enhance his own image?
It is disappointing that Manne has not considered whether narcissism might be a problem in occupations other than business. Markets expose private sector narcissists to financial disciplines for failure to deliver on their promises unless they can use their skills to persuade governments to bail them out. Casual observation suggests that some other occupations - such as politics and some parts of the media - provide a breeding ground for narcissism and a sanctuary for narcissists.
Anne Manne has not, in my view, made a persuasive case that Ayn Rand’s philosophy played a large role in the partial return to classical liberalism in the U.S., the U.K, and a few other countries including New Zealand and Australia, during the 1980s and 90s. And she certainly hasn’t made a persuasive case that free markets promote narcissism.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading The Life of I. I particularly enjoyed reading her explanation of the behaviour of Anders Breivik and Lance Armstrong. The book seems to provide a good introduction to psychological research on the nature of narcissism and parenting styles that lead to narcissism.