Is There Really an Epidemic of Narcissism?

A meme may not hold up to close scrutiny.

Posted Sep 03, 2014

Judging from a Google search of the topic, narcissism is the new black, or maybe not so new: Ovid wrote about the original Narcissus in Metamorphoses more than 2,000 years ago and the story is doubtless much older than that. But its modern iterations seem ever-expanding. The term on its own yields 5 million search results; combinations with mother, father, or dating each turn up a few million as well. For the cognoscenti, there’s a new array of acronyms: NM (narcissistic mother), DONM (daughter of narcissistic mother); NH/NW (narcissist husband or wife), NGF/NBF (narcissistic girl/boyfriend), and more.

Is there really a narcissist on every corner? Current research indicates such types comprise anywhere from one to six percent of the population.

This isn’t intended to minimize the need to make sense of a run-in with a narcissist, or to deny the fact that an intimate connection with one is a life-altering situation. (One of my most-read posts on this site was about the initial appeal of such people.) I appreciate the fact that when anyone caring and truthful is matched up with against someone who lacks empathy, who simply doesn’t care about what happens to his or her supposedly close other, or is a self-aggrandizing liar, the caring person is sorely outmatched. 

But I wonder about this purported “epidemic.” It seems important, first, to distinguish cultural narcissism from the clinical kind, and to wonder whether they are one and the same. (Please note: I use the term wonder, not question, since this post is about inquiry, not definitive answers.) Christopher Lasch’s 1979 bestseller The Culture of Narcissism was the book that helped launched the term into the culture, along with a host of dire predictions. Lasch’s book was part of the zeitgeist of an era I’m old enough to remember, along with Tom Wolfe’s influential 1976 essay, “The Me Decade,” which leveled at Baby Boomers some of the same criticisms now applied to their offspring, the Millennials, long before the start of the digital age.

It’s true enough that many of the hallmarks of today’s culture—YouTube, selfies, Facebook, Instagram—all seem to point in the same direction: “Look at ME!” Does this mean that narcissistic behavior is more the norm than not? Or that other characteristics associated with narcissism—a lack of empathy, an inflated sense of self, a propensity for game playing, among other things—necessarily follow?

Numerous, well-documented studies do show a steady rise in narcissistic traits among college students, as indicated by the results of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), which has been administered since the 1980s. In a smart blog on this site, Peter Gray took on the “why” of this increase, providing a good summary of current thinking in the process. The possibilities he suggests, while himself settling on the fourth and final one, are:

  1. Students are answering the questionnaire more honestly, admitting to more selfish behaviors than young people did years ago;
  2. The “self-esteem” movement gave young people an inflated sense of themselves and their abilities;
  3. The emphasis on achievement, defined as beating others in competition, and the need to build a resumé to impress; and
  4. A decline in cooperative free play without adult direction, which Gray argues “is also the primary means by which children overcome narcissism and build up their capacity for empathy.”

The NPI is a questionnaire composed of 40 doublets which asks you to choose which of the two in each pairing you agree with most. A composite score tells you how narcissistic you are. (A shorter version consisting of 16 pairs has been developed by Daniel R. Ames, Paul Rose, and Cameron P. Anderson.) I was a bit surprised by how reductionist some of the pairs were. For example:

  • a) Compliments embarrass me.
  • b) I like to be complimented.

Choosing b puts you in the narcissist camp but, gosh, what ever happened to healthy self-esteem? Why should a well-earned compliment embarrass anyone?

And then there are a series of questions which would doubtless confound any girl who’s ever watched a Dove commercial:

  • a) My body is nothing special.
  • b) I like to look at my body.
  • a) I don't particularly like to show off my body.
  • b) I like to show off my body.
  • a) I like to look at myself in the mirror.
  • b) I am not particularly interested in looking at myself in the mirror.                                            

OK, anyone fat or thin, in shape or not, with a modicum of self-acceptance or vanity: If you answered b, b, a, you’re displaying narcissism! At age 65, I am now officially an a, a, b girl, but you can bet that even as recently as 15 or 20 years ago, that was not the case. And certainly not at the age of 20. Color me “N,” I guess.

The perspective of the inventory is a bit old-fashioned, harkening back what seem like Eisenhower-era values:

  • a) I’m assertive.
  • b) I wish I were more assertive.
  • a) I prefer to blend in with the crowd.
  • b) I like to be the center of attention.                           
  • a) I really like to be the center of attention.
  • b) It makes me uncomfortable to be the center of attention.
  • a) I get upset when people don’t notice how I look when I go out in public.
  • b) I don’t mind blending into the crowd when I go out in public. 
  • a) I don’t care about new fads and fashions.
  • b) I like to start new fads and fashions.

To me, the “good” answers (b, a, b, b, a, of course) speak more to modesty and conformity than anything else, the way "good girls" were brought up in the early 1960s. Why is it bad to like being the center of attention? What's so good about shriveling up if people pay attention to you? Is it more noble or healthier to be “above” fads and fashion? In the age of the hashtag, the question seems quaint. But apparently, even a bit of self-caring qualifies as vanity. Stay away from mirrors and Karaoke nights! Lady Gaga and Lena Dunham, stop loving (and showing) your bodies now!

Reading the questionnaire—as a layperson; I'm not a psychologist—makes it clear to me why kids are seen as “more” narcissistic. While some of the statements are so jerry-rigged it’s hard to imagine any young person choosing them except as a goof—“I can make anybody believe anything I want them to,” “ I have a strong will to power,” “I find it easy to manipulate people”—others seem grandiose only when a young person is answering them. What would be wrong for someone even more slightly seasoned than a college kid—say, five or six years into the working world— saying, “I would prefer to be a leader,” “I consider myself a good leader,” or, “I like to take responsibility for making decisions.” Are these really displays of narcissistic traits? I’m just wondering, by the way.

Where exactly does healthy self-esteem end and narcissism begin? After all, anyone who does anything creative—painting, writing, designing, inventing—has to believe that he or she has something important and unique to produce and that no other person on the planet can do it in precisely the same way. That’s equally true for any twentysomething entrepreneur in New York or Silicon Valley.

So, back to the question of whether there’s a narcissist on every corner, or whether this is just a meme that has our attention. I discover, after exploring the NPI on my own, that researchers too have tried to puzzle the question out, though from a decidedly more technical point of view. Part of the problem is that the NPI is so widely used that psychologists have to come up with a viable alternative or try to salvage it. In article called “On the Meaning and Measure of Narcissism," Ryan P. Brown and his colleagues challenged the dependence on the NPI and its validity, especially when composite scores are used. They argue for a more complex view of narcissism than the NPI offers, noting the paradox of narcissism which reflects “a high degree of agency (e.g., a sense of power, status, and independence)” and “a low degree of communion (e.g., a lack of interpersonal warmth and a rejection of affiliative qualities).” They suggest instead that the working model of narcissism should encompass both “an intrapersonal sense of grandiosity and an interpersonal sense of entitlement.” They opine that perhaps a sense of entitlement—not a rise in grandiosity—is part of the cultural shift in the U.S.

In a similar vein, Robert A. Ackerman and his colleagues—in the article, “What Does the Narcissist Personality Inventory Really Measure?"—take on the way the NPI seems to conflate healthy or normal narcissism with the malignant kind. What’s healthy narcissism? It fosters a positive self-image, leadership qualities, and strivings for success. As the authors write, “These attributes are not conventionally understood to reflect problematic aspects of personality.” On the other hand, Entitlement and Exploitativeness are parts of the pathology of narcissism which are maladaptive self-regulatory processes. To that end, they suggest scoring the NPI in such a way that distinguishes normal narcissism (Leadership/Authority) from its socially toxic cousin (Exhibitionism and Entitlement/Exploitativeness). From an outsider’s point of view, it’s an effort to keep a widely-used baby from being thrown out with the bathwater. 

So, is there a narcissist on every corner? Are we facing a cultural epidemic?

The jury is still very much out.

Photo copyright the author. The model, by the way, scored low on the NPI, unlike the author.

Copyright© Peg Streep 2014


READ MY NEW BOOK: Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why It Matters in Life, Love, and Work

READ Mean Mothers: Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt

Peter Gray, Why is Narcissism Increasing Among Young Americans?

Raskin, Robert and Howard Terry, “A Principal-Components Analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory and Further Evidence of Its Construct Validity,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1988), vol.54, no.5, 890-902.

Ames, Daniel R., Paul Rose, and Cameron P. Anderson, “The NPI-16 as a Short Measure of Narcissism,” Journal of Research in Personality (2006), 40, 440-450.

Brown, Ryan P., Karolyn Budzek, and Michael Tamborski, “On the Meaning and Measure of Narcissism,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (July, 2009), vol. 35, no.7., 951-964.

Ackerman, Robert A., Edward A. Witt, M. Brent Donnellan, et. al., ”What Does the Narcissistic Personality Inventory Really Measure, Assessment (2011), 18(1) 67-87.