The Narcissism Epidemic

Even almost sociopathic narcissism feels right at home on My Super Sweet 16.  Atlanta teen Allison tells a party planner she wants to block off part of Peachtree Street so there can be a parade for “my grand entrance.”  Peachtree is a major thoroughfare, the planner reminds her.  She responds, “My sweet 16 is more important than wherever they have to be.”  But there’s a hospital across the street, the planner cautions — what if an ambulance can’t get to the hospital? “They can wait one second. Or they can just go around,” she says cavalierly.  Amid all of this, Allison’s mother just listens.  When the planner finally turns to her in exasperation, she says, “If Allison wants it, make it happen.”  So much for that dying person in the ambulance. (pg. 100-101)

This is a prime example of the stories and statistics conveyed throughout the book, which are used to diagnose and highlight the symptoms of America’s disease.  Authors Twenge and Campbell convincingly paint a picture of a culture suffering at the hands of a wide-spread and out of control epidemic of narcissism.

They point out the causes of the epidemic in chapters on:

  1. Parenting: Raising Royalty
  2. Superspreaders!: The Celebrity and Media Transmission of Narcissism
  3. Look at Me on MySpace: Web 2.0 and the Quest for Attention
  4. I Deserve the Best at 18% APR: Easy Credit and the Repeal of the Reality Principle

Throughout each of these chapters they point to people, social structures, and cultural values that make America a hot bed primed to spread narcissism.  Parents buy bibs with “I’m the boss” emblazoned on their child’s chest, which alone would be cute, but what’s not cute is that these kids actually are the bosses.  Reality shows promote the most narcissistic individuals, and TV shows like the OC, Gossip Girl, and SmackDown celebrate the self-absorbed individual as the way to get ahead.  While the majority of print media is in decline, “the celebrity magazine Us Weekly was up 10% in 2007 (1.9 million), and tabloid competitor OK! Weekly was up 23% (to 935,000).” (pg. 92)  Americans also indulge their desires for nice things and a put together self image through credit.  “The findings presented in The Millionaire Next Door are counterintuitive.  Americans see people with fancy cars and clothes and assume they must be rich.  In reality, it is often safer to assume that they are in debt.” (pg. 137)  People are so obsessed with looking good that they spend money they don’t even have to make it happen.

They then point to the symptoms of narcissism in chapters on:

  1. Hell Yeah, I’m Hot!: Vanity
  2. The Spending Explosion and its Impact on the Environment: Materialism
  3. Seven Billion Kinds of Special: Uniqueness
  4. The Quest for Infamy and the Rise of Incivility: Antisocial Behavior
  5. The Chocolate Cake Trap: Relationship Troubles
  6. All Play and No Work: Entitlement
  7. God Didn’t Create You to Be Average: Religion and Volunteering

In these chapters they do an excellent job exploring how narcissism expresses itself in the lives of everyday Americans.  They point to the rise in plastic surgery, designer clothing (with labels prominently displayed), internet video of fighting teens who lash out when wronged, the frustrations of employers with the reluctance of youth to work hard, and the increase in religious language encouraging people to be special and be sure to love themselves first.  There are a lot of humorous (or depressing depending how you look at it) stories portraying the extent of some people’s self-admiration.

Narcissism is now so engrained in our culture that often times people refuse to accept their findings.  When the authors go on radio programs and suggest parents not tell their kids they are special because it conveys a sense of superiority, parents call in irate (the authors suggest instead that parents tell their children they are unique, just like everyone else :)).   These parents insist that it’s the only way to succeed in a competitive dog-eat-dog world — you have to believe in yourself.   

Today, however, there is very little shock expressed when children sing about how special they are in preschool or when a TV character parrots the mindless psychobabble that you have to love yourself before you can love someone else.  Most people do not see what a truly radical departure this is from the past, either because they are too young to remember or because the change happened too slowly for them to notice. (pg. 57)

And despite how much Americans believe that self-admiration is required to become everything we are created to be, this isn’t true.  

In other words, overconfidence backfires.  This makes some sense; narcissists are lousy at taking criticism and learning from mistakes.  They also like to blame everyone and everything except themselves for their shortcomings.  Second, they lack motivation to improve because they believe they have already made it: when you were born on home plate, why run around the bases? Third, overconfidence itself can lead to poor performance.  If you think you know all of the answers, there’s no need to study.  Then you take the test and fail.  Oops. (pg. 42)

A major review of the research on self-esteem and achievement found that high self-esteem does not cause better grades, test scores, or job performance.(pg. 46-47)  


Think about it this way: 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. (pg. 47)

The thesis of this book is that American culture has become increasingly narcissistic, and despite our insistence that self-admiration and self-belief is good for us, narcissism is an epidemic that is ruining the health of our society.   With few exceptions, I found myself agreeing with this thesis.  They did an excellent job of convincing me that our American culture increasingly promotes narcissism.  They also convinced me that narcissism does not make you a better and more successful person as measured by their standards of healthy relationships and an ability to engage and participate in society.  I would argue that  narcissism does not make you a better person as measured by a theological scale either — it inhibits our ability to be fully human because it decreases our ability to genuinely love God and love others.

I enjoyed this book, and it was helpful for me as a pastor and preacher to be able to identify with greater clarity the increasing trends towards narcissism in our culture.  This book has provided me with statistics, individual stories, and it has made me aware of cultural realities that I was previously unaware of.


One response to “The Narcissism Epidemic”

  1. Does this mean it’s bad that I call my daughter “Queen Victoria”? 😉
    Interesting stuff.