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An epidemic of narcissism-ism?

March 23, 2009

Is there an epidemic of narcissism? Maybe so, maybe not — but it’s certainly becoming fashionable to call people narcissists.

At Slate, Emily Yoffe writes, “This is the cultural moment of the narcissist.” She’s certainly doing her part — the article names plenty of putative narcissists. Called out by Yoffe or her sources: Harvard MBAs, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards, journalists who twitter, Rod Blagojevich, the Octomom, Leona Helmsley, Bill Clinton, Ingmar Bergman, Frank Lloyd Wright, Stanley Kubrick, and Salvador Dali. (Plus we get a bonus diagnosis: Bernie Madoff is a psychopath.)

Yoffe’s article draws on Jean Twenge’s theory that a cultural shift is causing an increase in narcissism among younger generations. The article doesn’t mention that Twenge’s data and interpretations are disputed, which has led to a lively and at times contentious debate. But rather than discuss that controversy head-on (maybe some other time), I want to address a different though related issue:

Why is it becoming fashionable to label other people as narcissists?

One answer, of course, would be that if Twenge is right, then there are more narcissists around to be noticed. But I don’t think that could be the whole picture. The generational theory wouldn’t explain most of the examples named in the article, who are too old to qualify as “Generation Me.”

Another possibility, I think, comes in a way from flipping Twenge’s argument on its head. Twenge argues that (among other influences) social media like Youtube, Facebook, etc. help make people narcissistic by giving them an outlet and an audience to cultivate their self-aggrandizing impulses. But I think it’s important to also consider the ways that new technology makes people accountable. If I boast on Facebook about how cool I was in high school, the firsthand witnesses will call me out right there on my wall. If I claim a raft of prestigious achievements, anybody can use Google to quickly check the facts (and forward them to their friends). In short: the Internet may allow narcissists to reach a wider audience for their boasts, but it has also led to some spectacular takedowns. The takedowns can get more publicity than the original material, in the process putting narcissism on the map.

Oh, and as an aside, this passage from Yoffe’s article irritates me to no small degree:

Personality disorders … differ from the major mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and manic-depression, which are believed to have a biological origin. Personality disorders are seen as a failure of character development.

False dichotomy FAIL.

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