The rise of narcissism in young people
Updated: Aug 17
The US comedian Larry David once said in an interview that, in response to him musing on a possible sports announcer career, his mother had quipped: “You’re not special, Larry.” Although Mrs David’s retort might not represent a blueprint for successful parenting, there is evidence that over stating a child’s ‘specialness’ is equally as problematic.
Narcissism is characterised by researcher Jean Twenge as a “positive and inflated view of the self” (Twenge et al. 2008, p.876), social extraversion, self-enhancing strategies and an instinct to lash out upon rejection. Narcissists also perceive themselves as superior and fantasise about personal success; crucially, they feel entitled to experience personal success and believe that adoration will make them happier (Brummelman et al, 2015). Lemaitre distinguishes between two forms of narcissism: grandiose types are over confident, dominant and attention-seeking; vulnerable narcissists share a sense of entitlement, whilst often experiencing shame about their precocity (Lemaitre, 2016).
In the US, there is evidence that narcissistic traits in younger generations are more common. Twenge’s meta analysis of narcissism in the US, for instance, found that student scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory have increased since 1982. Students in 2008 were more likely to agree with statements such as, “I can live my life anyway I want to”, compared to students from forty years ago. The NPI is a widely used survey tool to establish narcissism rates and is respected for its accuracy.
Aline Vater (2018) notes that narcissism scores are higher in individualistic (free market, Western) countries than collectivist (communist) countries. Those who grew up in former West Germany were more likely to rate as grandiose narcissists (on the NPI) than individuals who had grown up in East Germany. (If you happen to be a member of Momentum reading this, I still believe that any version of Eastern European communist rule is inadvisable.) Capitalism has its many merits, but it is interesting to note the unfortunate by-products of living in a free-market society where there is abundant, consumer choice.
Brummelmann identifies the origins of narcissism, locating the aetiology of ‘self-inflation’ within parental values and their subsequent treatment of offspring. Parents who overvalue their children’s potential, rather than those who show greater warmth, are more likely to nurture a narcissist. Children internalise themselves as special when parents champion their child's idea of singularity (in the opposite way to Larry David’s mother). The concern with raising a child’s self esteem comes at a cost when the individual adopts a sense of entitlement (a point made by Frank Furedi in Therapy Culture). Brummelmann’s identification of parental attitudes at the root of the problem might invite a closer look at how teachers, as pastoral mentors, also instill the same warped concept of the individual as ‘special’.
Bruno Lemaitre links narcissism rates to obesity. Social hierarchies are inevitable, he claims, and some individuals will find themselves at the lower end of a given pecking order. One answer to the resulting stress, experienced from feeling inferior, is to binge eat. The making and shaping of a narcissist, should one hardly need to say it, does not only have an adverse effect on the individual, but on those around him or her. In Lemaitre’s article, for instance, he explores the way that self-seeking individuals favour short term partners, rather than commitment.
The elephant in the room, following this research, is that younger generations can hardly be held solely accountable for behaviour traits that result from nurture: children quite clearly do not bring themselves up and are evidently not born narcissistic. Secondary or high schools, certainly where this research was conducted, are culpable for the trends. If UK rates are similar to the US, then how might schools be playing their part in the inadvertent nurturing of the self-obsessed? It is worth taking a glance at well-meaning initiatives, designed to enhance self esteem, and how such strategies might paradoxically contribute to later stress and unhappiness. Incidentally, the very idea that self esteem is essentially a good thing is rarely debated. Many schools seize upon any initiative that claims to improve child well-being; developing self esteem is often seen as an intrinsically virtuous.
For instance, the theme of bullying is often seen as an integral idea of promoting self confidence. Eradicating bullying entirely from a school sounds like a reasonable end goal. However, what would it take to do that? It would presumably mean a dictatorial-style, top-down policy that would run the risk of over-protection. Whilst bullying is a problem in schools to be taken seriously, it is also a uniquely human trait. Some psychologists link it to Machiavellian tendencies, such as manipulation. Eradicating bullying from schools completely would naturally kick the can down the road for children until they move on to work or higher education and be vulnerable to exploitation. Not allowing any room for children to negotiate with others might feed the very idea that one is too special to ever face conflict or unpleasantness.
One PE teacher recently pointed out to me that the only time many students fail at school is when they lose at sport. That is, of course, if they even play sport. Students are not allowed to fail in academic subjects because everyone needs an A grade for the right university later. Now the universities are facing the same problem, as students import grade inflation expectations to higher education. One visiting academic to my school recently told me an anecdote of how a student presented his marked essay to her, which she had awarded a First grade, and explained that he still needed more marks.
Then there’s the smartphone or iphone. The pocket ‘me’ has not been around long enough for researchers to record any long-term effects, but it is hard to imagine how such new technology could do anything else other than increase narcissism rates. The iphone is now a kind of umbilical cord to a selected, online identity – a fantasy ‘me’. In fairness, no one saw this technological advance coming. Parents did not see it (and bought their child the latest phones), teachers did not see it and the children themselves were unable to see it. The only people who predicted that this new technology would render large proportions of an entire generation unable to sleep, socialise properly or concentrate on anything for longer than ninety seconds, were the tech designers themselves. They did warn us: we don’t buy these devices for our children; we know the addictive qualities because we built them that way. Here.
The obvious way to counter the narcissist’s personal obsession is art. When an individual reads a novel, a poem, watches a play or looks at a painting, he or she starts to transcend from selfish thoughts to the experiences of others. Art, in short, can help you to stop self-obsessing; instead you can obsess about the world of others. True, some artists themselves can be narcissistic, which is why it is best to ignore them and instead look at what they produced, if you consider it to be of value. Unfortunately, it is not advisable or practical to train a generation to engage with art widely because such pursuits are financially non-viable in a world of consumer self-obsession (I say this with contempt). It is a Catch 22 situation (minus the novel that coined the expression).
Brummelmann, E., Thomaes, S., Nelemans, S. A., Orobio de Castro, B, Overbeek, G and Bushman, B. J. (2015) Origins of Narcissism in Children, PNAS vol.112, no.12 pp. 3659-3662
Lemaitre, B. (2016) Connecting the obesity and the narcissism epidemics, Global Health Institute, School of Lofe Science, pp. 10-18
Twenge, J. M., Konrath, S., Foster, J. D., Campbell, W. K. and Bushman, B. J. (2008) Egos inflating over time: a cross temporal meta-analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, Journal of Personality, 76:4
Vater, A. Moritz, S. and Roepke, S. (2018) Does a narcissism epidemic exist in modern western societies? Comparing narcissism and self-esteem in East and West Germany, PLOS ONE 13 (1)