The Narcissism Epidemic-Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D and W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D

In Book Reviews, nonfiction, social science on September 13, 2010 at 12:10 am

Of Course You Deserve It. You’re The Most Special Person In The World.

The Narcissism Epidemic has as its subtitle, Living in the Age of Entitlement.  The authors believe that this is an appropriate name for the times we’re living in.  The book focuses on the disease of narcissism and how it’s ravaging American society.  Many will argue that what the authors call narcissism is just healthy self esteem.  They would be wrong.  Twenge and Campbell persuasively argue that not only is the behavior of many Americans not healthy, but it is downright dangerous to the American way of life, which traditionally was not based on vain self-involvement.

The first section of the book is about their diagnosis of how narcissistic behavior is rife within American society. The Origins of the Epidemic discussion in Chapter 4 is particularly interesting.  The authors assert that the beginnings of the American narcissism epidemic began in the 1960s, but not in areas many people would initially think.  The first idea may be that the drug culture was narcissistic, but the authors argue that this was, in fact, quite a communal movement, as was another initial idea, the protest movement.  But the one area of the sixties that was prime for the birth of rampant narcissism was the human potential movement.  Just the name sounds like the kind of self involved nonsense that passes for self esteem today.

Even just a cursory look at the 1970s reveals that narcissism had festered within the American psyche by then. The Me decade was particularly geared toward singles.  To be married in those years made you a square, like Jimmy Carter, who could only lust in his heart, compared to the singles who were out at discos. The debauchery of the 1970s led to the 1980s, the decade that saw the idea of “the person with the most toys wins” become popular.  Looks became even more important, especially with the advent of MTV.  Don’t believe me?  Ask Christopher Cross if looks were important in order to be a successful singer.  Ask the bands of the 1970s if they had to change their look to make it on the Look At Me channel.  Cross wasn’t what they were looking for; Madonna was (she, of course, worshiped at the altar of narcissism). Fast forward to today, and the transition from a society that believed excessive self pride was anything but a virtue to one based on the belief that everyone is a star, everyone is special, is complete. MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube  prove it through their basic premise:  Got it?  Show it! And Americans do.

The sections on the causes of the narcissism epidemic are also quite interesting.  Parents who raise children to believe that everything they do is special are one cause.  One need not be a Ph.D to understand this. Take a look at any sporting event for children, particularly young ones.  Everyone plays, no matter how poorly they perform, and everyone wins.  The generation that is becoming adults now have more trophies than professional sports stars from a generation ago.  Just showing up and performing the act of respiration means you get a trophy.  Celebrity culture/the media is another cause for the spread of narcissism.  Everyone’s a celebrity.  Recently, a flight attendant lost his cool and basically pulled a Johnny Paycheck on a Jet Blue flight as it taxied to the terminal. He told everyone in the plane just what he thought of them because a passenger irritated him.  In narcissistic America, the news makes him a hero and the talk of who will play him in the movie that will be made begins.  Why?  What would make anyone think that would be a good movie?  It wouldn’t, but he’s a star.  Who says?  The media, which stopped reporting the news and began creating the news a long time ago.  The authors deal with MySpace and Facebook, two of the most narcissistic forums one will ever find.  MySpace is simply a space to put as many pictures of yourself as possible, and Facebook adds a facet to MySpace and allows you to post anything that’s on your mind at any time, as if that’s important.  Then everyone you have made friends with (and friends no longer means people you have an interest in) can chime in and reinforce your sad self importance with a Like vote.  Finally, in this section, the authors discuss the manifestation of the idea of the one with the most toys wins idea.  Nowadays everyone has to own a new car and a house.  Why?  Because they deserve it, damnit!  They work hard.  It shouldn’t matter that they don’t make enough money to pay for these things or don’t have the credit required to support the purchase of these things.  No, that’s unfair. Everyone deserves ___________(fill in the blank). And if they default on their home and car loans and the rest of us have to pay for them, well, that’s when narcissism really kicks in because these people then claim that it wasn’t fair that they got these loans because the banks and mortgage companies knew they wouldn’t be able to pay and took advantage of them.  No, it’s never your fault.  It’s some bank or mortgage company that’s at fault.

From causes the authors move to symptoms.  Vanity, materialism, uniqueness, antisocial behavior, relationship troubles, entitlement, and religion and volunteering (or the lack thereof) are all dealt with in this section of the book. The major theme in this section is what Americans will do to have more and what they have devalued because there is no price tag attached.  Beauty is valued, and if surgery is required to give someone the exact face and body they want, then they deserve it.  A McMansion even if you make under $75,000? Of course.  You deserve it.  American materialism has become a beast that devours those who worship it most. Being unique is fast becoming the most important part of people’s personalities, and part of that uniqueness is thinking of yourself first.  The danger of this, of course, is the loss of basic social mores that impart some foundation to life.  Next is the behavior that narcissism requires.  Thinking only of yourself leads to problems dealing with other people.  If you are the only person to be considered, what does that do for everyone else?  Then there’s the sense of entitlement in American society.  “I deserve” is always followed by something, and today that something is supposed to be handed to people, whether it be grades, a job, more money.  Entitlement leads to laziness in American society.  Finally, the authors discuss how narcissism has eroded religious and volunteer work involvement.  And why not?  Both of these require an outlook that focuses on others, not the self.

The last section of the book explains how each of us can rid ourselves of the narcissism trap in our own personal lives, which hopefully will begin to transform America from a country full of people far too focused on themselves to one similar to how it was in the past, when people considered other people’s feelings, concerned themselves with how they would appear when they are in public, and believed hard work was something to be valued, not ridiculed and avoided.

The Narcissism Epidemic may be a hard pill for many to swallow.  It shines a very bright light on the everyday behaviors of many Americans.  But it contains valuable insights for those who have found modern day America lacking compared to its past and desire a better world tomorrow.

  1. Just finished reading this book. As someone with a BA in Psychology and believing narcissism was a result of low self esteem, this book was an eye opener. Definitely made me see things differently.

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