We’re so vain

Americans, argues Jean Twenge, have become increasingly self-absorbed.

By Jake Grubman, ’11

Image from Getty Images

Jean Twenge, AB’93, is trying to check out at Babies “R” Us, but her daughter is having none of it.

If the terrible twos are pulling the toddler away from the checkout line, a display of bejeweled bibs beside the register is doing just as good a job of distracting Twenge. Princess. Supermodel. I’m the Boss. For Twenge, who went to the store looking for sippy cups, the message is right there in pink and white. The bibs offer an example of the ocean of narcissism that has inundated the country over the past three decades.

Paris Hilton and her self-indulgent T-shirt both reflect and breed narcissism, says Twenge.

An associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, Twenge recounts the moment in her book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (Free Press, 2009), which documents changes in American culture that have fostered growing narcissism and presents possible solutions.

Twenge and coauthor W. Keith Campbell, a social psychologist at the University of Georgia, define narcissism as a positive and inflated view of oneself, a view associated with materialism, a lack of empathy, aggression, and relationship problems. At its core, narcissism is the fantasy that a person is better than he actually is. Twenge identifies a plethora of causes for the narcissism outbreak: Unwarranted positive feedback in schools encourages kids to believe they are better students than they are. Web sites like Facebook and MySpace allow users to create new personalities for themselves. And at least until recently, easier credit let people pretend they were rich and famous with bigger houses and nicer cars than they could afford.

The roots of the epidemic run back to the 1970s, when self-esteem and -expression movements replaced community-oriented thinking in American culture, and loving oneself became vital to success and happiness. Christopher Lasch’s 1979 book, The Culture of Narcissism, first called public attention to the phenomenon, and Twenge and Campbell use three decades of statistics to analyze cultural trends. “Self-admiration is the new conformity, where you can’t do something because people might think you didn’t love yourself,” the authors note. “And in our culture, not loving yourself enough is shameful.”

The writers trace the spread of narcissism—in both individuals and American culture—to multiple factors. Parents have become more indulgent and less authoritative, giving children an inflated sense of importance. More children grow up in environments where they get whatever they want, leading to self-centeredness in adulthood, false entitlement on the job, and poor decision-making in relationships and finances. And it’s not only the Paris Hiltons and Lindsay Lohans of the world perpetuating the cycle. Twenge and Campbell present what the New York Times describes as “compelling and appalling” evidence documenting the average American’s downward spiral into vanity. Reality television, Web sites where people can post their glamour shots for others to rate, and even Time magazine, which in 2006 named “You” the Person of the Year, make average people think they can have, and have the right to, their 15 minutes.

It all comes down to fantasy versus reality, and for Twenge, the country’s economic downturn is a prime example of what happens when the fantasy world where everyone is “special” comes crashing down. Each stage of the crisis, she says, can be traced to overconfidence that stems from narcissism. Americans were overconfident that they would be able to pay off unreasonable mortgages, and bankers were overconfident in providing the home loans in the first place.

“Even people who aren’t particularly narcissistic but have been drawn into this cultural narcissism take too many risks and don’t see the downside, just believing that things will always go well for them,” she says. “There was this sense of entitlement that ‘I deserve this big house,’ and that overconfidence really backfired.”

While the economy has been a rude awakening for many Americans, Twenge isn’t convinced that swift change is possible. In 2007, when she and Campbell first released their study showing that, in 2006, two-thirds of college students scored above average on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory—up 30 percent from 1982—their warning was hardly met with open arms. “When I say it’s not a great idea to tell your kids they’re special, [parents] react as if I told them not to wear pants,” says Twenge, who drew mixed feedback after her book’s coverage by the Today Show, NPR, and Newsweek. “It never occurred to them that that might be a bad thing, because it’s so taken for granted in our culture that it’s a good thing.”

In fact, college students across the country acknowledged and accepted their own narcissism. In responses printed in school publications, “[t]hey basically said, ‘Yeah, our generation is more narcissistic, you got us,’” Twenge recalls, “but justified their narcissism by claiming it as necessary to cope with today’s competition.”

On the contrary, the authors’ research shows that narcissism is detrimental in the long run because it inhibits interpersonal skills. “People who are just focused on self-promoting and just focused on their own success often implode,” Twenge says, “because, in order to really be successful, you have to work well with other people.”

It’s hard for parents to avoid narcissistic influences. On her first day of preschool, Twenge’s two-year-old will complete a project called “All About Me.” But “when you’re a parent,” she says, “you have to do your best with it.” It’s impossible to avoid all the pitfalls, but she and her husband have at least steered their daughter away from the Little Princess shirts. Although they don’t tell her she’s “special,” Twenge says, they look for a stronger connection through the simple phrase, “I love you.”

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