Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Narcissism Epidemic (book review)

There is a fabulous new book by Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell entitled The Narcissism Epidemic. Twenge's previous book studied the rise in narcissistic values in today's teenagers and twenty-somethings, where this book studies this distrubring trend as applied to all age groups.

While reading this, I could not help thinking about many of my students, from the girl who will not hesitate to talk about how hot she is while insulting other students like its nothing, to the student I work with who has behavioral problems (that many teacehrs erroneously beleive stem from poor self-esteem rather than an inflated ego). I would not only reccomend this book to all concerned citizens, but particularly to educators.


"Narcissism is the fast food of the soul. It tastes great in the short term, has negative, even dire, consequences in the long term, and yet continues to have widespread appeal." (p. 259)

For all intents and purposes, The Narcissism Epidemic is something of a sequel to Jean Twenge's previous book, Generation Me. Wheras that book focused on the younger generation's (and gen y's) increase in narcissistic behavior, this book focuses on the same trend as a nation- and worldwide phenomenon. From our ever-increasing obsession with fawning over the lives of the rich and glamorous (Real Housewives of Orange County, anyone?) to our rampant consumerism, this book tells the tale of a nation in a very strange state of decline. In a sense, we are loving ourselves to death.

The first few chapters start off with the hard numbers. Twenge and Campbell have administered, and chased down, several experimental studies which demonstrate a very clear trend towards a more narcissistic attitude in the population. Young people list "being famous" as an important life goal far more frequently than their predecessors, the rise of platic surgery has increased FIVEFOLD in the past ten years (which COULD be explained by the fact that it has become more affordable, but the increase is so large that this explanation is unlikely to be the MAIN one). More and more newspaper articles and tv shows focus on narcissistic themes than in years past. Infintitely more people, when given the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, yield results consistent with narcissism than in years past. In other words, the rise in narcissism is thoroughly documented here.

From here, our authors talk about everything from whether narcissists tend to suffer from low self-esteem (quite the opposite, as many self-help gurus and educators have yet to figure out), whether narcissism helps one get ahead in life (only if you are a entertainer, it seems), and whether narcissism has its root cause in the well-intentioned self-esteem mmovement of the seventies and eightgies (you betcha!).

As an educator myself, this last point was one of the most fascinating for me. While students today often do not think twice about cheating, disrespecting teacher and peers, or expecting grades without doing the work, we continue to mistakenly believe the problem to be low, rather than way too high, self-esteem. All the while, Twenge and Campell are careful to distance themselves from the view that we should NOT praise our kids or ignore their self-esteem, which is far from what they are saying. They are simply pleading for moderation. Praising a child's virtues is different from overpraising their every move. The authors use the obsesity analogy: just as recognizers of the obesity epidemic do not want us to stop eating, but only eat in moderation, recognizers of the narcissism epidemic are only suggesting that we praise in moderation (while also encouraging hard work) rather than going overboard like we have been.

There are also some timely chapters on how narcissim played a key role in the 2008/2009 recession. While everyone is quick to blame the banks, consumers, and the government, we seem squeamish about criticizing what the three groups had in common: unbounded and irrational greed! Consumers were buying houses and things they did not need so as to satisfy increasing desires to live high on the hog (without having to earn it). Banks focused on quick profits rather than prudent investments in their willingness to dupe consumers into predatory loans. The government just wanted to see everyone own a house (which somehow became a right rather than a privilege to be earned). Twenge and Campbell do a great job in showing that for each group, the culprit was greed, narcissism, and a belief that everyone could have everything without having to (as in years past) exercise hard work and prudence.

But how to stop these trends? Unlike the previous book, Generation Me, the Narcissism Epidemic focuses many of its pages to offering suggestions on how we get out of this dizzying mire of narcissism. Most chapters conclude with a section called "Treatment for the Epidemic" and the last sixth of the book is made up of chapters offering "Prognosis and Treatment." Some suggestions are - or should be! - quite commonsensical: teach your children prudence, work-ethic, and that it is not always about them, regulate the credit industry, teach prudence and humility in school, participate, and encourage others to participate, in social clubs that nurture a sense of community. Some are interesting but quite fantastic: tone down the fevered pitch of product advertising, make "less is more" a new societal catchprase, tax luxury items more heavily (as a libertarian, I am not a great fan of government regulation.)

[One suggestion that Twenge and Campbell infuriatingly left off the list is to let irresponsible spenders feel the full consequences of their action. As it stands now, the government is doing the opposite by penalizing those not in debt by forcing them to "bail out" those who are. Message: narcissists are more important and deserving than the average Joe.]

Whereas I gave Twenge's earlier book a three star review, I am giving this book five stars. Unlike the previous book, this book was more cohesive, well-documented, and contained focus not only on the problem but on possible ways out. As an educator, I urge every parent and educator to read this book so that we can see exactly what the misguided self-esteem movement has led to. As a citizen I urge everyone to read this book to get a sense for the import of narcissistic values and how they threaten to make a great country significantly worse.


  1. I'm not convinced that narcissism is a matter of "too much self-esteem". It's about having displays of "superiority" rewarded with attention. Self-esteem is mostly a mental quality, and I think narcissism is more of a social behavior. They may or may not be related.

  2. Self-esteem, as it is generally meant, means "how good one feels about oneself." Therefore, self-esteem is generally a matter of degrees, and Twenge and Campbell - both psychologists - rightly point out that narcissism is "holding oneself in too high esteem such that one sees themselves as better and superior than others." Self-esteem, then, plays a big role in narcissism.

    Of course, you are right to note that narcissism is generally known by its behavior. Generally, we view narcissism pragmatically, judging its unhealthiness by its results.

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  4. ... am just beginning to look at this, and related subjects, really liked your review Kevin, and will look at some of your other subjects soon, ... think our social structure is 'ripe' for a big transformation [metamorphism] into a 'more real/honest' society, as we move into an awareness of the real factors that have been influencing [shaping] our progression/development [a continuation of the aristocracy/feudal system cloaked in multinational robes] ... hope we, as individuals within this system, have the courage to fight a rebellion based on the belief that ..." this is a good day to die" ....cheers, Paul [down-under, in Aus.]