Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else. At a time when Instagram boasts more than 300 million #selfie posts, Harriet Fitch Little examines the rise of narcissism, from its roots in psychological science to its more modern application as a derogatory diagnosis for ex-lovers, friends, bosses or presidents. In exploring the difference between self-esteem and self-obsession, the question becomes whether it’s narcissism that’s on the rise—or empowerment.
In Chinese, young people are sometimes referred to as ken lao zu—“the generation that eats the old.” In Swedish, they are the curlingbarn—a name taken from the popular winter sport of curling, in which two sweepers clear a path in front of a puck so that it glides smoothly along the ice. The allusion is an amusing one: Like the puck, young people today have had their paths swept smooth by doting parents.
There are various neologisms used in the English language to describe millennials, most of them negative. They have been branded the “selfie generation,” a label that ostensibly references a love of posting pictures online (one recent study suggested that the average millennial will take 25,000 selfies in their lifetime). But the term also conveys a sense of unseemly self-obsession. In the last few years, the term “generation snowflake” has entered the vernacular, too. Coined by American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis, it paints young people as self-obsessed, easily offended and living in a fragile bubble of their own making. As Ellis almost spat when first introducing the jibe: “When did you all become grandmothers…you sniveling little weak-ass narcissists?”
Is Ellis right? Is society collapsing under the collective weight of its own self-regard? A growing number of academics seem to think so. In their 2009 book, The Narcissism Epidemic, W. Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge describe narcissism as a social disease that is as real, dangerous and fast-growing as obesity. In The Narcissist Next Door, Jeffrey Kluger brands it a “pandemic” among the young.
Speaking on the phone from his home in Georgia, Campbell tells me that after 25 years of studying narcissism he feels the somewhat apocalyptic choice of words used in The Narcissism Epidemic was justified. “I think narcissism was much higher than we thought it would be, and it was increasing,” he says by way of summary. And his once-niche area of expertise has become a thriving industry: “Fifteen years ago people didn’t even know what the word [narcissism] meant. They couldn’t pronounce it,” he recalls.
What do we mean when we describe a person, or indeed a whole society, as narcissistic? As a clinical diagnosis, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) was first identified in 1968 and officially recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—the clinician’s bible—in 1980. Patients who suffer from it generally fall into one of two categories. Grandiose narcissists exhibit the traits we most readily associate with the term in popular culture—they are flamboyant and domineering in their relations with others, insistent on their own brilliance and quick to anger when obstacles are placed in their way. Vulnerable narcissists are less ostentatious—they feel an aching sense of self-importance but manifest it through defensiveness, hostility and extreme interpersonal anxiety.
Kenneth Levy, associate professor of psychology at Penn State University, explains that what unites all pathological narcissists is their near-total disregard for the emotions and achievements of others. “There’s this joke that when you tell an idea to a narcissistic person, they’ll say, ‘That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard…and I thought of it 30 years ago.’ They can’t let you have it,” he says.
NPD is not a common disorder. One review published in 2010 concluded that it affects between one and six percent of the population. But even if we take it at the high estimate of six percent, that figure comes nowhere close to the popular understanding of the prevalence of narcissism as suggested by the use of words like “epidemic” and “pandemic” in the recent literature.
Levy wants to clarify that vanity is not the same as narcissism, a distinction he feels is missing from current discussions. “To the degree that you can care about other people, I wouldn’t see that as part of pathological narcissism,” he tells me. “There’s a reciprocity that you don’t see in people who are truly narcissistic.”
Harvard professor Elizabeth Lunbeck, who specializes in the history of psychoanalysis, has made it her mission to root out the misuses of narcissism as a term. Her motivation is one of both academic and personal frustration: “Why is it so important to people to condemn the young as a generation of narcissists?” she asks. “I think it’s a very old tradition of declaiming on the faults of the young to make the old feel good…but it should be resisted. I think it’s damaging.”
In her 2014 book, The Americanization of Narcissism, Lunbeck lays out a persuasive case for how and when narcissism slipped from the clinical sphere into everyday speech. The term was first used in a diagnostic setting in 1898 by the sexologist Havelock Ellis, who was looking for a word to describe patients in whom excessive self-admiration had resulted in a lack of sexual feeling toward others. He chanced across the obscure myth of Narcissus—a beautiful hunter who fell so in love with his reflection in a pond that he was unable to move from the spot—and named this new sexual pathology after him.
In the early part of the 20th century, narcissism became of increasing interest to psychoanalysts in both Europe and America. Most didn’t see it as inherently negative. Instead, they suggested that it was an unfortunate outgrowth of healthy development. Sigmund Freud put this case most famously. In On Narcissism (1914), he argued that narcissism was to be desired in childhood—a form of selfishness necessary to ensure one’s survival—but that the child would normally lose their narcissistic personality once they formed meaningful, adult relationships with others. “Whoever loves becomes humble. Those who love have, so to speak, pawned a part of their narcissism,” he wrote, a quotation that has resurfaced as a popular inspirational poster in recent years.
Lunbeck says that it wasn’t until the 1970s that narcissism became imbued with meaning outside of the clinical sphere. This was a decade of disorienting, tumultuous change in the United States: Mass consumption had become the norm; the nuclear family was losing sway as an ideal; the Vietnam War was turning citizens against the state; liberation movements led by women, African-Americans, indigenous peoples and the LGBTQ+ community were gaining ground.
To critics on the right, and sometimes on the left, these were troubling times. Casting around for a catch-all explanation for the changes, commentators noticed that a certain streak of individualism ran through several of the new phenomena.
In 1976, the American author Tom Wolfe wrote “The ‘Me’ Decade,” a cover story for New York magazine in which he branded baby boomers—the cohort born shortly after the Second World War—the “me generation.” In doing so he hit out at multiple targets: the woman he met at a conference who would only talk about her hemorrhoids; Scientology; the popularity of LSD. Feminism and social mobility were all lumped together and largely dismissed. “Often the unconscious desire is nothing more than: let’s talk about me,” he wrote.
It was a breezy piece whose evisceration of the decade was intended, for the most part, to be comical. But Wolfe’s grumble proved a popular one. Three years later, the influential cultural critic Christopher Lasch published a bestselling book, The Culture of Narcissism, in which he fleshed out the argument with historical context and psychological terminology.
Lasch argued that the decline of the father as the ultimate authority figure and the increasing dependence of families on outside experts (for example, a growing number of children in therapy) had bred a generation of narcissists. “We demand too much of life, too little of ourselves,” he explained.
Like Wolfe, Lasch’s targets were somewhat slapdash. He saw communitarian movements of the 1960s as proof of narcissism. He also argued that by distancing themselves from men, lesbians had retreated from intense emotional encounters and that this was likely to make them exceptionally self-involved.
“[For Lasch] everything is exemplary of narcissism—it’s sport, it’s culture, it’s everything,” says Lunbeck, sounding frustrated. “What he did so brilliantly was pull this nicely resonant term from Greek mythology out of the clinical realm to describe a situation that he and other critics had been warning about for a while, which is the decline of the American character.”
Lasch captured the zeitgeist with his diagnosis of narcissism as a national disease. He was featured on TV, in newspapers and even found favor in the White House: President Jimmy Carter met with the author and used their conversation as inspiration for his famous “national malaise” speech, in which he identified a popular crisis of confidence as the root of many new social ills.
Lunbeck says that it was at around this moment that narcissism slipped its harness and entered the realm of pop psychology. She believes that, in doing so, its meaning was irreparably altered: It shifted from being about how the person felt—anxiety, a pathological sense of superiority, a callous disregard for others—and became about what they did and, more specifically, what they bought. “Lasch and the critics turn narcissism inside out—they tied it to a critique of consumption,” she says.
Lunbeck believes that NPD is not on the rise. “The DSM still estimates the prevalence of narcissism at one to six percent of the population, whereas if you read The Narcissism Epidemic-type material you’d think everyone is a narcissist,” she says. “Clinicians will say they’re treating more narcissists now, but they’ve been saying that for 40 years.”
She is keen to point out that there is nothing new about considering the young to be selfish. In fact, the old declaiming on the worthlessness of the young is a hobby that goes back as far as Narcissus himself: Around the same time as the poet Ovid was telling the story of Narcissus in Metamorphoses, his compatriot Horace was bemoaning the uselessness of the next generation. “Our sires’ age was worse than our grandsires’. We, their sons, are more worthless than they; so in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more corrupt,” he wrote.
This glass-half-empty tendency is worth bearing in mind, even when considering apparently objective data relating to narcissism. For example, one comparative study in 2008 was widely circulated after it appeared to demonstrate that 9.4 percent of people in their 20s were extreme narcissists, compared with only 3.2 percent of those over 65. But the problem with the study was that while the young people involved were asked to describe their current behavior, the older participants were asked to recall how they had acted in their youth. Perhaps a certain rose-tinted nostalgia had something to do with the extreme disparity that the researchers found.
And yet there is compelling evidence that narcissism is increasing according to some measures. Keith Campbell says that his approach in co-authoring The Narcissism Epidemic was to present as much evidence as possible. “We have tried to look at every database we can find and demonstrate that they tell a parallel story,” he says.
Some of the studies conducted by Campbell and Twenge are highly unusual. For example, the authors presented data showing a sudden surge in parents giving their children unique names over the last few decades. To Campbell, this was evidence of a growing sense of entitlement. Another study tracked the number of times the word “I” appeared in popular texts compared with “we,” and found a sharp rise in the singular and decline in the plural form over time. Again, the authors saw this as evidence of increasing selfishness. Campbell is constantly on the hunt for more of these idiosyncratic studies: “I tried to look at the number of trophies made in the US and the size of engagement rings but couldn’t find the data,” he says.
But the most frequently cited evidence for an increase in narcissism comes from a more conventional source: a questionnaire. In 1979, the same year Lasch published The Culture of Narcissism, Robert Raskin and Calvin Hall published a questionnaire called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). It was not intended to diagnose pathological narcissism but rather to identify characteristics of sub-clinical narcissism in the general population. The questionnaire, which has been routinely administered on college campuses in the years since, asks participants to consider 40 paired statements and choose the one they feel most closely reflects their personality. For example, the statement “I am essentially a modest person” is paired with “Modesty doesn’t become me,” with the latter answer pushing the score toward a diagnosis of narcissism.
Studies have consistently shown that NPI scores on college campuses have been increasing since the 1980s. One meta-analysis co-authored by Campbell in 2008 found that between the years 1982 and 2006, students’ narcissistic tendencies had increased by an average of two answers (out of 40). Almost two-thirds of recent college students scored above the mean 1979-1985 narcissism ranking.
To proponents, this is evidence of young people’s growing self-absorption. But critics point out that this particular questionnaire is a faulty tool for analysis. “I think the NPI is not a good measure of narcissism. If you look at it closely a lot of it looks like a healthy measure of self-esteem,” says Levy. “I think in some ways it confounds narcissism and healthy self-valuing.”
Levy is referring to the fact that the NPI often appears to be making old-fashioned value judgments in determining which answers are narcissistic. Agreeing with the statement “I like to look at my body” will push your score toward the “bad” end of the scale, as will ticking yes to “I like to be complimented.”
To critics of the NPI, it is hugely significant that the biggest jump in results across the decades has been among women, who previously scored far lower than their male counterparts on measures of narcissism and now score close to equal. Perhaps, they suggest, it’s not narcissism that’s on the rise, but rather empowerment.
Lunbeck goes further. She argues that narcissism can actually be a blessing for people who are otherwise disadvantaged in society. She gives the example of a Harvard student interviewed in The Boston Globe who had been raised in poverty by an overworked single mother. The student put her success down to the fact that her high school teacher had been insistent that each pupil should “realize the genius in their inner self.”
“I think that’s speaking to a healthy narcissism,” says Lunbeck. “The belief in success often brings success with it. But the popular conversation doesn’t have a way for us to talk about that because narcissism is considered to be all bad.”
Lunbeck argues that in the 1970s many of the behaviors that critics labeled as narcissism could be more accurately described as consumerism; the discomfort stemmed from the fact that vanity was no longer restricted to the upper classes.
Wolfe was particularly sniffy on this point: “The new alchemical dream is changing one’s personality—remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self,” he wrote in “The ‘Me’ Decade.” “This had always been an aristocratic luxury.”
To Lunbeck, it’s an argument that reeks of superiority. “Those who object to the democratization of personhood don’t like the fact that anyone can build themselves a house that looks like Versailles.”
Lunbeck is not an apologist for narcissism. She sees it as a sort of Goldilocks problem: Too much is a bad thing, but so is too little. What she is clear about is that what has happened to the term recently—its relegation to a catch-all diagnosis for bad behavior—has not been conducive to having meaningful conversations. “There are people who are excessively narcissistic. They use people and destroy people. Those are the malignant narcissists,” she says. “The problem with calling everything narcissistic, which we do, is it really diminishes the conceptual power of this other construal of narcissism.”
But Lunbeck can at least take heart from the fact that several of the more positive characteristics associated with narcissism do appear to be finding their way into current conversations, albeit with the language somewhat disguised.
Think, for example, of the radical body positivity movement—the swelling tide of primarily young people using social media to push the idea that being beautiful doesn’t mean you have to be thin, able-bodied, light-skinned or cisgender.
To its detractors, the movement looks like narcissism in the extreme: Its main currency is selfies, often accompanied by captions that make explicit reference to the fact the poster thinks they’re looking great. As one man wrote in an angry Reddit thread: “All this ‘love yourself’ and ‘body positivity’ bullshit is turning young women into hopeless egomaniacs.”
But there’s an important distinction to be made. As Levy explained when he first laid out the parameters of pathological narcissism, it is a disorder premised on manipulation of and competition with others.
Online, people are increasingly doing the exact opposite: Body positivity might begin with selfies, but it’s a movement based on mutual support and community-building. As Jes Baker wrote in Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls, “There is power in community, and there is power in numbers. If we support each other in our journeys, the sky’s the limit.”
Call it a positive manifestation of narcissism and even the most radical voices might recoil. The term has simply become too loaded. But the command is the same: Learn to love thy selfie. This—for young people growing up online, as well as those old enough to remember that humblebragging existed before social media—is a good motto by which to live.
Words:Harriet Fitch Little