An increase in narcissistic personality traits has been monitored in the United States in past decades. But, the ties between America’s current crises and this phenomena may not have been debated enough. Dennis Shen tracks narcissism’s rise, the potential link to economic conditions and discusses consequences. Moreover, he notes the striking phenomena now comparably evolving in China and abroad.
In 2009, Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell published “The Narcissism Epidemic”, a haunting diagnostic detailing a gradual, but seismic shift in the nation’s cultural norm towards self-admiration. Though certainly not all the consequences of heightened self-esteem are negative, this cultural phenomenon was described as destructive to American society at an extreme: damaging the reciprocity that binds families and communities, and encouraging divisive and antisocial, short-term behaviors over long-term, collective decision-making.
Since the book’s publication, further research has supported the referenced increase in feelings of self-worth, with one nationwide data set showing twice as many American college students answering the majority of questions in a narcissistic direction in 2009 compared with in 1982. This was based on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) test, the most widely used metric on the subject in social psychology. Similar conclusions were shown in research that 59% of American college freshmen rated themselves above average in intellectual self-confidence in 2014, compared with 39% in 1966. And, generational increase in symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) was pointed to in earlier research from the National Institutes of Health.
At extremes, narcissism undermines institutions that underpin a strong society, with links to shallow values, less intellectual interest and value on hard work, aggression and relationship complications, and lack of empathy and concern for others. When we consider political or economic dilemmas, we should not avoid discussion of the role that cultural factors and social psychology might have.
A multi-generational change
In the aftermath of the Second World War, a rare consensus within America emerged, the result of existential crises in the form of the World War and looming Cold War. In an era when the United States’ hegemony was unchallenged in the West, a type of groupthink existed within the nation’s borders—the ‘Greatest Generation’ emphasized conformity and discouraged individuality. This was supported by earlier shared struggles and the decline of class differences during the Great Depression and war era. This post-war era of togetherness saw unprecedented economic stability and trust in the state as the steward of the people. The nation backed global reciprocity, exemplified during the founding of the United Nations, Bretton Woods institutions and Marshall Plan.
Authors Twenge and Campbell trace the earliest roots in narcissism back to the 1950s. The Baby Boomers were the first generation to grow up in a post-war era of greater consumer plenitude and less existential hardship. As the Baby Boomers came of age in the 1960s and 70s, the grey society of the post-war consensus had begun to vanish in favor of a more individualistic focus on self-expression and self-identity.
The problem is that this change in the narrative furthered henceforth. It became pronounced enough by the 1970s that Tom Wolfe in 1976 titled this “The ‘Me’ Decade”. The cohorts that were raised in the 70s and 80s—Generations X and Y—continued this trend: to the extent that one study comparing teenagers found that while only 12% of those aged 14-16 in the early 1950s agreed with the statement “I am an important person”, 77% of boys and more than 80% of girls of the same cohort by 1989 agreed with it. This evolution has accelerated since the 1990s and 2000s, with the rise of the internet and social media influencing the social milieu of the Millennials and Generation Z.
Cultural roots of the modern crisis
Many of the extant crises in the United States can be traced to some extent to such cultural factors and entitled behavior. The racial and ideological tensions, and consequential partisanship in Washington—which supported the election of Donald J. Trump, have been exacerbated by the self-focused and competitive behavior of separate interest groups in society and politics, with not enough of the requisite empathy to reassess the world from one another’s vantage points. The financial crisis can be explained in part by the narcissistic behaviors of bankers and consumers alike—creating a “time-delay trap” of near-term greed over long-term logic. America’s trade deficit has been exacerbated by debt-financed “conspicuous consumption”—goods purchased to elevate one’s status in front of others, rather than out of necessity. And the crisis of confidence in government can be ascribed in part to the philosophical “hunkering down” and focus on self-sufficiency, rather than on mutual dependence.
Solutions to the dilemma?
It’s critical to recall that across time there’s no single cultural norm for a nation, but rather that the behaviors and customs of a society evolve and change drastically as the experiences and personalities of that nation alter. There are significant contrasts between the America of today and that of the immediate post-war era—whether we recall this or not. In this, not only will the America of tomorrow look different as future generations come, but we ourselves will continue to readapt and change.
Methods to address narcissism are not simple, however, even if society is malleable. During times of economic growth and stability, narcissism tends to grow. This is due to how success and prosperity impacts people, how that then filters to more accommodating parenting norms, and how we’re affected by urbanization and changes to smaller family sizes. Conversely, economic hardship and economic down-cycles tend to support group-minded, non-self-centered people, by enforcing modesty and hard work. In that, there may be both an inherent cyclical dynamic between business cycles and narcissism, and a structural dynamic between economic development and narcissism—with too much societal hubris only correctable in the end through a form of economic or national crisis.
A crisis around the world
The issue has not been isolated to the United States. Rather, the evolution of narcissism has advanced around corners of the world.
In China, there’s been an economic revolution experienced within the span of half a lifetime—with hundreds of millions lifted out of poverty since 1980 and living standards transformed and modernized. But, with the economic miracle has come the sudden upheaval in former collectivistic norms. The rise of the ‘Little Emperors’ and ‘Precious Snowflakes’ is now evident in younger generations that have grown up in only-child households amongst growing economic abundance. Research notes the role of sociodemographic factors in this increase in narcissism. In the decades ahead, societal, political and economic dilemmas could manifest, if such trends in China advance absent pushback.
A recognition of the problematic associations with narcissism is critical to solving domestic and international issues impacted by it. In addition, greater attention needs to be placed in policy circles on how economic and political development can be furthered whilst preserving or inducing characteristics of a cohesive, self-critical community.
Group selfie of the United States Women’s National Soccer Team with Barack Obama by ObamaWhite House is licensed under US Government Work.
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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Dennis Shen graduated from the MPA in International Development from the London School of Economics in 2013, and completed undergraduate studies at Cornell University. He worked with Alliance Bernstein in New York and London, most recently in the role of European Economist. His research interests include international political economy, global governance and environmental regulation.
The problem currently is a lack of accountability. No one holds anyone accountable for their passive aggressive behavior. They fear the guillotine being turned on them. It is safer to stay quiet. So, we’ve become a nation of cowards – we hammer down the confident, the healthily aggressive, the ambitious and anyone that feels compelled to raise their hand and say this isn’t working. So, while socialism hasn’t officially wrecked this country yet, we’re doing it from the inside out. And, Russia’s Khrushchev is chuckling in his grave.
An article on narcissism and not one mention of family systems? Family is the matrix of character. It’s central to any culture and impacts that culture’s social institutions.
Also, for an article with the word “cause” in the title it shows little knowledge or command of causality itself. Overall a very shallow analysis. It points in an interesting direction. But does no more than point.
I feel it is a mix of cultural values especially minority groups who immigrate to compete in a new environments. Over-supported by constant flattery of a child,s minor abilities by parents to the extent of being superficial and disingenuous in nature. The selfie generation of not understanding the importance of face to face energy interaction socially. All fuelled by the belief in accessibility to be rich and famous … the ultimate American dream. American style hubris is exported as fashionable and powerful and promoted by major brands worldwide ie. Coca Cola, Macdonalds etc.- powerful 24/7 and 360 degree propaganda promoting the Americanization of values in other English-speaking countries. Though the more people seek their individuality … the more they mimic fashion and behavior that erases their identity.
What’s wrong is we teach that SUCCESS is a showy and material apex of achievement rather than the inner life evolving an authentic understanding of life and its meaning for us.
I personally feel that none of this has anything to do with narcissism.
Coming from a narcissistic family, I strongly believe that this is the result of childhood egocentficity never growing into a more objective point of view.
It’s hard for an individual to care about a world where they feel no one cares about them. It’d hard to care about a world that instead of saying I’m sorry for what I did to stunt you, Go pray to God about it. The whole notion that God is the responsible part for good and the devil is the scapegoat for bad is the very reason people don’t hold themselves accountable in some religious sects.
You couple that with brain injuries, trauma, surviving childhood abuse, and then you create more codependency. From codependency you breed more narcissistic behavior. When you tell children to be seen and not heard, to stay in their place, you’re literally stunting their growth. When you place a boundary on a child but then don’t accept that child’s boundary for you, you further complicate the issue. If you show preference to some and ignore others you create an environment where a child has to defend themselves endlessly. It’s funny that you have the timelines correct but not the properly correlating family behaviors. You see one thing that’s changed in America at least is that abuse is hidden now, where as before it was out in the open so everyone just accepted it as normal. Now we have parents who deny their abuse and tell their children to lie. This veil is well crafted and it causes many individuals to be gsdlighted. There’s nothing wrong with feeling important. What’s wrong is feeling superior to others without any reasoning behind it other than that you exist. In the 90s I remember the I AM somebody campaign. There is nothing wrong with being an individual. What is wrong is thinking that as an individual you’re more important than the collective. So look deep into trauma and poverty and you’ll have way more understanding as to WHY this surge has evolved.
I stopped finding credibility after reading that your argument is based on the NPI result differences from the 80’s vs 2009 from college students. The racial makeup of college students has changed dramatically in the USA between those two decades. Your entire description of America is based on the white culture. Yes, the whites have shifted from a “we’re in this together” to a “what’s in it for me” culture because they went from being the only race that mattered to one of the many. The generational colonial culture of scarcity of resources has led them to think about themselves as single units rather than a collective.
I came on here because I asked google your thesis question but your arguments are fundamental flawed since they pin Americans as a monoculture.
This epidemic has been institutionalized by the consumerism mindset of today’s generation of people. The principle of no free lunch has made things worse. Consequently, people who term themselves as ‘entrepreneurs’ assume private ownership of some basic amenities to enrich themselves to to keep pace with the materialism trend. We don’t even know where the bottom line is anymore. Everyone is so eager to become the next bill gates that soon even atmospheric oxygen will start being sold for profit