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Why is There a Rise in Narcissism?

by Harwant Khush, Ph.D., Research Consultant, Tero International

Narcissism has become a dominant issue of conversation and of civic discourse in current times. Not a day goes by when the public does not deliberate the narcissistic behavior of their political leaders, CEOs, administrators, bureaucrats, and the implications of their actions. During these discussions, the questions often come up: Are people becoming more narcissistic? Why is there a rise in narcissism?

It is a fact that we are all narcissistic to some extent. It is a healthy sign to project confidence, boast about one's achievements, and downplay weaknesses. These personality traits define who we are, what we enjoy, and share our accomplishments. However, by taking these self-adulations from a normal to an extreme level, this behavior becomes a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

The term narcissism is derived from the Greek myth about Narcissus, a handsome Greek youth who fell in love with his reflection in a water pool. Since then, narcissism has become a popular and challenging topic to evaluate and understand. Sigmund Freud's work on ego significantly enhanced its popularity. Subsequently, numerous other behavioral professionals have provided further clarifications.

What is Narcissism?

It is mostly defined by referring to the behavioral, social, and communication characteristics of narcissists. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) describes it as, "A pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy." This definition states that self-importance and lack of compassion are the critical elements of narcissistic behavior.

The American Psychological Association provides a similar description of narcissism as "excessive self-love or egocentrism."

Mayo Clinic report defines narcissism as a personality disorder:

"one of several types of personality disorders - is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that's vulnerable to the slightest criticism."

A renowned contemporary clinical psychologist, Ramani Durvasula, states that the four pillars of narcissism are:

1. Lack of Empathy

2. Grandiosity

3. A chronic sense of entitlement

4. A chronic need to seek admiration and validation from other people

The commonality to all these definitions is that narcissists show a lack of empathy, an inflated sense of grandiosity, a sense of entitlement, arrogance, and a lack of compassion.

The Rise of Narcissism

The rise in narcissism has become a worldwide phenomenon and permeates across all cultures and different age groups. Twenge and Campbell raised the alarm in their book The Narcissistic Epidemic in the 1960s. Newsweek further elaborated on the when and how of the rise of narcissism:

"...when people began to cast off societal constraints and expectations in favor of exploring their own human potential. This movement didn't begin with a purely narcissistic slant, yet by the 1970s it had morphed into self-admiration, self-expression, and self-absorption. In the 1980s those qualities gave way to self-centeredness and self-indulgence, and it was all downhill from there."

The usage of statements such as "I am an important person" increased from 12% in 1963 to 77-80% in 1992 in adolescents. The popularity of the phrase "I am the greatest" also increased significantly between 1960 and 2008. The recent publications emphasize self-centered language, e.g., the use of personal pronouns "I" and "I have" have grown a lot more than "we" and "us." The same applies to Twitter users, "...80% tweet primarily of themselves."

This narcissistic trend has also crept into popular music. Music lyrics now include more words related to self and elevating oneself to higher levels. Kayne West's melody is an excellent example of this trend:

"I am a god/Hurry up with my damn massage/Hurry up with my damn menage/Get the Porsche out the damn garage/I am a God."

The question is, why and what factors have contributed to narcissism's rise?

What has led to the Rise of Narcissism?

Numerous factors impact the rise of narcissism. There is no consensus on the exact causes as experts perceive it to be a highly complex subject. Mayo Clinic perceives that the extreme form of narcissism as a medical condition and relates this disorder to:

  • Environment - mismatches in parent-child relationships with either excessive adoration or excessive criticism that is poorly attuned to the child's experience
  • Genetics - inherited characteristics
  • Neurobiology - the connection between the brain and behavior and thinking
  • The other significant factors that contribute to its rise are:

    Social-Cultural Environment

    The culture of society, whether it is individualistic or collectivistic, impacts its level of narcissism. Individualistic cultures value independence, personal rights, self-reliance, and assertiveness. In comparison, collectivistic cultures emphasize group goals, families' obligations, and community projects. Empirical data shows, "narcissism scores are higher in individualistic cultures compared with collectivistic cultures." In the book, The Life of I, the author validates this fact and attributes individualistic societies and their values as one of the leading causes of narcissism.

    Research validates these findings that Americans with their priority on individualistic values "...show the highest level of narcissism followed by Europeans, Canadians, Asians, and Middle Easterners."

    Role of Self-esteem Movement

    The Self-Esteem movement conceptualized in the 1969s was labeled as the key to success. Parents took this view seriously and started to build their children's self-esteem with compliments regarding how wonderful, intelligent, talented, and beautiful they were. Educators began bestowing awards, trophies, and recognitions on students when they did not even deserve them. These practices created the "I love myself" and "Generation me" movements. A citation in Scientific American confirms that such actions were intended to raise self-esteem but increased narcissism.

    Social Media

    A recent surge in multiple social media platforms has further added to the rising tide of narcissism. Social media users generate their content, use it mostly for self-promotion, self-glorification, look important, show popularity, and gain attention. Scientists have even provided a formula, N=S/h (N=Number, S=Selfies, h=hour), to calculate the number of selfies taken per hour.

    The higher frequency of using Facebook is associated with a higher score on the Narcissistic Personality Questionnaire because users think others are interested. Studies also show that people "...high in superiority feelings prefer Twitter, whereas those high in exhibitionism prefer Facebook."

    Parenting Styles

    Parenting styles and practices in the early and adolescent years significantly impact their children's narcissistic tendencies. There are two opposing theories on parenting styles.

    The first theory states that narcissists felt "...neglected, ignored, constantly disparaged, berated by their parents, and were held to unrealistically high standards of behavior" in their early childhood. In adult life, these children cultivate an imaginary grandiose image of themselves to show superiority. They also feel that they deserve special treatment and parental approval to overcome the early lack of acceptance and warmth.

    The second theory advocates that "...parents who are extremely lenient and dote on their children with excessive approval also contribute the development of narcissism as children learn from their parents that they are superior to others and deserve special treatment." These disparate approaches show that the application of parenting practices may differ, but both of the courses enhance narcissism traits.

    Image Obsessed Culture

    Having a picture-perfect and well-proportioned body, looking like celebrities, and paying excessive importance to physical appearance, have gone up to dangerous levels. Sharing glorified images of oneself, having plastic surgery to make up for minor flaws, body restructuring, and makeover procedures have risen worldwide. In Google search, there are more than a million links to Mommy Makeover. Advertisers entice customers with services and perks such as "...tummy tuck, liposuction, breast augmentation, and best Brazilian Butt Lift.

    Image obsessed culture has also entered children's nursery rhymes as This Little Piggy Went to Prada. Teaching the alphabet to kids from books like F is for Fashion, and Along Came Coco Chanel is carrying narcissism to an extreme level.

    Economic Prosperity

    During times of economic security, growth, and stability, narcissism grows as people indulge in material access and adopt lavish living standards. China is another example of economic progress that has lifted people out of poverty; living standards improved, commercialization and consumerism grew. Monetary prosperity in Chinese society has given rise to the 'Little Emperors' and 'Precious Snowflakes.' The impact of commercial abundance has influenced the generation's attitudes and behavior (Rise in Narcissism).


    Societies cannot ignore the impact of this rising narcissistic phenomenon. It can be managed to a great extent but may not be eliminated entirely. Parents need to pay attention to multiple distractions caused by multi-media, immediate gratification devices, and their role in managing self-absorption behavior in their children. Leaders need to set personal examples and provide opportunities for the younger generation to see beyond themselves, nurture societal values and customs.

    It would take a concentrated effort from the mental health professionals, leaders, parents, and other significant societal members to keep the tide of narcissism in check. If the extent of this rise is not controlled and managed, it may lead to results as signaled by Bob Barr in this quote:

    "As Rome burned, Nero fiddled, ... ... The flames of hedonism, the flames of narcissism, the flames of self-centered morality are licking at the very foundations of our society...".

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