Is society becoming dominated by narcissistic traits?
Fred thinks he is one of the greatest leaders in his workplace, though few of his co-workers think so. Fred is always claiming credit for group achievements. He has charisma, and has a small fan club, including a couple of his bosses, who are taken in by his confident self-assertions.
When one of Fred’s co-workers does good work, and seems to Fred to be a competitor, Fred will ignore the achievement, denigrate the co-worker, or sometimes try to take credit for it. When others question Fred’s competence, he flies into a rage. Most co-workers fear his anger and placate him, enabling his delusions of greatness to persist.
Fred fits the profile of a narcissist, a personality type whose basic characteristic is being self-centred. In the pathological version it is called narcissistic personality disorder, characterised by grandiose self-conceptions and a lack of empathy for others.
Narcissism seems to be on the rise in western societies, along with the increase in individualism. Fewer people look to their family, neighbourhood or class solidarity for their sense of identity. More now think that it is everyone for themselves.
There is an increasing amount of research into narcissism, and some excellent popular treatments. If this topic interests you, I recommend Anne Manne’s new book The Life of I as both engaging to read and thought-provoking. It is highly informed and pushes into new territories.
Manne cites research showing increases in narcissism in western countries. For example, surveys of US university students reveal that a much larger percentage see fame and fortune as their primary goals in life rather than, as in previous generations, good character and serving others. Self-centredness is being mainstreamed.
Personality has long been the province of psychiatrists and psychologists, and narcissism has been one of their interests. Manne examines the ideas of leading figures in the field, from Freud onwards, and probes the role of upbringing. The most common idea is that narcissism is stimulated by indulgent parents who set no limits and enable an exaggerated sense of entitlement. There are now US 16-year-olds who whine because the car they’ve been given by their parents is not a BMW.
Manne also cites studies suggesting a different rearing pattern in narcissists: emotional deprivation, with a parent who is distant and harsh. She thinks that the combination of indulgence and coldness may be a potent brew for cultivating narcissistic personality disorder.
Manne examines the dangerous and damaging aspects of narcissism:
private fantasies of, and a constant hunger for, being admired; a sense of entitlement; a sense of superiority; a willingness to exploit; impulsiveness and a lack of empathy; and, perhaps most importantly of all, a retaliatory aggression when the inflated ego is threatened. (p. 127)
To make these ideas vivid, Manne uses extended case studies, including Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik and US cyclist Lance Armstrong.
Her ideas about two models of upbringing operating together are exemplified in Armstrong’s case, who
would have had two competing internal working models of self and other. One came from his mother, of himself as special, entitled, able to do no wrong and hence be exploitative, with grandiose visions of a world without limits. The other working model came from his two fathers, a profoundly insecure attachment, as a boy not worth loving, not worth hanging around for, not worth caring for or, in the case of his stepfather, so unworthy as to be worthy of a beating (p. 155)
Some narcissists are sexual predators – or perhaps it’s better to say that many sexual predators have narcissistic traits. Certainly they show a sense of entitlement and little empathy for their victims. Manne uses the example of prominent male sports figures who have been exposed for their sexual abuse of women. Such men are vulnerable to exaggerated ideas about their privileges and self-importance, given the adulation they are given by fans, including female groupies. Narcissism fuels striving for fame, and fame in turn fosters some of the worst characteristics of narcissism.
Manne next addresses neoliberalism, the economic beliefs and practices built around idolisation of markets and, as a key aspect, glorification of greed. From the 1980s onwards, especially in English-speaking countries, self-interest was unleashed from many previous restraints.
To highlight the narcissistic dimensions of neoliberalism, Manne uses the case of Ayn Rand, an influential advocate of individualism. Rand raised self-interest to a high-order principle, and denigrated concern for others as weakness. Rand was initially seen as so extreme as to be marginal intellectually, but with the rise of neoliberalism her doctrines obtained a much wider following. One of her acolytes was Alan Greenspan, who later became head of the US Federal Reserve. He dismantled long-standing restraints on financial transactions and helped lay the foundation for the global financial crisis.
Manne tells about the beliefs and behaviours of Rand and Greenspan, showing how they fit a narcissistic profile. She also shows how their views clashed with reality. When Rand contracted lung cancer and could not afford private medical care, she accepted the government financial support she had fulminated against all her life.
Neoliberalism may be enabling an increase of narcissism, but it is only a trend, not destiny: there are countervailing pressures. Although individuals are primed by advertisements to think of their own needs, people can also be primed to be concerned about others. Narcissism, in its extreme forms, is not attractive to others, especially those who are exploited or who are attacked in retaliatory rages. Because people benefit from living collectively, and receive satisfaction from helping others, there is bound to be a limit to the expansion of narcissism.
Manne’s final case study is climate change. She sees resistance to the implications of climate science for action against global warming as a symptom of rising narcissism. She notes, for example, that conservative older men are most likely to be climate sceptics, reflecting a reluctance to make personal change for the greater good. Some prominent climate sceptics fit this profile.
However, there are other explanations for resistance to measures to restrain global warming, including the vested interests of fossil fuel industries and the apparent lack of immediate consequences of inaction. Indeed, if compared to other environmental issues, such as nuclear power or pesticides, for which the dangers are more immediate and vivid, there has been a remarkable level of global activism on climate change. Narcissism might be playing a role in the debate, but the power of altruism remains strong: activists put huge efforts into campaigning, even though the immediate benefits are few, with the main beneficiaries being future generations.
Manne provides a compelling account of the importance of narcissism in contemporary societies, both at the individual and social level. What can be done to counter the rise of narcissism? At the individual level, there are various advice books – ones for dealing with difficult personalities – that can be used to obtain ideas about handling the narcissists you encounter at work or in your family. Parents, to prevent their children becoming narcissists, can provide a secure environment in which children are praised for effort, not for their innate brilliance.
At the level of society, though, the challenge is deeper, being nothing less than challenging neoliberalism and the associated rise of individualism. Manne has done a service in diagnosing the culture of narcissism. Perhaps what is needed to challenge this culture is a parallel study of great strategists for altruism and the commons.
Anne Manne, The Life of I: The New Culture of Narcissism (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2014)