When children act this way, we say they’re simply acting like children. But when adults behave with this same paradoxical mixture of self-importance and insecurity, we call it something else: narcissism. By definition, narcissists are impatient, vainglorious, easily insulted, and aggrieved; they’d never dream of making sacrifices on anyone else’s behalf, unless it simultaneously advanced an agenda of their own.
But the fact is, everyone is capable of narcissism in times of crisis. It’s a very typical response to feeling out of control—especially if you’ve had plenty of control before (or at least the illusion of it), and especially if you still have some means to express your dissatisfaction. And control has been a defining theme of this election cycle. With record unemployment and foreclosure rates, everyone across the system is feeling deeply disempowered. As Obama recently said at a fund-raiser (and was immediately criticized for it afterward), “We’re hardwired not to always think clearly when we’re scared.”
Similarly, one could argue that, if the conditions are right, an entire culture can plunge into narcissistic behavior. In fact, we’ve been here before. In TheCulture of Narcissism, the 1979 classic about the spread and normalization of self-absorption in the United States, historian Christopher Lasch suggested that seventies rebellion culture was at once the result of too many constraints and too few. On the one hand, people felt powerless in the face of a changing economy and the expanding impersonal complexity of the modern world, a world that “made the individual dependent on the state, the corporation, and other bureaucracies.” At the same time, a sexual revolution was taking place, the mass media was replacing the church and the family as the main source of culture and values, and Madison Avenue was “undermining the horrors of indebtedness”—all of which gave people a sense of lawlessness and dizzying personal freedom.
The result, in other words, was a culture where people felt the same paradoxical combination experienced by angry children: powerlessness and a destructive, deceptive sense of might.
This still very much describes people’s experience of life today. Our world combines extreme complexity with dehumanizing, tumbling-down institutions and fast-dissolving social mores. As in 1979, there’s a foundering economy, an energy crisis, a hostile lunatic running Iran, and an Asian supercompetitor threatening to overtake us … all of which the public is trying to banish from its mind with sex, drugs, and lots of yoga.
The difference is scale. The boomers, it turns out, were just the beginning of the Me Generation. At least, this is the argument that psychologists Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell make in The Narcissism Epidemic, published last year, 30 years after the publication of The Culture of Narcissism. It sparked a big debate when it came out, but at its core are data sets and cultural indicia that are hard to ignore. Based on dozens of surveys, the authors found that college students have been scoring higher and higher on the Narcissism Personality Inventory since its debut in 1979. They unearthed a study of 11,000 teenagers that was done once in 1951 and once in 1989, in which only 12 percent agreed with the statement “I am an important person” the first time around, whereas 78 percent agreed the second. This was attributed at least partly to a rise in self-esteem curricula in schools, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; but when self-esteem is no longer linked to hard work and achievement, it’s not a good thing, either. Perhaps most memorably, the authors highlighted the disparity between the overwhelming confidence of American students and the underwhelming nature of their test scores. One study noted that 39 percent of American eighth-graders feel good about their math skills, compared with just 6 percent of Koreans. Guess who’s better at math.
A good reason for this, the authors argue, is the exploding number of vehicles our culture provides to promote feelings of entitlement and habits of self-regard. In other words, half of the recipe that Lasch described—the idea that narcissism thrives in cultures with a certain level of lawlessness—has increased exponentially. We have an entertainment industry that promotes the Kardashians as much as it does Meryl Streep, which disentangles success from talent and suggests we are all potential celebrities. We have all manner of personal broadcasting systems at our disposal—Twitter, Facebook, YouTube—which lead us to believe that whatever we have to say has value, whether it does or doesn’t, and make all our opinions heard at once. (In the seventies, people poured their hearts out to their analysts; now it’s into their status updates.) For years, we’ve lived off unlimited credit, believing that we’re entitled to things we can’t afford and that the value of whatever we own—homes, 401(k)s, derivatives—can only go up. (Indeed, it was the overconfidence of Wall Streeters, one could argue, that caused the financial crisis; the psychologist Joshua Foster has shown that narcissists are far more likely to bet aggressively in the stock market, running it up when it’s booming and running it into the ground as it’s falling low.) We have customized entertainment (my.nbc, my.nytimes, my.yahoo), which makes us see the world as a child does, a place that curves to fit our needs and desires and opinions; the Internet has become less a portal into other worlds than a mirror of our own, or what Nicholas Negroponte at the M.I.T. Media Lab famously calls “The Daily Me.”