EN: So did this rise in narcissism start with the cultural ferment of the sixties?
JT: We found that it probably did have its origins in the sixties, because that’s where this increasing individualism really got started. But back then, there was much more of a sense of higher purpose. It was much more about creating a social movement. It didn’t have quite as much of the self-centeredness and the “I’m in this just for me” element that we see today. It also focused much more on looking inward and self-exploration. These are different from narcissism, because they’re focused on learning about oneself rather than just saying “I’m awesome. I already know it. Now let’s show the rest of the world.” In the sixties and seventies, people saw the baby boomers as more narcissistic than the previous generation. But then their kids took it to the next level. It’s almost like that sense of higher purpose boiled off and left us with this empty narcissistic shell in most of the culture.
EN: One of the most fascinating things about the book was your chapter on parenting, in which you show some of the ways that the ideals of the boomers helped to shape the narcissism epidemic that we’re experiencing now.
JT: Yes. The saddest part is they did it with such good intentions, and I don’t mean that sarcastically. I’ve spoken to a lot of parents and have done a lot of reading, and I found that everybody thought that if you raised your kid’s self-esteem, it would be good for them. It would be good for their psyche. It would be good for their success, and so on. So everybody just ran with that idea before the research data came in.
But what we’ve found since then is that when parents and teachers and media sources try to increase self-esteem, they usually end up increasing narcissism. These self-esteem-boosting strategies create more of a narcissistic overconfidence than true self-esteem, because they’re often not based on reality. Take, for example, telling children things like “You can be anything you want to be.” Well, it usually takes a lot more than just wanting something to succeed in life. You need to try hard, and you need to have the talent for that to happen.
The same is true with overpraising. When a child does something, it’s important to praise them. But a line is crossed when it seems like everybody gets rewarded no matter how well they perform. We want to encourage effort, especially among young kids, but the “everybody gets a trophy” mentality basically says that you’re going to get rewarded just for showing up. First of all, that’s not how the real world works. Second, that won’t build true self-esteem; instead, it builds this empty sense of “I’m just fantastic, not because I did anything but just because I’m here.”
EN: What are some of the differences in the way narcissism expresses itself in the older generations like the boomers versus their children in Generations X and Y?
JT: That’s a great question because it points to something really important. The truth is that there’s narcissism in every generation. It’s showing up more among the young because this is the only world they’ve ever known. But there’s plenty of narcissism among older people too. The increase in plastic surgery is one interesting example; a lot of that increase is attributed to things like Botox, which of course is not very common among twenty-year-olds. We see the same with overconfidence. It wasn’t the wild overconfidence of young people that bankrupted the economy. It was people in their thirties, forties, and fifties who were running the banks and taking out the mortgages. That’s one of the reasons we ended up in this recession.
So narcissism definitely manifests itself differently in different age groups. Among the eighteen-year-olds you see it more in their obsession with appearance and with a lot of what’s happening online. Take Facebook, for example. My colleague Ernest Gradstein did a great study showing that narcissists thrive on Facebook: They have more friends, and they put up more attractive pictures of themselves. It’s a venue that is great for keeping in touch with friends. But if you go on there you notice there is also a minority of people who are trying to seek as much attention as possible for wearing as little as possible. Even the people who are clothed are emphasizing the narcissistic parts of their identity instead of anything about deep relationships or intellectual interests.
What you also see among young people is a strong sense of entitlement. This is what older people complain about to no end. There was a survey done last year asking college students about their academic experiences. To the question “If you explain to your professor that you’re trying hard, should he or she increase your grade?” two-thirds of college students said yes. I’m a professor and I study narcissism, and I was still shocked by that number! So how is all of this going to play out in the workplace? This is what makes me worry. Most of my students are fantastic—they really are—but this attitude of entitlement is just not going to serve them well in the future.
EN: How has your research been received?
JT: When I talk to college students, either in my own classes or during speaking engagements at universities around the country, I always cringe a bit when I tell them the results of my research: that their generation is more narcissistic than college students of past generations. But to my surprise, they almost inevitably say, “You’re right. You got us. We see it in the culture. That’s definitely the case.” Then they say something like, “But we have to be narcissistic because the world is so competitive.” Of course the problem with that argument is that narcissism doesn’t actually help them succeed. This is where they are genuinely shocked because they have been told their whole lives that being confident, self-centered, and self-promotional will lead to success. When I tell them that putting themselves first doesn’t always work out and that even self-esteem isn’t really correlated with success, their jaws completely hit the floor. They just can’t believe it.
EN: So what is the cure for the narcissism epidemic?
JT: Obviously, the first cure is just raising awareness that this is a problem and that it’s actually possible to have too much self-regard. The other thing I think we need to do, based on my conversations with students, is to dispute this notion that you have to be self-centered to succeed. Not only is it not true, but getting along well with other people, having empathy for them, and being able to take their perspective are actually more likely to lead to success. People do talk about this point, but it isn’t being emphasized nearly as much as it should be. So this is something we need to be teaching people, and we need to emphasize how truly important it is.