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The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement: A Review

Dr. Tom Kennedy
I devoured a great book two weeks ago: The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Drs. Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell (2009, Atria Books). I recommend it highly, even though it was published in 2009. The book documented the increase in selfish behavior over the last few decades and how that selfish behavior has crossed the line into narcissism. I could not fail to see parallels with the attitudes of the Romans in the Roman Empire at the time it fell.

Just some background first: Everyone has some level of narcissism. It emerges in infancy from what Freud calls the Id. The Id demands what it wants, when it wants it. Our childhood exposure to family and society’s rules is supposed to teach us to balance desires with society’s rules. This balanced selfishness morphs into narcissism when teens and adults come to believe society’s rules can be bent/broken for them, but that others should follow the rules. Narcissists also rationalize their failures by blaming others. In fact, many narcissists take credit for their teammates’ successes. Not something you learn in Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.

Twenge and Campbell, the book’s authors, are two researchers who have been working in this field for decades. They talk about the “epidemic” in narcissism among modern students. Since the 1980s, almost 40,000 students were given a narcissism test. Narcissism was lower at that time but “[b]y 2006, 1 out of 4 college students had agreed with the majority of the items on a standard measure of narcissistic traits.” Many professors who have been in the profession for a few decades have seen this development in their own students.

Though not everyone can be diagnosed with a full-blown narcissistic personality disorder, society’s major influences are training people to become more narcissistic in their attitudes and beliefs. Messages on clothes tell others that they are encountering a princess, or the clothes may just say I love me or I’m hot, and you’re not. The authors cringe at the idea of the self-esteem improvement efforts because it fans the idea that one is special. In the past self-esteem meant feeling comfortable with being a part of the group. Now self-esteem means one is superior to the group.

There are myths about narcissism that the authors confront and correct. One such myth is that narcissists have low self-esteem. The authors’ research shows that narcissists are in love with themselves and see themselves as “awesome.” “Thus,” write Twenge and Campbell, “narcissists have very similar views of themselves on the inside and the outside—they are secure and positive that they are winners, but believe that caring about others isn’t all that important.”

What are some of the causes of the tremendous rise in narcissism? It seems that a combination of “less authoritative parenting” (Read: permissive parenting) and the focus of the self-esteem movement has propelled the dramatic increase in narcissism. The movement’s focus on sparing the feelings of a child who underperforms seems to be a major cause of this increase. As a result, we give medals and ribbons to all the children despite their performance. We also give them positive reinforcement at home and school for mediocre performance, which encourages them to expect less of themselves. One complementary result of this low expectation is to expect more from others to compensate for one’s own lack of success.

Some narcissists are intelligent and successful. They become leaders of business, and many enter politics. The ultimate power trip is to be able to tell many other people what to do but blame others for one’s own failures.
The authors suggest some ways to reduce narcissism in our society. Removing the self-esteem approaches to education and parenting is an important step. In education, the “everyone-is-a-winner” approach does not improve performance. The authors point out that “[i]t is OK for a child to feel somewhat bad if he or she underperforms in academics, sports, or personal conduct. The child can then learn from the poor performance and be given the opportunity and encouragement to strive to improve.”

One other major area pointed out earlier is in parenting. Permissive parenting has been a major culprit encouraging narcissism in children. We do know that setting clear limits and providing consequences is important to balanced parenting. However, parents must follow up with enforcing the consequences, even if it looks like it will reduce the child’s self-esteem. In actuality, enforcement of consequences will encourage us to examine our behavior in relation to others.

Twenge and Campbell also take on the forces that reward narcissism: reality TV programs, commercials, sports activities, the internet (Facebook), credit cards and even economic policy. However, it will be a tough road to change these influences for those who want to reduce narcissism and increase responsibility in our young.

At one point the book does explore how religion prevents narcissism. Worship services and Sunday School emphasized empathy, compassion, and a concern for others. But the authors point out how narcissism has crept into the church itself and how churches search for new members by appealing to their narcissistic desires. On the other hand, they noted that, as members have been leaving the church and declaring that they have no religion or creating their own religion, narcissism has increased.

Religion is also mentioned as a solution, but in focused ways. Twenge and Campbell talk about teaching humility, compassion for self, meditation, mindfulness and gratefulness. There is no emphasis to just go back to church and how church leaders can accomplish that. I think many of the authors’ solutions will be realized if people will just go back to worship services and Sunday School.

What do you think?

The Mere Presence Effect Controls What You Believe

Quick question: What is the number one cancer killer of women? No, it is not breast cancer, it is not uterine cancer, it is not cervical cancer, and it is not ovarian cancer. The number one cancer killer of women is lung cancer. In fact lung cancer kills more women than all the others combined. Were you surprised? Most people are. But why do most people believe the number one cancer killer is breast cancer?

The reason is the Mere Presence Effect. This social psychological term describes the brain’s willingness to believe a lot of something exists in society if it sees it often. When was the last time you saw an advertisement support research on lung cancer in women?

Here are some other influences of the Mere Presence Effect. What percentage of our society is made up of homosexuals? Many students in my classes give answers as high as 30%, or thirty out of 100 Americans are homosexual. The actual answer is around 2%, or two out of a 100. Why the difference in beliefs? We see so much about homosexuals on TV and in the news, especially with same-sex marriage.

Is it better to cohabit to see if you are compatible, and then marry? TV shows people happily cohabiting together, but usually shows married people as unhappy. Cohabiting will lower one’s divorce rate, according to many people. They are wrong. We have no research that shows cohabiting lowering the divorce rate. In fact, those who cohabit will have a higher rate of divorce if they do marry later. Just to clarify something, those who live together and don’t get married break up at a much higher rate than those who marry.

Here is a thought question. Why do politicians want to spend so much money on TV ads and other media? Part of the reason is the Mere Presence Effect. If they overwhelm you with more ads than their opponents, then your brain will believe that everyone else is going to vote for them, so you should too.

What parts of your beliefs are influenced by the Mere Presence Effect? Perhaps much more than you know. This scripture from Paul indicates some of the influence of the Mere Presence Effect on the spiritual lives of Christians.

Romans 12:2   Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Everyone in Paul’s world was living a pattern of unhealthy spiritual lives, but almost all believed their spiritual lives were healthy. Why? Because they saw everyone else living the same way.

Part of our challenge as Christians is to examine what is real and what is an unhealthy Mere Presence Effect. What do you think? Are you influenced too much by the Mere Presence Effect? Would you know a Mere Presence Effect if you saw one? It is time to study scripture as well as good research. They will give you a good indication.

Tom Kennedy, EdD

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