Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Narcissism study shows why 'You're So Vain'

By Beverly Kelley, Ph.D.

Narcissus is alive and well and living on campus these days. At least that's the word from San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge and her colleagues at the University of Michigan, the University of Georgia and the University of South Alabama. They've been examining responses of college students to the Narcissistic Personality Inventory since 1982.

According to the study, narcissism (not to be confused with the personality disorder) is characterized by ‘‘excessive self admiration, vanity and a sense of entitlement'' and has climbed 30 percent among undergraduates during the past two decades. Last year, two out of three handed in above-average numbers for narcissism. The researchers contend that high-scoring collegians are incapable of empathy, turn aggressive when insulted and favor self-enhancement over making others look good. Furthermore, they are more likely to seek attention, public glory and material possessions.

‘‘Narcissism feels good and might be useful for meeting new people or auditioning on ‘American Idol,' '' claims W. Keith Campbell, author of ‘‘When You Love a Man Who Loves Himself.'' ‘‘Unfortunately, narcissism can also have very negative consequences for society, including the breakdown of close relationships with others.''

Twenge, author of ‘‘Generation Me,'' traces the rise in narcissistic responses back to the '80s-era self-esteem movement when elementary school children sang (to the tune of ‘‘Frère Jacques''): ‘‘I am special. I am special. Look at me.'' The problem with all that built-up confidence is that ‘‘Gen-Y is the most difficult work force I've ever encountered,'' trend-spotter Marian Salzman told the Christian Science Monitor, ‘‘because (although) part of them are greatest-generation great ? the other part are so self-indulgent as to be genuinely offensive to know, let alone supervise.'

Grade inflation or calling ‘‘average'' work ‘‘good'' and ‘‘good'' work ‘‘excellent'' has also exacerbated narcissism. It's a lie. We need to remember that Lake Wobegon, where ‘‘all the children are above average,'' is merely a figment of Garrison Keillor's fertile imagination. Furthermore, if grade inflation isn't addressed, Americans will find themselves ill-prepared to compete in a global economy. The latest in the ‘‘A Nation at Risk'' series of studies reported U.S. eighth-graders only managing to place a disappointing 14th in math and ninth in science against our international competitors.

The narcissism nightmare also is being deposited at the feet of reality television producers. Boomers may have a legitimate gripe about Ozzie Nelson as a role model, but is Ozzy Osbourne the best the boob tube can manage these days?

While a recent study of celebrity narcissism conducted by ‘‘Loveline'' host Drew Pinsky and USC professor S. Mark Young confirmed (no surprise here) that celebrities are more narcissistic than average Americans, the study also pointed out that musicians proved to be the least narcissistic celebrity group. Perhaps that's because every performance is a report card on musical proficiency while not-so-terribly-talented amateur-hour contestants (the most narcissistic group) kid themselves into believing that only Simon Cowell stands between them and superstardom.

Campbell connected the dots between celebrity role models and young people when he told The Los Angeles Times: ‘‘If the self-absorption you see on ‘Laguna Beach' or ‘The Real World' is viewed as normal, the culture will be pushed in that direction. Our levels of self-esteem and narcissism are already pretty high. I don't know if we need more of it.''

The Internet has paved the latest off-ramp to Narcissism USA. Young people, who have gotten kudos for merely showing up, can now turn to self-revelatory Web sites such as YouTube, MySpace and Facebook to further indulge their quests for self-glorification, the ‘‘perfect'' pseudo-self or a private planet populated by people exactly like themselves.

Finally, narcissism, by and large, is the result of parents who seem, these days, to be plagued with discipline deficit disorder. Major symptoms include preferring to be pals rather than authority figures, caving into Junior's sense of entitlement even if it busts the budget, and suffering all manner of impertinence, abuse and disrespect in order to keep brief moments of familial togetherness, pleasurable and peaceful.

At some level, however, even a spoiled brat can be made to realize that self-esteem has to be earned — the old fashioned way. Each week ‘‘Supernanny,'' which features British-born Jo Frost confronting parents who have reached ropes-end with their out-of-control kids, attracts 8.7 million viewers. Her secret: She catches the chaos on camera, forces the entire family to watch in horror and then dispenses gentle guidance. Desirable behavior is rewarded. Undesirable behavior is penalized. You can actually read the relief on the children's faces, once they master self-control.

Narcissus did not waste away because he loved himself too much. He loved himself — his real self — too little.

That's what happens when you settle for an image.

— Beverly Kelley, Ph.D., who writes every other Monday for The Star, is an author ("Reelpolitik" and "Reelpolitik II") and professor in the Communication Department at California Lutheran University.