- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 24, 2009

Second of two parts

There’s a popular poster in which a house cat sits in front of a mirror that reflects the image of a lion. “What matters most is how you see yourself,” the caption says.

That’s just a bunch of kitty litter, say psychology professors Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, authors of “The Narcissism Epidemic, Living in the Age of Entitlement.”

Thinking you’re great and actually being great are two different things, they say. Sadly, after 40 years of happy talk about self-esteem, too many people actually believe that when they wear their favorite T-shirts, they really are a “Hottie” or “2 Cool 4 You.”

This kind of individual narcissism is just the tip of the iceberg, Ms. Twenge and Mr. Campbell say. The entire American culture appears to be revolving around rampant materialism, hair-trigger aggressiveness, vanity, shallow sexuality and rabid desires for attention and fame.

And the narcissism seems to be becoming more ingrained with time, they say. Research finds that today’s college students register higher on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory compared to students in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

What to do? First, become aware of what narcissism is.

“Five or 10 years ago, people didn’t know what that word meant, but now it’s started to enter the popular lexicon,” said Ms. Twenge, who teaches at San Diego State University.

“It’s used by public figures — John Edwards, in talking about his affair, used narcissism to explain his behavior, and when [former New York Gov.] Eliot Spitzer got in trouble, people used the word narcissism to describe some of his problems,” she said.

The rise in narcissism is partly due to the self-esteem movement (which is still heavily practiced in schools), say Ms. Twenge and Mr. Campbell, a professor at the University of Georgia. Both are married parents with young children.

This, in turn, has affected parenting.

“Not that long ago, kids knew who the boss was — and it wasn’t them,” they wrote.

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But as the push for self-admiration and positive feelings among children swept the land, parents bought in, too. The sad result is the kid in the “Little Princess” or “Rock Star” pajamas gets Popsicles for breakfast, an iPod at age 10 and lots of parent-teacher conferences when they bring home a “B.”

Another culprit is a mass media that is celebrity-driven and apparently as clueless about narcissism as everyone else. (Time magazine’s 2006 Person of the Year was “You.” Seriously.)

The Internet, with its blogs, video sites, games and social-networking sites, is raising the bar for personal showboating — and “allows you to become obsessed with other people’s narcissism, too,” they wrote.

Finally, American mortgage lenders and credit firms added to the mess by foolishly believing people with no money would pay their debts. “[M]uch of the economic meltdown of 2008 was caused by overconfidence and greed, two key symptoms of narcissism,” Ms. Twenge and Mr. Campbell said.

Will this narcissism epidemic keep growing?

“In the first half of 2008, we said yes without much hesitation,” they said. But the economic meltdown has brought many flights of fancy crashing to earth.

There is hope that the recession will revive thrift, gratitude, humility and hard work. “Learning how to fail, how to take responsibility and how to bounce back — those are the skills you need in life,” Mr. Campbell said.

A few countertrends, such as a movement to live with “simplicity” and a clamor for “not-so-big” houses, also offer rays of hope.

Just being aware of the narcissism epidemic is an important first step in turning the culture in healthier directions, the authors told me. Good movies to watch include “Groundhog Day” (narcissist trapped in a time warp), “Shallow Hal” (narcissist hypnotized), “What Women Want” (narcissist shocked with electricity) and “Jerry Maguire” (narcissist captivated by cute little kid).

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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