Celebrities have been found to have higher-than-normal narcissism, so their self-indulgent, arrogant, snarky and sick behaviors shouldn’t be unexpected. But their antics, which are recorded and distributed by an insatiable media, are having an unexpected impact: Regular Americans are developing oversized egos, labeling themselves “hot” and emulating outrageous behaviors, even though it is detrimental to themselves, their families and the culture. Staff writer Cheryl Wetzstein recently interviewed addiction specialist and VH1 “Celebrity Rehab” host Dr. Drew Pinsky and S. Mark Young, a professor at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. The two men co-authored “The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America.”
From Dr. Pinsky:
Q: Everybody’s narcissistic to some degree. What is ‘dangerous’ narcissism?
A: Narcissism, in and of itself, shouldn’t be thought of as something bad, per se, but there are liabilities that come with it. And the biggest liability is a deficiency or incapacity for empathy. The hallmark of a narcissist is that when their interests are crossed — when somebody’s interest is different than theirs — that’s where their empathy really fails [and they go for whatever is in their best interest].
Q: I’m thinking the American public really doesn’t know what narcissism is.
A: Oh, absolutely. That was our point in the book. Narcissism is a developmental stage, but it’s also a personality trait and it can be a disorder that’s associated with childhood trauma. Narcissists can have all these good things in their lives — they can keep people around them, they’re successful — and yet in their heart of hearts, they feel alone and empty. Often, they have difficulty with intimacy — they tend to act out, cheat, be sexually compulsive. And they tend to be addicts and alcoholics.
Q: So the ‘mirror effect’ is when the public becomes attracted to indulgent celebrities and tries to emulate them, it can amplify the public’s own narcissistic tendencies?
A: Exactly. This narcissistic cultural turn is something that is affecting all of us, and it’s become increasingly pathological.
Q: It is very interesting that swine flu is in the news, because you and Mr. Young warn that our nation is at risk of a “pandemic of a personality style.” What do you mean?
A: I think we’re much more likely to have a pandemic of narcissism than a pandemic of swine flu for two reasons: Narcissism is already much wider spread. And, in the face of a few thousand cases of swine flu, we are taking very aggressive action to contain it. I see no action to contain the spread of narcissism. In fact, quite the opposite — we seem to be fanning the flames.
Q: So how do we get past the need to ‘be special’ in this Internet age?
A: I am inherently optimistic. It’s back to basics. It’s back to a reliance, a focus on the real interpersonal experience. Focus on the family. The things that are important to human beings have not changed and I think that the emptiness of the landscape that we’ve created for ourselves will teach us that we need to look elsewhere.
From Mr. Young:
Q: Your book talks about celebrity-driven, narcissistic fixations on body image, hypersexuality, addiction and “jackass” behaviors. How can the public steer celebrity news away from these unhealthy things?
A: One of two ways: Stop buying the magazines and stop tuning into the shows. But that’s not going to happen easily when you have the editors of these magazines, the tabloids, paying huge dollars for outrageous photographs from the paparazzi.
Q: You write about the “Celebrity-Industrial Complex” as the “media monster” that creates the reality people see on the Internet, on cable TV and on the newsstand. What’s its role?
A: This is a term that [pop-culture author] Maureen Orth coined and Drew and I expanded on that concept. It turns out that covering celebrities is very profitable; [the tragic life and death of Anna Nicole Smith is an example]. Images are shot [and used] up and down the entire media conglomerate for profitability reasons.
Q: So it doesn’t look good for reducing celebrity antics if big media companies are trying to keep the public glued to their shows, magazines and Web sites?
A: That’s right. It’s no mistake that media conglomerates have bought up MySpace and things like that. They can have the celebrities acting out for one kind of media they own, and then when the average person who has narcissistic tendencies acts out on MySpace, hey, we own that too!
Q: Washington is certainly not without its narcissists. Will you ever study East Coast power-trippers as you have West Coast celebrities?
A: We would love to do it [give the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) to members of Congress, as they did with 200 celebrities]. We believe, off the cuff, that the [congressional] scores would be higher than with celebrities.
Q: I think you might have to include staff on the NPI.
A: That’s true in Hollywood, too. Some of the craziest people I’ve met are the assistants, the gatekeepers.
Q: What gives you hope we can escape this love affair with narcissism?
A: Well, I think the only things that could happen are, like with any social change, if people get really bored with it — which can happen when they realize what it really is — or if something much more important happens in society that gets peoples attention. For instance, this severe economic crisis is something that is going to galvanize people.
But I think that, at some point, the young people who are most affected — the teens, the tweens, the twentysomethings — are going to transition into other things. They’re going to become parents; their interests are going to change. And the hope is that the next generation will have influences other than this.