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What do you think when you hear the word “narcissism”? Maybe it’s Kanye West. Maybe it’s Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. Maybe it’s your friend who can’t stop posting selfies. Whatever it is, you probably have a general idea of what narcissism is or how narcissists act.

The marriage of the terms “narcissism” and “millennial” pervade headlines, with many social analysts imposing the diagnosis upon a generation. However, the implications of the term “narcissist” go far beyond the crazes of social media and selfishness to a dangerous personality disorder that is not fully understood.

How valid is the so-called “narcissism epidemic” in our country? How truly deluded is Generation Me?

How bad is it?

College students’ Narcissistic Personality Inventory scores by time period. Source: Journal of Personality.

According to data published in the Journal of Personality, the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) score between 1980 and 2006 from the NPI rose steadily for American undergraduate students. In 1980, the average was a score of 15.6 (where 40 is the highest indicator of narcissistic behaviors); by 2006, the average rose to 17.4.

Undergraduate students are between the ages of 18 and 22. They have yet to experience the full-time workforce, and it only makes sense that many are hopeful that they will succeed in life. The positivism and arrogance associated with young people certainly has an impact on the facets of entitlement and perceived self-importance.

Time Magazine’s 2013 cover story was titled “The Me, Me, Me Generation,” remarking on the narcissistic obsession of the millennial. The 1976 cover story of New York Magazine, however, declared that the 1970s were “The Me Decade.” This persisting sentiment goes to show that narcissism is likely to be associated with the developmental stage of the surveyed individuals.

What’s causing us to be more narcissistic?

“Young adults raised with a “participation award” mentality are more likely to have deluded expectations of themselves.”

This rise has been associated with the advent of social media, changing trends in child rearing, and cultural idolatry of celebrities. From a young age, children have been found less likely to be engaged in communal play, causing a struggle to identify with others later in life. Similarly, young adults raised with a “participation award” mentality are more likely to have deluded expectations of themselves, their peers, and their authority figures.

The researchers in the study questioned whether this delusion of self-esteem is a good thing:

Schools and media activities may have promoted an increase in narcissism. Children in some preschools sing a song with the lyrics, ‘‘I am special/I am special/Look at me . . .’’, and many television shows for children emphasize positive self-feelings and specialness. Future research
should examine whether school and media programs intended to raise self-esteem also raise narcissism.

Estimates for the number of individuals suffering from NPD vary from source to source. Approximates range from 1% of the population to 35%: the actual percentage is unclear due to the undiagnosed cases of the disorder.

Typical behaviors and symptoms of NPD have been identified for diagnostic use. These include: a grandiose sense of self-importance, a requirement for excessive admiration, a very strong sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy, and preoccupations with fantasies of unlimited success and power.

Narcissistic behavior arises out of from an excess of attitudes and beliefs that are generally present in most people. Healthy narcissism, another psychoanalytical concept, is determined to be positive self-interest and realistic self-esteem. Here, this “good” narcissism proves an effective force in people’s lives rather than a destructive one.

Origins of narcissism

Painting of Echo and Narcissus, by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917). Source: mythindex.com
Painting of Echo and Narcissus, by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917). Source: mythindex.com

Narcissism derives its name from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a young man who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Until the late 19th century, extreme self-love was the description primarily used by authors, and “narcissism” only appeared in our vocabulary alongside the rise of psychoanalysis.

Sigmund Freud and his colleagues were among the first to discuss narcissism from a psychological point of view, analyzing the differences between healthy self-preservation and deeper problems between the ego and the external world.

Since then, psychologists have focused on identifying the narcissist through concepts of objectification and childhood development. Modern clinical psychologists and researchers have developed various psychological tests and inventories to help categorize narcissists through series of questions meant to exploit their internal complexes.

In 1980, the American Psychology Association officially recognized narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

Cultural trends in context

Recognizing the increased average of NPI scores does not entail that more young adults are diagnosable narcissists—rather, they may have a narcissistic personality, but cannot be diagnosed with NPD.

Every generation seems worse than the last; yet, every parent rightfully questions his or her child’s generation. Teenagers and young adults have always been a little delusional, obnoxious, and narcissistic; for millennials, it’s just easier to prove.