It’s almost cliché for people to talk about how we’ve all become narcissists, because social media has corrupted our sense of self and reshaped us into grandiose, selfie-obsessed, image-crafters. And, as Time printed on its front cover in 2013, this is particularly assumed to be the case for the 'me, me, me' generation: millennials.
But, are we actually more narcissistic today or is this just an age-old scepticism about kids these days that builds on stereotypes and misplaced nostalgia?
Should we call people narcissists?
First of all, what exactly is narcissism, and is it inherently bad? In May 2021, Ohio State University academics Sophie Kjærvik and Brad Bushman published a review of 437 studies on narcissism which together included 123,043 participants.
In the simplest sense they defined narcissism as “entitled self-importance”. To slightly expand this, they explained “People with high levels of narcissism think they are special people who deserve special treatment. They have an exaggerated and inflated sense of their own importance."
Previously, in 2014, Bushman co-created a scale which was surprisingly good at measuring whether someone was a narcissist and consisted exclusively of a response to the question: ‘to what extent do you agree with this statement: I am a narcissist?’ It turns out that lots of narcissists know that they are narcissists and some are even quite proud of it.
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Since then Bushman has changed how he talks about narcissism. Something the researchers stress in the 2021 article is that they did not call anyone in their research a narcissist and instead said that people were “high” or “low” on narcissism.
Does this mean that we should all abandon the term narcissist? Perhaps. As they explain “Calling someone a narcissist implies that narcissism is a dichotomous variable, which it is not. Even… narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is continuous.” We are all somewhere on a scale, and most of us have some narcissistic traits.
What are the different kinds of narcissism?
There is more than one type of narcissism. Put more accurately, there is a core part of narcissism - entitlement - and at least two important dimensions. Both the wider public and academics themselves have focused almost entirely on the dimension called grandiose narcissism. As Kjærvik and Bushman explain “Individuals high in grandiose narcissism tend to have high levels of self-esteem… self-assuredness, imposingness, attention seeking, entitlement, exhibitionism, self-indulgence, and disrespect for the needs of others.”
The other, often overlooked, dimension is vulnerable narcissism, which is marked by low self-esteem and is “characterized by hypersensitivity to evaluations from others, defensiveness, bitterness, anxiousness, self-indulgence, conceitedness, arrogance, and an insistence on having one’s own way,” explain Kjærvik and Bushman.
Grandiose and vulnerable narcissism can look the same on the surface but come from very different places. It’s the difference between posting a selfie because you feel like you look incredible and everyone needs to see your face (which would be grandiose) and posting a selfie because you are feeling down and are looking for some external validation (which would be vulnerable).
The behaviour is the same, posting a selfie, but the reasons behind the behaviour are almost opposites. No individual act should make you score high on narcissism, but the more behaviours like this you engage in the more likely you are to be classified as such.
Is being high on narcissism inherently bad?
While there has been research which has found that there can be some benefits of narcissism, including that it can make people more likeable in the short term, there is also a darker side.
Kjærvik and Bushman found that there was a significant relationship between narcissism and aggression, regardless of whether people were higher on grandiose or vulnerable dimensions. They also found that narcissism was related to lots of different kinds of aggression, including physical and verbal aggression, bullying both online and offline, and they argue that it is a risk factor for violence.
This relationship might be more complicated than it first seems, however, and other research has found that only vulnerable narcissism seems to be linked with something called “narcissistic rage” which is an explosive mix of anger and hostility. Still, if the me me me generation actually exists, then this is bad news.
Are we becoming more narcissistic?
People certainly seem to think that we are. In research published in 2019, Joshua Grubb and colleagues found that people of all ages, including university-aged adults and older people, tend to view adolescents and “emerging adults” as the most narcissistic and self-entitled age groups. As you might expect, they also found that this perception was exaggerated as people got older.
In other words, the greater the difference in age between millennials and the person rating them, the harsher the assumptions of narcissism became. This is the kids these days stereotype. Contrary to what the single item narcissism scale showed, millennials had a negative view of narcissism - they didn’t like being labelled narcissistic and entitled.
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As for whether this perception is true, in 2008 Jean Twenge and her team tried to answer this by looking at generational change. They compared 85 samples of participants who completed a specific narcissism scale - the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) - between 1979 and 2006, and found that narcissism levels in the US college students rose by a whopping 30 per cent over this period. If this trend continues to today, which many scholars seem to think it has, then the answer is yes, we are becoming more narcissistic.
The systematic increase that Twenge and colleagues found was notably mostly before the advent of social media, even the internet as we know it only went live in 1995. So what caused the change? Twenge and colleagues argued that it was probably an increase in individualism within society.
If it is true that so many more young people are scoring high on narcissism today than in the past, perhaps this is due to external changes in our environments rather than internal changes in our minds. Yes, we post pictures of ourselves online, and yes this superficially can look narcissistic. But the reasons behind these posts are myriad. Can the current construct of narcissism capture this new reality?
As researcher Keith Campbell wrote in 2001 “narcissism may be a functional and healthy strategy for dealing with the modern world”. In which case, perhaps it’s time to rethink how we define, measure, and stigmatise this seemingly abundant phenomenon.
Dr Julia Shaw is a research associate at University College London and the co-host of the Bad People podcast on BBC Sounds. She is an expert on criminal psychology, and the author of two international bestsellers, Making Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side and The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False Memory.