Psychologists label young people ‘narcissists’

For decades, psychologists have believed that ‘self-esteem’ is crucial to a happy, successful life. But new research suggests that this may have backfired: are we becoming vain egomaniacs?

When the term ‘narcissism’ was first coined in 1898, it was supposed to describe a serious psychological disorder. But if narcissism really is an illness, we appear to be now in the midst of an epidemic.

A new study by psychologist Jean Twenge, who analysed data going back to 1966, has found that today’s American students are far more self-confident than any of their predecessors. In four out of five key areas, over half of respondents to a survey claimed that their qualities were ‘above average'. When it came to ‘drive to achieve’, the proportion who considered themselves exceptional reached 75%.

Most people would think of this increasing self-confidence as a positive development. Since the 1960s, when the ‘Self-Esteem Movement’ began, psychologists and educators have often argued that success is impossible for anybody who does not love themselves.

But recent research overwhelmingly suggests that high self-esteem does not in fact lead to happiness or high achievement – in fact, it may be correlated with psychopathic tendencies!

The original Narcissus, according to Greek myth, was a breathtakingly handsome hunter with a Greek God for a father. Though he was strong and beautiful, he was also incapable of loving anybody but himself. Eventually Narcissus became so proud that he angered the Gods, who lured him to a pool.

There in the water he discovered a creature more beautiful than any he had ever known and, not realising that the man in the water was his own reflection, fell deeply in love. Unable to tear himself away, he stared longingly into the river until he wasted away and died.

Few people in reality, of course, die of self-love. But ever since The Culture of Narcissism by cultural historian Christopher Lasch became a controversial sensation in 1980, an increasing number of experts have begun to suggest that modern Western society encourages an unhealthy obsession with the self.

Love thyself?

Now the backlash against ‘self-esteem’ has begun. Young people should be humble, say critics, and realise their own limitations; otherwise they are simply deluding themselves about what they can expect from the world. Most people, by definition, are average – and we need to learn to deal with that.

But the Self-Esteem movement still has its followers. Believing in yourself does not have to mean being arrogant or self-obsessed, they say – in fact, people who constantly boast and crave attention are usually very insecure. But nobody can achieve anything exceptional without believing that they are capable of it: young people must learn to love themselves for who they are.

You Decide

  1. Is it healthy for people to think of themselves as exceptional?
  2. Is your culture is generally narcissistic?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are an advice columnist for a magazine who has just received a letter from a teenager: the letter-writer worries that they are ‘nothing special’ and ‘wants to stand out from the crowd’. Write a response advising them on how they should deal with these feelings.
  2. Write an alternative version of the myth of Narcissus – you can change anything except the name and personal qualities of the central character.

Some People Say...

“You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How can we possibly control whether people are ‘narcissistic’ or not?
Perhaps we can’t. But psychologists have certainly tried to improve people’s self esteem, both in therapy sessions and in broader culture – especially education. In many countries today, including Britain, schools focus heavily on making children aware of their own merits, believing that this will make them more happy and successful in later life. So it has probably affected your education!
Does that make me a narcissist?
Not necessarily, of course. But you might be. Do you strongly believe in your own superiority? Do you think of yourself as a natural leader? Do you care a lot about making an impression in public? Do you tend to talk more about yourself than other people? If the answer to these questions is yes, you may have narcissistic tendencies...

Word Watch

The gods
Unlike the gods of the Bible or Koran, the Greek gods could never be mistaken for creatures whose wisdom or goodness is absolute: they are power-hungry, petty, jealous and proud. Though they find humans fascinating, they also strive to keep our ambition in check: the vengeful goddess Nemesis, who lured Narcissus to the pool, is chiefly responsible for this.
Psychologists and educators
The main force behind the Self-Esteem movement was the humanistic school of psychology, which holds that all humans have the potential to be good, free and creative. Achieving this perfected state of humanity is known as ‘self-actualisation’ and, according to Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs, ‘self-esteem’ is only a single step below this.
Psychopathic tendencies
Most psychopaths are not grinning, axe-wielding lunatics: they are simply people in whom emotions like empathy and remorse are very weak. Like narcissists, they are usually extremely self-centred.