The Participating Victim: How Narcissism Keeps Us At Bay

In the January 2013 issue of Esquire magazine, Stephen Marche has gotten to the heart of what is quite possibly, in my opinion, the root problem facing…if not our country, then certainly our culture. It is not the problem of government or politics, though the problems of those institutions certainly stem from it. It is the ingrained, pervasive, and persistent narcissism attributable to the Gen Y “millennial” demographic cohort, and on which the ongoing infotainment deluge intended to placate the masses – our so-called dumbed-down society – is predicated. It is the grease that keeps the gears turning – without being driven by narcissism to participate in our own placation, the system would not work.

To begin with Marche’s premise:

Television is inherently an act of narcissism. It both feeds and fuels what Freud described as the core of the narcissistic personality — “the delusion of being watched.” Television’s narcissism is currently shifting ground. This month, The Carrie Diaries relaunches the Sex and the City franchise while Girls starts up its second season. The contrast is stark: In the old narcissism, we have dumb, beautiful moneyed people trying to become more beautiful and more moneyed. In the new narcissism, we have smart, unattractive poor people trying to confront their pervasive, intense self-obsession. All of the best shows on television, the most urgent, most relevant pop culture of the moment — Louie, Community, the upcoming season of Arrested Development — reflect us as we are: narcissists in search of a cure from ourselves.

Self-conscious narcissism of the Carrie Diaries variety is still the bulk of mainstream culture, of course. Why do people watch the Kardashians or any other reality-television show? To learn how  much self-exposure is acceptable. And every episode conveniently gives the same answer: more. In 2011, Americans spent an estimated $10 billion on plastic surgery, according to an industry association, and about $5 billion on NASA space operations. By this logic, having perfect tits is worth twice as much as exploring the universe. The academic authors of The Narcissism Epidemic found that among thirty-seven thousand college students, the rise of narcissistic traits from the 1980s to the present was as steep as the rise in obesity. And the epidemic is largely generational: According to a National Institutes of Health study, 10 percent of young Americans exhibited symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, while only 3 percent of older Americans did.

The current generation of college-aged people thinks unprecedentedly highly of themselves, and with no good reason to do so. In an ongoing study by the American Freshman Survey, college students have been asked to “rate themselves as compared to their peers” every year since 1966. The Survey has compiled the responses of about 9 million students, and a new analysis of the results reported here says:

[…] over the last four decades there’s been a dramatic rise in the number of students who describe themselves as being ‘above average’ in the areas of academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability, and self-confidence.

But in appraising the traits that are considered less invidualistic – co-operativeness, understanding others, and spirituality – the numbers either stayed at slightly decreased over the same period. 

Researchers also found a disconnect between the student’s opinions of themselves and actual ability.

While students are much more likely to call themselves gifted in writing abilities, objective test scores actually show that their writing abilities are far less than those of their 1960s counterparts. 

Also on the decline is the amount of time spent studying, with little more than a third of students saying they study for six or more hours a week compared to almost half of all students claiming the same in the late 1980s.

Though they may work less, the number that said they had a drive to succeed rose sharply.

Lack of self-confidence does not seem to be a problem with the Millennial generation, though over-confidence is. This kind of egotism has been shown to lead to depression and anxiety in adulthood, and “‘ambition inflation’ as their increased ambitions accompany increasingly unrealistic expectations.”

According to Marche, a lot of this free-floating narcissism manifests itself in the obsession with popular culture, specifically television. This is the root cause of the persistent infatuation with celebrities, reality shows, and the shows depicting real-time contests, all of which perpetuate what Marche said Freud described as the aforementioned “core of the narcissistic personality – ‘the delusion of being watched.'”

In what is perhaps the most profound example of this phenomenon – and the clearest example of Americans’ priorities – more people supposedly voted for American Idol in 2008 than voted in the presidential election. This has been widely commented on throughout the blogosphere, though I hesitate to say “reported” because I have not been able to find any reputable source confirming it. The best I’ve been able to find, by comparing the numbers on my own, is that 132.6 million votes were cast in the general election, while American Idol attracted 122.4 million votes. Which shows the presidential election in the lead, but only by a relatively small amount. Obviously, this is completely un-scientific and is only meant to serve as an anecdotal snapshot of the situation. There are technical problems with comparing the two: anyone can vote for American Idol, including people under 18, and anyone can vote more than once. However, I maintain that it is a travesty that it should be anywhere close.

The better comparison, though less talked about, occurred two years earlier, and was reported by The Guardian, among others:

Taylor Hicks, 29, emerged as the winner in the finale of the TV show on Wednesday night in which 63[million] votes were cast. It is the biggest single voting night in the five-season history of the show. In the 1984 US presidential election, 54.5 million voters backed Ronald Reagan – the most votes obtained by a president.

As far as I know, Reagan’s record still stands. I have no idea if American Idol‘s does or not.

It is things like reality television that feed our narcissism, and thus keep us happy. Our opiate of the masses is no longer religion – at least, not in the traditional sense of religion, though it is in itself a religion of sorts. The god we worship is not a deity, but the all-encompassing idol of popular culture. Memes, apps, reality television, celebrity gossip, the latest gadgets, Hollywood blockbusters, sports, now even the news, all feed into our amalgamated pop culture zeitgeist, that is all-seeing, all-knowing, and thanks the advent of smartphones, omnipresent. Personally, I am no different – I am just as much a participating victim as anyone else. And maybe willful ignorance is bliss. But that doesn’t mean I don’t realize the truth.

So why are we the way we are? How did we get this way? Marche offers some explanation, and a little perspective:

In a shockingly brief span of time, narcissism has come from nowhere to dominate all human activity. Amazingly, the term narcissism was coined only a little over a century ago, to describe what was then considered a psychological ailment: people taking sexual pleasure from themselves. If we have progressed in any field of human endeavor over the past century, it is self-pleasuring. Masturbation has made greater strides than the microchip — growing more accessible, more open, faster, and less shameful every year. Narcissism is the same: no longer, properly speaking, a disease at all, but our way of life. The economy runs on it. The educational system has shifted almost entirely to living-up-to-your-potential goals. Parents value their children’s self-esteem far more than they do their virtue or knowledge. Even technology drives narcissism: The streets are full of people who no longer look up; the world comes to them through the self-directed glow of their phones. Narcissism, not love, makes the world go round.

In Freud’s masterwork “On Narcissism,” he connected narcissism with the desire to remain in a state of infancy, arguably a by-product of the fact that human beings take longer to develop independence than any other species. We are all narcissists in Freud, at least for a while, because we are all born too young. Is there a better description of our time right now? Everybody’s been born too young. With narcissism’s increased prevalence, it has become more self-conscious. Think Joel McHale on Community compared with Ryan Seacrest. McHale doesn’t deny that he’s a narcissist. On the other hand, he recognizes its ludicrousness. Seacrest lives at the bottom of a hole of himself, furiously digging deeper. McHale is at least looking up.

The analysis of the American Freshman Survey data reveals basically the same thing:

‘Our culture used to encourage modesty and humility and not bragging about yourself,’ Twenge [the leading psychologist] told BBC News. ‘It was considered a bad thing to be seen as conceited or full of yourself.’

Just because someone has high self-esteem doesn’t mean they’re a narcissist. Positive self-assessments can not only be harmless but completely true.

However, one in four recent students responded to a questionnaire called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory with results pointing towards narcissistic self-assessments.

Narcissism is defined as excessive self-love or vanity; self-admiration, or being self-centered.

Twenge said that’s a trait that is often negative and destructive, and blames its boom on several trends – including parenting styles, celebrity culture, social media, and easy credit – for allowing people to seem more successful than they really are.

‘What’s really become prevalent over the last two decades is the idea that being highly self-confident – loving yourself, believing in yourself – is the key to success,’ Twenge said. ‘Now the interesting thing about that belief is it’s widely held, it’s very deeply held, and it’s also untrue.’

To be clear, I don’t mean to advocate anything. I am somewhat sickened by the vapid attraction of some people to the celebrity gossip magazines like a moth to the flame, but I can’t claim I’m any different. I have had my own guilty pleasures – probably a lot more than most, and heavier on both the guilty part and the pleasure part. It would be nice, though, and probably help immeasurably as we keep slouching toward Bethlehem, to straighten out our priorities.

  1. An excellent post. Do you think that exposure to reality will “adjust” the mellennials? There were similar complaints made about the baby boomers, and for the most part they have turned out okay.

    • kipp said:

      Thank you very much. I think over time some may be straightened out, but in sort of a survival-of-the-fittest way. Natural selection will allow some to progress and many not.

  2. kjds said:

    I know someone who says to her kids as they go out the door, “be humble.” Isn’t that what it’s all about? Humility? We have no humility anymore. We expect and we want and we crave. But I also think that self-love and self-admiration and all that ego-mania jargon is often a cover. Many are deeply troubled, and they use that posture of confidence as a front. There’s a lot of self-loathing out there, thus all the psycho-social disfunction. And yes, we are both controlled by the recent reality TV mania, and the fact that we get sucked into it. Some of it makes us feel superior (over the suckers that allow their lives to be exploited in front of the masses), and some of it fuels desire. Basic human need? Superiority and want? We should be ashamed. Ourselves should be on the back burner. I choose humility. Doing for others. There’s a source of self-value! When my kids walk out the door, I tell them to watch out for deer.

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