The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement
Kuruvilla, Abraham, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. By Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell. New York: Free Press, 2009, ? + 339 pp., $26.
Both Twenge and Campbell are psychology Ph.D.s and academicians: Twenge teaches at San Diego State University (and is the author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable Than Ever Before; 2007); Campbell teaches at the University of Georgia. For those of us who hold to the inspiration and veracity of the Bible, the thesis of The Narcissism Epidemic comes as no surprise: humanity is self-centered, narcissistic by nature. Nevertheless, to see the case being made for it from the enclaves of secular academia, and presented with a wry sense of humor, is refreshing.
The book is divided into four sections, each vaulting off the medical theme of the book: diagnosis, root causes of the epidemic, symptoms, and (bravely enough) prognosis and treatment.
There has been a "relentless rise of narcissism in our culture" (p. 1). According to the authors, it all began in the 1970s with the drive to develop self-esteem, to find one's self-expression, and the movement away from community-oriented thinking. "Not only are there more narcissists than ever, but non-narcissistic people are seduced by the increasing emphasis on material wealth, physical appearance, celebrity worship, and attention seeking. Standards have shifted, sucking otherwise humble people into the vortex of granite countertops, tricked-out MySpace pages, and plastic surgery" (p. 2). A quarter of all college students agree with items on the standardized Narcissistic Personality Inventory, and 5% of all Americans even have the extreme version of the trait - Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Because we were warned a long time ago that in the "last days" difficult times would come, with humanity being "lovers of self," "lovers of money," etc., I am not convinced that this is a new disease. A more virulent mutant form, perhaps, but not a new disease, with its contagion spreading rapidly in a media-saturated culture.
Twenge and Campbell assert that this epidemic of narcissism has affected every American directly or indirectly, the recent mortgage meltdown being a case in point, in part due to the "narcissistic overconfidence" of homebuyers and greedy lenders (pp. 2-3). Culture now holds court not in reality, but in granthose fantasy: "We have phony rich people (with interest-only mortgages and piles of debt), phony beauty (with plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures), phony athletes (with performance-enhancing drugs), phony celebrities (via reality TV and YouTube), phony genius students (with grade inflation), a phony national economy (with eleven trillion dollars of government debt), phony feelings of being special among children (with parenting and education focused on self-esteem), and phony friends (with the social networking explosion). All this fantasy might feel good, but, unfortunately, reality always wins" (p. 4). Indeed!
The symptoms of the disease are easily recognizable: an inflated view of the self and an absence of deep connections to others. The authors proceed to debunk, quite mercilessly, myths regarding narcissism: Narcissism is not high self-esteem; narcissists lack the critical element of caring for others. Narcissists are not necessarily insecure deep down; in fact, the evidence shows that narcissists think they are "awesome." Narcissism is not healthy; at its core, it is antisocial behavior: "[s]elfishness, for example, might allow you to get a bigger piece of dessert after dinner, but will hurt your longer-term relationships with your companions" (p. 29). Narcissism is not simply vanity; those afflicted are also "materialistic, entitled, aggressive when insulted, and uninterested in emotional closeness" (p. 30). Twenge and Campbell cite a study in which thirty-nine percent of American eighth-graders were confident of their math skills, compared to six percent of comparable Korean children. …