The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean M Twenge and W Keith Campbell

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The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean M Twenge and W Keith Campbell

Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: Convincing review of the evidence that Americans (and probably the rest of us too) are fast becoming obsessed by the pursuit of self.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 339 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Free Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1416575986

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Twenge and Campbell have been studying the rise in narcissism as a social trend. They are well-qualified to comment, having worked since 1998 with social psychologist Roy Baumeister, who pioneered research in this field. At more than three hundred pages it's rather weighty for the popular market at which it's aimed, but even if you only dip into this book, I think you'll take home their message.

Unless you've bumped into it, you may not know the psychological term 'narcissism'. A hundred years ago, a person caring only about himself was called vainglorious or selfish; fifty years ago he was an egocentric or self-important. Narcissism must be an enduring nuisance, since these single-minded people personify four of the seven Deadly Sins: greed, envy, pride and anger.

At the normal end of the continuum, ordinary folk use narcissism as an essential trait for survival. We all need self-confidence to succeed in the difficult tasks we set ourselves, and bags of it to start a business or a pop band. Society rewards successful narcissistic tendencies handsomely.

At the other end of the scale are the self-admiring few who are so gulled by a jumped-up sense of their own importance that they lose touch with the rest of the planet with a full blown narcissistic personality disorder. There are numerous examples of resulting disasters at personal and national level. More often in ordinary life, a narcissist's misalignment with reality may spiral him downwards to a friendless, jobless, psychically-disturbed existence. It seemed in the olden days that baddies got their just desserts, but is that still true today?

Most of the evidence in this book refers to long-term research with student cohorts. For example, the percentage of US students who believe 'I am an important person' rose from 12% in the 1950's to 80% in the 1980's. The authors report a 30% rise in narcissism from the 1970's to 2006, with about a quarter of students now having narcissistic tendencies. 11.7 million Americans had cosmetic surgery in 2007, more than five times as many as in 1997. One US bride reportedly asked all six of her bridesmaids to have breast enhancement surgery before the wedding!

Twenge and Campbell argue convincingly that raising the importance of uniqueness and self-esteem within the school environment is the prime reason for the unprecedented rise in narcissism over the past fifty years. Although dampened down by age and real-life experience, those attitudes we acquire in formative years form the bedrock of our personalities.

The authors argue that we should replace over-encouraging positive valuations in the classroom with more realistic assessments of children's achievements. They question the value of teaching children that they are special and suggest instead that self-confidence is better seated in realistic self-knowledge and sensitive appreciation of commonalities with everyone else.

These unique little people – and this started with Baby Boomers, remember – grew into materialistic adults as standards of living grew year on year. Easy credit made it seem that everyone could afford the toys of affluence in a era of consumerism. Today there are pressing economic and environmental reasons for discrediting an ever-increasing social epidemic which fuels unrealistic targets for national growth.

At a personal level, a sense of entitlement leads to a pervasive belief that an individual deserves special treatment. The narcissist is too self-obsessed to see things from someone else's point of view and therefore will never cut the other any slack. Disastrous consequences follow for relationships with friends and partners as well as careers.

The internet has developed new and universal arenas for self-promotion for the vain and fame-hungry. It's all too easy to … well, write a book review … or post a blog or a song on You Tube and think you're someone. Reality tv is now a career destination amongst Generation Me.

It is much healthier, so Twenge and Campbell believe, if those within a society help and support one another. So a narcissist, for example, could ally his need for admiration with a well-publicised contribution to a local good-cause. In which unselfish case, is he still a narcissist?

This takes me full circle back to a little book I reviewed in 2008 On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, which started with the Stoics' philosophical debate on altruism and selfishness. It seemed like they were swimming hopelessly against the tide when they quaintly proposed that what was needed nowadays was ordinary, unsentimental kindness. And now, just this week, I heard a BBC Radio 4 programme devoted to the business case for kindness in today's economic climate. Maybe, just maybe, the tide of narcissism is on the turn.

Buy The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean M Twenge and W Keith Campbell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean M Twenge and W Keith Campbell at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean M Twenge and W Keith Campbell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean M Twenge and W Keith Campbell at Amazon.com.


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