Narcissism and Millennials: It Is More Complicated Than We Think!

Article/essay written by: Matthew Sabatine

I hear the word “narcissist” flung around a lot, these days. It is a very offensive title to bear. It is not uncommon to attribute the title to millennials who publicize their selfies, workout routines, herculean muscles, overstated accomplishments, party scenes, meals, skin-tight outfits, and lingerie on social media. It appears that the smattering of narcissism could have its roots in the nationwide conversation about “generational narcissism” ignited by a 2008 scientific analysis on college students’ narcissistic personality inventory scores from 1982 to 2006 which unveiled an upsurge on a national scale.

However, in the context of millennials, I think the term “narcissist” is overused, because it is not exactly synonymous with arrogance, though arrogance is categorically included under narcissism. I suspect that the overuse of this term is probably motivated by the need to diagnose and speak insolently of something that tends to be truly and highly annoying and unhealthy. The pertinacious urge among those born before the 1980s to pin the narcissist label on millennials could have roots in a fallacy of generationism, which is to believe that a certain generation(s) have specific intrinsic characteristics making that generation superior to others. But the narcissistic diagnosis doesn’t stick, honestly. A person can be quite self-obsessed and overconfident without being consciencelessly abusive toward others.

Arrogance is hardly absent in humanity’s history. We have been dealing with it since the days of ancient Greece and Ovid’s myth of Narcissus which tells about a ravishing young man who stopped by a lake or river to drink some water and fell in love with his reflection staring back at him in the water. He committed suicide upon realizing that “he could not obtain the object of his desire” or could not have his love be “addressed”, as the sources say, which I interpret to mean that others could not give him the same admiration he had for himself. It is also said that the ancient Greeks believed that seeing one’s reflection would incur a curse. And now that he is an occupant of the Underworld, he is enraptured by his reflection in the waters of the Styx. [4][5]  

A 2016 Guardian article specified that it is not narcissistic personality disorder that is on the rise but rather its traits. Epidemiological evidence is cited from academic researchers, Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, who wrote the eye-opening exposition called The Narcissism Epidemic, to argue that these sinister traits are going at a rate paralleling obesity’s climbing rates from the 1980s to current times. Donald Trump has become today’s most popular exemplar of narcissism, apparently, with his unempathetically inflammatory expressions and making himself appear more talented, likable, and accomplished than what he truly is. [13]

As The Independent British online newspaper would have it, this outbreak of narcissism is traceable back to society’s metamorphoses during the industrial and post-industrial times. One of those transformations has been everybody’s shift from being dedicated to the collective to now being dedicated to the individualistic self, and the self-esteem movement is pivotally blameworthy.

As The Independent’s 2016 article would have us believe, it was wrong of us to let self-esteem lead the way to a better future and that parents shouldn’t have tried boosting their children’s confidence by teaching them that they are “special” and “unique.” Instead of just being told, they should have worked hard to achieve it. [14]    

Would it be wrong of me to think it is self-evident that each of us are unique or special to at least one person or handful of people? Don’t we deserve affirmation and unconditional acceptance from those who claim to love us? I have met plenty of people in my age range who are sluggards and entitlement-driven brats who think that reality should bend to their will and whims. But I find it hard to believe that half or more than half of our youths believe that the whole world should bow at their feet and treat them like the best thing since sliced bread.

Despite young peoples’ reputation for not wanting to earn their keep, The Harvard Business Review published a 2016 article, titled Millennials Are Actually Workaholics, According to Research. Surveyors assessed approximately 5,000 full-time employees with paid-time-off benefits, and discovered that many millennials agreed with four statements: 1) “No one else at my company can do the work while I’m away.” 2)“I want to show complete dedication to my company and job.” 3) “I don’t want others to think I am replaceable.” 4)“I feel guilty for using my paid time off.” 43% of “work martyrs” were found to be millennials, which outnumbered the Gen X-ers and boomers who wanted to be perceived as work martyrs. [15]

It appears that some spokespeople out there want us to think that we have settled our understanding of this issue and who or what is to blame. Kira M. Newman of Greater Good Magazine cites enough conflicting numbers and an ongoing professional debate telling us we don’t know enough about this yet to say it has been settled.  

There has been a series of scientific papers at war with each other, each claiming to have used better methodologies and analysis than their predecessors.

Kira M. Newman discusses Jean Twenge and colleagues’ 2008 examination on 85 studies done on 16,000+ college students between 1979 and 2006, which didn’t follow students throughout a specific timeframe, but instead isolated a particular spot in their lives, as if to assume they wouldn’t change later in their lives, and then juxtaposed the 1980’s undergraduates with the 2000s undergraduates. It is quite apparent to me how this would allow skewed results in defense of a generationistic bias. Noteworthy characteristic and percentile changes are quite expectable when looking at a 20 to 30-year timeframe, but context is always key. [16]

It was as if UC Davis’s Kali Trzesniewski and colleagues made a counterattack against the apparent balderdash by inspecting roughly 27,000 students in attendance from 1979 to 2007 at the Universities of Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Davis, and got results demonstrating no change in narcissism. There is a lot more to this than meets the eye and there is a debate that is far from over. Better methodologies were used, attracting less prejudiced respondents and eliminating more possibilities for subjectivity in Trzesniewski and colleagues’ work. [16]  

I must quote several paragraphs from Newman’s article, as she expresses these ideas better than I could:

“In yet another 2008 paper, Twenge and Joshua Foster re-analyzed data from the study led by Trzesniewski. By separating out the results by ethnicity, they found that narcissism rose among both whites and Asians from 2002 to 2007. But because Asians tended to have lower narcissism scores in general, and the Asian population at UC campuses increased during the time period under scrutiny, the overall trend may have been obscured.”

“Twenge and Foster also objected to the data that Trzesniewski and her coauthors had used: While the earliest surveys came from UC Berkeley and Santa Cruz, the 2002-2007 surveys only came from UC Davis, where students—for whatever reason—tend to score particularly low in narcissism.”

“Further studies in 2009 and 2010 found no rise in narcissism. But a 2010 paper by Twenge and Foster objected to their methods: Those low narcissism scores at UC Davis had highlighted the need to statistically control for which school the students attended, which would mitigate any campus-related differences in narcissism levels. When Twenge and Foster updated their seminal 2008 study to include new surveys conducted between 2006 and 2009, and to account for school, they once again found that narcissism was increasing.”

Twenge and Foster would declare in 2010 that the debate was settled, but perhaps to their chagrin, they would not expect University of Konstanz’ investigator Eunike Wetzel and colleagues to perform a 2017 study on 60,000 university students in attendance between 1992 and 2015 to dispute Twenge and Foster’s victory. [16] Wetzel and colleagues found that narcissism was in a “small and continuous decline” during that time.

I would like to propose the wise advice that we get rid of the narcissist stereotype attached to millennials, a stereotype which appears to be less meaningful than simply addressing millennials’ hubristic and entitlement mentality that appears to be more real and problematic. We shouldn’t use such an convoluted and stigmatizing label, that we insufficiently understand, to diagnose a large swath of the population.

Narcissism is more complicated than we assume

Narcissism hadn’t accrued greater depth until much more modern times. Havelock Ellis, an English sexologist in 1898, stated that unrestrained masturbation and auto-eroticism (sexual emotion spontaneously felt when no one else is available as external stimuli) are “narcissus-like.” Paul Nache discussed narcissism in relation to sexual deviance and lechery in 1898, and Otto Rank psychoanalytically discussed narcissism in relation to conceitedness in 1911. Sigmund Freud in 1914 would define narcissism as instinctually integral to survival and the human psyche, but that there is also a pathological layer wherein “the libido withdraws from objects outside the self.”  [3]

For Freud, we can either direct our love inwards, for who we once were, would prefer to be, or whoever was once part of us, which is the path of immature narcissism; or we could direct our love toward those who care for us, which is the anaclitic and wiser path. [3]

When we observe self-interest in its most “germinal form” we can see from a Darwinian perspective the survival value of this activity. But disproportionate or undivided concern for oneself, what many call selfishness, appears to be opposed to survival. There is a narcissistic flavor or substratum to setting up a positive self-image via extracting affirmation, validation, and self-enhancement experiences from one’s social environment. The question of moral scruples comes into play when this is done at the expense of organized society (i.e. lying and cheating to give others a false positive impression). [3]

Strikingly, selfishness can’t exactly be diagnosed as pathological. It was believed by the father of American psychology, William James, that “Phenomena are best understood when placed within their series, studied in their germ and in their over-ripe decay”. Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) would be the boundary or point of “over-ripe decay” where self-interest moves into the territory of compromising one’s well-being, the well-being of others in close proximity, and well-being on a community level. Maladjustment or the failure to cope with the demands of a normal social environment, in relevance to narcissistic personality disorder, manifests in things such as 1) drug and alcohol abuse, 2) relational and interpersonal abnormalities and impairments 3) sexual acts that are potentially violent and done without prior consent 4) behaviors that severely lacked  forethought, reflection, or consideration of the consequences, 5) homicidal ideations, which range from nebulous, undecided ideas of inflicting pain on others to full premeditations without the act itself, and 6) parasuicidal (attempted but failed death) and suicidal behaviors. [3]

Between 60 and 158 million people in America are afflicted by narcissistic abuse, according to Psychcentral.com, who also tells us that the educative literature on defining narcissistic abuse for survivors is “vague, imprecise, and inconsistent.” Although it seems to me that a lot of people know to associate narcissism with anyone who routinely displays attention-seeking, obtrusive, and egocentric behaviors. It seems to me that a lot of people know to associate narcissism with anyone who cunningly, sadistically, unempathetically, remorselessly, manipulatively, and deceptively uses others as a catspaw. Such pathology satisfies the criteria for one of two Cluster B Personality Disorders. But most people won’t know how to distinguish narcissism from other disorders that share the traits and symptoms I mentioned. [1]

Laypeople are undereducated on this, but we shouldn’t look down on ourselves since the professionals don’t know everything necessary about the disorder, as well. Neuroscientific research on narcissistic personality disorder is lacking, and perhaps one of the primary reasons is that NPD-sufferers have anosognosia, which is they can’t acknowledge their illness, and so thereby refuse participation in clinical trials. However, neuroscience has uncovered a lot about how people in general feel what their peers are feeling, and enough studies have been done with NPD-sufferers to get a rough idea as to how their brains differ from non-NPD people. We don’t yet know the origins of NPD, but we can say with reasonable certainty that biological, psychological, and social influences are crucial in the equation of things.   

Neuroanatomical Features Associated With Components of Narcissism

As the prefrontal cortex is the man behind the wheel of our thinking and reasoning abilities, and the temporal lobes are responsible for controlling emotions such as fear and anger, these features become important in studying NPD. [3]

Though direct analysis on NPD-sufferers is lacking, neuroscience has still been able to discover evidence steadily showing that the neural areas activated during the sharing of emotions with another are the same areas activated during the first-hand experience of that emotion itself. Patients who got lesions from brain tumor removals in their anterior insular cortex have been shown to express shoddy empathetic pain processing, indicating similarities between those with AIC-damage and those with empathy-depriving psychiatric conditions such as autism spectrum disorders, borderline personality disorder, NPD, and others. [3][6] fMRI examinations have reliably demonstrated that stimulation of the AIC is important for feeling things such as revulsion [7], interoception (the sense that helps you understand and feel what’s going on inside your body) [8], administration of emotions [9], intuition, injustice [10], jeopardy and doubt [11], and norm violations [12].  

The insular cortex is split up into subsections with many neurons that intersect with each other and traffick into and out of the cortex, to maintain input from several empathy-connected sensory systems. The insular cortex is friends with the glossopharyngeal nerve (responsible for pain, taste, swallowing, salivary exudations) and the vagus nerve that is active with the autonomic nervous system. Some of these may be involved with the heart-related oddities you experience during emotional events. [3]        

 “The insular cortex has been commonly associated with somatotopic representations of bodily states such as itch, pain, temperature, and touch. It has also been observed that patients with focal epileptic seizures that arise from the AIC report heightened emotional awareness and enhanced wellbeing. The insular cortex overall appears to form an internal image of the physiological state of the person and to relay these states and needs for one’s awareness of feelings.” [3]

Labeling someone as a Narcissist when you have no business doing so!

When you apply the term narcissist to someone, you may be guilty of arrogance too, if you aren’t a doctor and haven’t been trained. Such colloquial use of the term shows the lack of knowledge and the desperation to insult another. It ignores the multi-dimensionality that recent research suggests about narcissism and what it takes to give someone such an un-dignifying label.

Special inventories and measures, such as the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), Personality Diagnostic Questionaire-4 (PDQ-4), Pathological Narcissism Inventory (PNI), have been used to identify specific typical personality attributes within the pathological narcissist. The aim of professional studies has been to determine the magnitude to which these attributes cluster in a single trait group. Some studies find 8 dimensions, whereas other studies find 3 or 2 dimensions, the most common of which you may have already known about: pompous superiority or pretentiousness, unwarranted admiration-seeking, and absent empathy. [3]

Before you assume that someone is pompous and pretentious enough to be narcissistic, consider the level at which they overstate their proficiencies and successes as well as their relationships with those they call important. Overstating their level of grandness may be accidental or stemming from their attempt to add positivity to their self-concept. The person might be receptive to your trying to make them aware of their offensive pomposity. What you may define as narcissistic may be more subjective than you want to admit. [3]

Perhaps the possibility of grandiosity ascends to the next level when the person becomes domineering in conversations, becomes irritated when others talk about themselves, and cheapens others via the embellishment of their successes. Upon being made aware of their verbal injuries to others, if they react with scorn and say the injured are just weak, this acts as another red flag. A bruised ego and unbalanced anger, that is deliberate and calculated, in response to the situation, acts as another red flag. [3]    

True narcissists are found to be guilty of white-collar crimes more than the general population, which could be resulting from the uncontrolled need for being envied. There is an incompetence to preserve stable relationships because the narcissist is always striving to find someone more suitable to their selfish tastes or they back out of the relationship when their un-empathy is finally exposed. [3]

Being able to see issues from another’s perspective, feeling the delight and grief of others, feeling concern for others’ well-being, and the realization that there is a world outside of one’s own ego, are virtues that the narcissist doesn’t have nor can exercise independent of educated assistance. If the narcissist ever displays a semblance of these virtues, it is all feigned and imitated for an ulterior purpose instead of being genuinely felt in their core. Realizing that this is truly going on inside a person would probably require close scrutiny, a point at which your safety would be jeopardized. [3]

Another important narcissistic symptom would be aggression in response to judgment, disapproval, or self-esteem threats. The aggression can switch at any time from low levels of verbal cruelty and acrimonious finger-pointing to violent disputing and physical madness. Clinical studies show a range of characteristics that can make narcissistic traits hard to notice. Not all narcissists fit the typical image of boastfulness, impudicity, forwardness, and irreverence right away. The narcissist can appear approachable, affable, humble, inconspicuous, gracious, and tuned in to your emotions at first. A coy, charismatic, and talkative presentation could have you focused away from his/her relentless pursuit after grandiose, unfeasible goals and chronic failures. Some narcissists may not be able to hide their dictatorial, belligerent, uncompromising, manipulative, depressed, drug-abusing and alcohol-abusing, and mood-swinging selves. Whether hiding or not, after close scrutiny of any narcissist, eventually you will find that their shared features are exaggerated self-importance, wildly wavering self-esteem, ongoing interpersonal instability, and extreme emotional reactions to ego threats. [17]

Such traits have been observed in laboratory settings where participants were given opportunities to make attacks (e.g. provide electrical shocks, noise blasts) against a fictional character who delivered fake feedback. Across studies, narcissism is related to nonprovocative settings where aggression is unwarranted. [2]

In clinical settings, narcissists have been observed stealing the praise when things go well and placing blame on others when things go wrong, to foster self-esteem and enrich the self. [2]

Weakened and damaged relationships are ample indicators of the effects of narcissism. It is likely for the narcissist that strangers will keep their favorable perceptions of the him/her during their first unexpected or casual meetings or while getting momentary previews of the narcissist’s personality. The endearing, adorable, and thrilling features of the narcissist helps to uphold the positive image but the stranger’s favorability fades with more disclosures about the narcissist. Such things have been recognized since the days of Delroy L. Paulhus in 1998 and Friedman, Oltmanns, Gleason, Turkheimer, and Fiedler in the early 2000s. As empirical studies on narcissism have been focused on the dating and marriage context, professionals have found that narcissists quite often decimate their relationships because of chronic game playing, unfaithfulness, betrayal, and practicing unrestricted sociosexuality (casual and uncommitted sex with multiple people). It is unfortunate for the victims that the initial but temporary charm in the beginning stages sets them up for long-term discord that occurs during the intimacy stage.  [2]

This has been my introductory research into narcissism, its effects, and its abuse. I plan to revisit this topic again in the future.

About the author: Matthew is interested in discussing social psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, human biology and anatomy, mental health disorders, philosophy, the psychology of religion, and the history of religion. Matthew loves his friends, his family, and his dog named Sampson. You can contact Matthew at commonissues.contactus@gmail.com

References:

[1] https://psychcentral.com/lib/defining-narcissistic-abuse-the-case-for-deception-as-abuse/

[2] http://wkeithcampbell.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/MillerWidigerCampbell20101.pdf

[3] http://www.imedpub.com/articles/the-cognitive-neuroscience-of-narcissism.php?aid=22149

[4] https://www.greekmyths-greekmythology.com/narcissus-myth-echo/

[5] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Narcissus-Greek-mythology

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3999437/

[7] http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.321.1824&rep=rep1&type=pdf

[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22587900

[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20666597

[10] https://stanford.edu/~knutson/bad/sanfey03.pdf

[11] http://www.its.caltech.edu/~pbs/cns102b/Readings/ReprintJNKerstin.pdf

[12] https://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(07)00718-0

[13] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/mar/02/narcissism-epidemic-self-obsession-attention-seeking-oversharing

[14] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/narcissism-the-science-behind-the-rise-of-a-modern-epidemic-a6925606.html

[15] https://hbr.org/2016/08/millennials-are-actually-workaholics-according-to-research

[16] https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_surprisingly_boring_truth_about_millennials_and_narcissism

[17] https://www.recoveryonpurpose.com/upload/narcissistic%20personality%20disorder%20facing%20dsm-v.pdf

7 thoughts on “Narcissism and Millennials: It Is More Complicated Than We Think!

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  1. This is very well written! I have been investigating narcissistic behavior of the individual, but haven’t thought about the sociological aspects and influence.

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  2. I admit I glazed over and didn’t read the whole thing. But I appreciate your point that it’s unwise to use the term “narcissist” flippantly to describe mere selfishness. Narcissism is a real disorder with specific traits, and while people who don’t have it can, indeed, exhibit those traits, it’s unfair to label them as narcissists–plus, it cheapens the term, causing the general population to misunderstand it.

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