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A Nation of Narcissists
–by Preeti Aroon | April 02, 2007

Quick, take this three-question quiz.

1. I can live my life any way I want to.

Agree or disagree?

Photo credit: Rachel’s Secret

2. It’s important to just “be yourself.”

Agree or disagree?

3. I think I’m a special person.

Agree or disagree?

If you agreed with these statements, you just might be a narcissistic person.

But don’t fret; you’re not alone. Young adults in the United States have been growing more narcissistic over the past 25 years.

A recent study by five psychologists found that today’s college students are more narcissistic and self-centered than those a quarter century ago. The psychologists analyzed responses from 16,475 college students who took the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI)—a “quiz” that asks questions similar to the ones at the beginning of this piece. In 2006, two thirds of college students scored above average, 30 percent more than in 1982.

The lead author of the study, Jean Twenge, has studied this cultural shift toward greater individualism and has even dubbed those born in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s as “Generation Me.” She suggests that all this self-centeredness came about from the self-esteem movement that began in the 1980s. Kids were told they were special. Teachers were discouraged from using bright red pens to correct homework, and children received awards just for participating in activities. They were told that if they believed in themselves, anything was possible. (I remember when Miss America visited my middle school. We all sat in the gym while she exuberantly told us to reach for the stars and achieve our dreams.)

As a result, Twenge says, today’s young adults focus on themselves and doing what’s right for themselves, as opposed to following social rules and putting duty before self.

Universities such as Harvard and Duke have received record numbers of applications in recent years, increasing the competition of getting into college. In the face of outsourcing and a more globalized economy, today’s young adults aren’t just competing nationally—they’re competing globally…

While Twenge is onto something with this hypothesis about the self-esteem movement, there is another important factor that has been relatively neglected: Today’s young adults live in a highly competitive, hyper-capitalistic society. Being more individualistic and self-centered is an adaptive trait in this dog-eat-dog world.

Universities such as Harvard and Duke have received record numbers of applications in recent years, increasing the competition of getting into college. In the face of outsourcing and a more globalized economy, today’s young adults aren’t just competing nationally—they’re competing globally. As the competition gets fiercer, it’s no surprise that young people today have to focus on themselves, building their résumés and marketing themselves to stand out from the crowd.

Meanwhile, the United States’ hyper-capitalistic consumer economy forces people of all age groups to be more individualistic and self-centered, turning them into materialistic spoiled brats.

The TV ad for Chase Freedom credit card opens with lyrics from the Rolling Stones’ song I’m Free: “I’m free to do what I want, any old time.” Burger King tells us, “Have it your way.” In advertising its multiple dipping sauces, KFC says, “You’re the boss when it comes to sauce.” The slogan for Twix candy bar has greedily declared, “Two for me; none for you.”

It’s all about me, the individual, getting what I want. It about me, the individual, having the freedom to choose want I want.

We have to learn what we can’t always get our way. We can’t always get what we want when we want it. That’s just the cold, hard truth about reality.

And, of course, the mantra of a successful business is: The customer is always right.

Is it any wonder we’re getting more narcissistic?

And isn’t the United States the country of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?” We’re supposed to go around doing what we as individuals want to do—not what our parents, our religion, our government or society tells us we ought to do.

Personally, even though I think there is value in pursuing one’s dreams (I just wrote a piece about it a few weeks ago), I also believe that individualism in the United States has gone too far. (I’m the daughter of Indian immigrants, so many group-oriented South Asian values still have some resonance with me.)

We have to learn what we can’t always get our way. We can’t always get what we want when we want it. That’s just the cold, hard truth about reality.

Similarly, Twenge notes that are definite downsides to being too self-centered. Narcissists have a higher likelihood of short-lived romantic relationships, infidelity, dishonesty, materialism, inflated expectations and violence.

At the end of the day, we have to get along with other people, and hyper-individualism gets in the way of that.

In the United States, divorce rates are ridiculously high, even though people here have complete freedom to choose their spouses. (Compare that with India, where a group-orientation means that individuals will do their duty, follow social rules and make an arranged marriage work.)

In the United States, too many children are born out of wedlock. People want sex with whomever they want whenever they want (it’s called the hookup). And unlike in India, single motherhood comes with little social stigma—the force that cramps individualism. In fact, single moms here are often praised for their heroics in raising children all alone as rugged individuals.

Photo credit: Astolath

Even more married people in the United States are sleeping in separate bedrooms because they can’t put up with their spouses’ sheet-stealing, snoring or 5 a.m. departures to the gym. (Imagine if they had to get along as members of a three-generation extended family in a two-bedroom flat, as many families do in India.)

As overly individualistic people, Americans are losing the ability to share, compromise, and live with other people’s annoying habits. These are skills that make marriages—and human relationships in general—work.

And in the end, it’s our relationships with others that make us happy, not achieving some lofty dream or buying tons of stuff.

A well-publicized study last June revealed that Americans are more socially isolated than ever. We have fewer close friends and confidants.

Yet, we are reaching a point in history when we need to rely on one another more than ever. With more insecurity in our lives—from war to job layoffs to lack of health insurance—we need the emotional support of others. Additionally, as the baby boomers age, they’ll have to rely on younger generations to care for them.

We’ll simply have to adapt and be less self-centered.

Is that possible? My sense is that in 10 to 20 years, Americans will have reached a breaking point. Caring for elderly parents, lacking decent health insurance, facing global competition from rapidly developing countries, vulnerable to losing a job at the blink of an eye, mired in debt, and taxed to death to pay for Social Security, Medicare, the Iraq War, and a gargantuan national debt, Americans will realize that we can’t go it alone. We’ll have to strengthen social networks and resurrect the concept of “duty to others” to fill in where the government no longer can. We’ll have to humbly admit that we can’t simply “have it all.”

The self-centered notion that “I can live my life any way I want to” needs to be tempered by a greater sense that “I have a duty toward others.” We no longer need a declaration of independence; we now need a declaration of dependence.

Preeti, 28, recently graduated from Duke University with a master’s degree in public policy. Her background in writing includes stints as an op-ed columnist at The Chronicle (Duke’s student newspaper) and at the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper in her hometown of Lexington, Kentucky.

The views and opinions expressed in these comments do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The CulturalConnect.


April 08, 2007, 10:11:19
uihiba wow this article gives a new perspective to the word individualism. i never looked at ” being yourself” as narcissism. very interesting article preeti!
May 01, 2007, 06:47:16
Luvnhbk4life good points – but i think this narcissism comes with privilege – as the U.S. grew in wealth and power, we felt entitled and had the opportunity to focus more on the self than the other. this is something encouraged in our culture now. for example, 50 years ago, the career focus of young professionals was science, to fulfill a duty towards our country and growth – now there are more and more liberal arts majors, and less focus on science (as even demonstrated by federal budget allocation). this isn’t a bad thing, as we have more choices for our paths, but i think it is starkly different than china and india’s focus currently (two countries rapidly growing in terms of wealth and also power!) who very much focus on science/technology.

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