Readings — From the August 2016 issue

The New New Narcissism

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By Kristin Dombek, from The Selfishness of Others, a monograph that was published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Dombek is the recipient of a 2013 Rona Jaffe award.

We know the new selfishness when we see it. It’s in the laughter of the Atlanta girl who, on the reality show My Super Sweet 16, demanded that the city’s busiest avenue be shut down for her arrival. It’s in her answer to the party planner when he pointed out the traffic — “My sweet sixteen is more important than wherever they have to be” — and in her shrug when he mentioned the hospital across the street: “They can wait one second. Or they can just go around.”

Here is the shamelessly self-absorbed millennial, indifferent to the sick and the dying, indifferent to us. Allison turned sixteen, on television, in 2007. Two years later, she became exhibit A in The Narcissism Epidemic, by Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, who used the episode to diagnose her with an “almost sociopathic narcissism.” Allison was typical, they argued, of the generation now poised to rule the world — a.k.a. Generation Me. She was evidence for a claim that, in the years since the book appeared, has itself become epidemic: that narcissism is the best name for what’s wrong with people these days — and millennials most of all.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which introduced the category of narcissistic personality disorder (N.P.D.) in 1980, “behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture” is a crucial criterion for distinguishing personality disorders from anxiety, depression, and other mental afflictions. Those conditions are things you have; they may come and go. A personality disorder is something you are. Those with N.P.D. are markedly grandiose and lacking in empathy, their idealization of themselves and others playing in endless rotation with injured withdrawal, coldness, and cruelty. When the American Psychiatric Association introduced the term, it claimed that less than 1 percent of the population suffered from the condition; in the most recent revision, the DSM-V puts the statistic, confusingly, at 0 to 6.2 percent, a range that reflects some variance, to say the least, in the methods by which psychologists define and measure this disorder.

To have a disorder of the personality is, by definition, to be an outsider in one’s own life and a stranger to one’s culture. But many psychologists, journalists, and bloggers have argued, over the past ten years, that a term once used to describe those who could not fit in or deal with the rest of us is increasingly the best label for most of us — that N.P.D. no longer defines marked differences from our culture, but describes our culture exactly.

This isn’t the first moment in history that has been called exceptional in its selfishness, or the first time a new generation has been called narcissistic. As long ago as 1976, Tom Wolfe’s article “The Me Decade” announced from the cover of New York that a self-centered falseness of frightening proportions had taken over the culture. Three years later, Christopher Lasch’s book The Culture of Narcissism hit the bestseller lists. These days, for every article lamenting millennials’ special narcissism, another points out that the tendency is nothing new. Unlike Wolfe and Lasch, however, the current prophets claim to have the data to prove it.

If such proof is possible, it is thanks to an innovation that dates from the same year that Lasch’s book appeared, when two social psychologists, Robert Raskin and Calvin Hall, developed a survey that measured traits of N.P.D. in “normal” and “healthy” people: the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. The survey presents the subject with forty pairs of statements that are equally socially acceptable — “I am assertive” and “I wish I were more assertive,” for example. Whether or not you agree with either, you must choose one. (This type of measure is called, appropriately, a forced-choice survey.) Certain pairings ferret out maladaptive facets of narcissism, such as vanity. (“I don’t particularly like to show off my body.” “I like to show off my body.”) There are also claims such as “I like to take responsibility for making decisions,” which, if you agree with it, pushes your score in the narcissistic direction, but is not necessarily an anti-social trait. Raskin and Hall assume that there is no single point on the spectrum at which one becomes a full-blown narcissist. Even a score of 40 does not qualify a person as having N.P.D.; the survey is supposed to measure “subclinical” narcissism, a subtlety that is often missing when N.P.I. results are reported in the media and the self-help blogosphere, where the pathological and the normal blur into one.

Psychologists have repeatedly administered the test to college students. Twenge’s innovation was to collect studies in which N.P.I. scores were tallied, average the scores across all available campuses for each year, and then track these scores for the years since the survey began. She and her collaborators analyzed studies representing 16,475 surveys, and found that N.P.I. scores had indeed risen between 1979 and 2006, an increase that was widely reported as 30 percent.

You’ve probably read about it: when Twenge and Campbell’s initial paper came out in 2007, it was immediately covered by the major news networks and newspapers; in the years since, that study and Twenge’s subsequent work have been rehearsed in every new cover story about millennial narcissism, as well as across the sizeable portion of the internet that is dedicated to psychological self-help, where the references to hard data lend an apocalyptic urgency to advice about defending against the cruel self-absorption of your daughter, your best friend, your boyfriend. But the coverage seldom spends much time on the considerable disagreement in the field of social psychology over what the N.P.I. actually measures, and whether the math truly represents a significant increase. Working with the same data set (but adding more campuses), another group of psychologists, led by Kali H. Trzesniewski, argued that scores on the N.P.I. were not substantially rising. Even if Twenge and Campbell had the math right, their language was misleading. The claim that two thirds of college students scored 30 percent higher than the N.P.I. scale’s original sample average means not that narcissism has increased by 30 percent but that a slight majority of students in 2006 answered, on average, one or two more questions indicating narcissism than did in 1986, when the sample average was first determined. It’s easy to miss the fact that the N.P.I. measures “normal” and “healthy” narcissism, and that other research has demonstrated that the rise in scores has been in traits that are “adaptive,” rather than “maladaptive.” Twenge herself has admitted that the only significant increase in N.P.I. scores over the past three decades has been among female college students — which might be a good thing, if agreeing with statements such as “I like to take responsibility for making decisions” represents an increase in agency.

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a social psychologist who has been one of the foremost critics of the Generation Me theory, has argued that the current crop of young people are in fact more conscious of their relation to others, more generous and empathetic, than any before them. In 2013, in the journal Emerging Adulthood, Arnett debunked Twenge’s taxonometric methodology and her interpretation of her results, and marshaled statistics that, he argued, show millennials to be increasingly other-centered: car accidents and crime have declined, volunteerism is up, and teen pregnancy is down. Millennials are less racist, less sexist, and less homophobic than their forebears. “Whatever we have been doing in our socialization of children,” Arnett wrote, “we should keep doing it.”

Behind the paywalls, psychologists squabble over sample size and the validity of certain measures; terms are defined and redefined. Such arguments are part of the work of social science, and indeed of any science. Yet analyses of the millennial narcissism epidemic often proceed not by engaging the difficult questions of how and why we diagnose the selfishness of others, or why there is so much disagreement in the field, but anecdote by anecdote, recounting the accumulated moments in which others display a selfishness that is surely different from, surely somehow worse than our own. If Arnett is right, the story of the narcissism epidemic is back where it began, in Ovid’s pool in the forest. To call it myth, however, is not to dismiss it. Any monster that seems so real must speak some truth. The question is not only whether we’re getting any closer to the empirical evidence we crave, but why we crave it so acutely.

MTV assumed that people were hate-watching My Super Sweet 16; they followed up the series with a spin-off called Exiled, on which the beleaguered parents of the sweet sixteeners could send their children off to try to make their way under harsh conditions in poor, remote villages in other countries. Exiled was itself succeeded by a TV movie, My Super Psycho Sweet 16.

In her 2007 episode, when she suggests that the ambulances be redirected, even Allison seems to be in on the joke. “Oh my,” the party planner says theatrically. “If Allison wants it,” Allison’s mother recites, as if by rote, “make it happen.” On party day, Peachtree does appear to be closed down. There is a parade, with a marching band, horses, and motorcycles. Allison arrives in a limo, exclaiming, “I’m the coolest person ever.” Midway through the party a drunk friend throws up, and she kicks him out. Then G-Unit take the stage, everyone starts dancing, Allison’s parents give her the keys to a Mercedes, and everyone agrees that it’s the best party they’ve ever been to, as they do at the end of every episode. Cut to commercial.

It takes only a brief search to find out more about Allison’s life. She was raised in a prominent African-American family in Buckhead, Atlanta’s wealthiest neighborhood. Her father is the late Charles A. Mathis Jr., lawyer to TLC, Usher, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was a brilliant litigator and was renowned for throwing some of the city’s best parties. Allison grew up to marry DeQuan Jones, a basketball player. Together, they run JetJones, a foundation that helps impoverished children in Atlanta succeed in school. Allison writes a lifestyle blog that encourages women to look good, be educated, and travel. In a list of the twenty-five favorite moments in her life so far, she reports that the moment she most loved, on the day of her party, was one “before the cameras started rolling,” when she and her mother shared breakfast in bed and talked, as they often do. She answers every commenter kindly. She comes across, in other words, as a real sweetheart.

Allison grew up wealthy in a city where wealth inequality is, according to a recent Brookings Institute report, among the highest in the nation, and more than twice the national average: in Atlanta, the 5 percent of households at the top have twenty times the money of the 20 percent of households at the bottom. Another study, in 2013, demonstrated that Atlanta’s poor have a harder time moving into a higher class than those in most other metropolitan regions. And Allison grew up black in a country where white families have 90 percent more wealth than African-American families, on average, even when controlling for education levels — a gap that hasn’t changed much in twenty-five years.

Which of these details matter when it comes to understanding why Allison might have wanted to celebrate an extravagant birthday party on television? We don’t know; we shouldn’t pretend to. But if Allison is representative of a generation, it’s one that faces considerable economic hardships. It is easier to talk about the ordinary dreams of the young — to go to college, to get promotions — as narcissistic than to talk about the various reasons these dreams will be thwarted. The current prophets of the epidemic, while they lament the rise of easy credit and the economic hardships facing the average family, report the narcissism of their subjects with moral outrage, and invite readers to take a position outside that culture, as diagnosticians and wary victims. In this apocalyptic moral drama, Allison performs as the pathologically selfish rich girl we condemn so that we might remain the empathetic ones, the good ones.

In her classic book of 1979, The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller gently hypothesizes that one of the most likely careers for people heavily invested in projecting a false self is psychology. Themselves often children of cold and selfish parents, therapists develop, from a young age, “special sensitivity to the unconscious signals manifesting the needs of others” and a strong motivation to employ this skill to manipulate people — under the mask of empathy. “Who else,” Miller writes, “without this previous history, would muster sufficient interest to spend the whole day trying to discover what is happening in other people’s unconscious?” The book is widely considered to be about narcissism, although Miller manages, blessedly, to avoid the word.

At least one psychometric study has since correlated N.P.I. scores with career paths, and it found that Miller is wrong; more often, people with high N.P.I. scores end up in business. But when psychology is conducted by surveying college students, by “convenience sample,” the data is gathered most often from students in psychology classrooms. This — not just college freshmen, but freshmen enrolled in psychology classes — is not only the cohort from which Twenge and Campbell’s thirty-year study was mainly drawn but also (according to one meta-analysis) the cohort that makes up 67 percent of subjects who participate in psychology studies. Which makes one wonder how much of the understanding of the self, mental health, and “normal” and “abnormal” psychology would be more accurately framed as an understanding of what young psychology students think about themselves.

If the sample seems rather selective, this is a matter of considerable discussion and concern among psychologists themselves. But it may not be so inaccurate if we consider how much the discipline of psychology permeates our lives, not only by way of therapy but by way of the methods that educators use to evaluate and place us, managers use to manage us, and corporations use to tabulate our every virtual move in order to find correlations that will provide marketers whose techniques were developed by this very same field with the secrets to selling us what we then believe we need. To cope with the pressure, we study the internet’s translations of therapeutic psychology, and are taught to think positive thoughts. To relax, we take BuzzFeed personality quizzes, as if to scratch enjoyment out of the very kinds of measurements that determine our success, and even at the bar, we sit down and speak of our progress toward mental health — “I think I really figured it out” — and diagnose our family members and lovers and friends. And every reality-TV show offers a chance to watch what others do while under observation, how narcissistic they look under the pressure to compete, to assert themselves, in situations only a little more surveilled and surreal than our own. For a moment, we get to pretend that Allison’s performance doesn’t resemble ours.

Or you don’t do all these things; one hopes you don’t. If the prophets weren’t sure we’re using “I” too much, your writer would say, more accurately, “This is how I am, sometimes,” or “Sadly, this is what I do.”

But if you do at least some of these things, maybe college students studying psychology are a sample that represents us after all. Maybe it’s no wonder that prophecies of an epidemic of self-regard should feel so true, and that we should fetishize a warm, mutual empathy at the same time as we click and click to get the next hit of objectivity. After her episode of My Super Sweet 16 aired, Allison wasn’t sent to a remote, poverty-stricken village to suffer for her narcissism; she went to the University of Miami to get a B.A. in psychology.

At some point, because of “the biases that plague self-report measures,” the authors of The Narcissism Epidemic began counting words. Writing “I” corresponds to self-centeredness, they asserted, and writing “we” corresponds to other-centeredness. They found exactly what they were looking for — since 1960, there’s been a 10 percent decrease in the use of “us” and “we,” and a 42 percent increase in “I” and “me.” They also found that the use of “you” and “your” has quadrupled, but rather than seeing this as evidence of other-focus, or a symptom of the proliferation of psychological self-help books, they took this “increased tendency to directly address the reader and include him or her in the dialogue” to be “another indicator of individualism.”

The authors do write “we” rather than “I,” but then again, there are usually two of them, sometimes six or seven, writing together. This writer is hunched over her computer in a dark, high-walled room, alone, forehead creased at the study on her screen, thinking of sentences like “I’m sorry” and “I love you” and “Let me help.” She is thinking of a study that found that “communal narcissists” attempt to satisfy narcissistic needs by being obviously generous, politically engaged, and emphasizing their care for others. She is worrying that if attempts to perform empathy, compassion, and sociality can all be symptoms of a pathological need to maintain one’s sense of self, and if it’s true that you might use “we” because you’re vainly attached to presenting an image of collectivity — not to mention the possibility that, on the other hand, the 42 percent increase in the use of “I” might be a symptom of an increase in people taking more responsibility for their actions — this word counting is useless. What’s left are stories, and a myth that just feels true.

I email Allison, and she swiftly sends her number. “I pride myself on being an open book,” she says.

“A lot of my sweet sixteen didn’t have to do with me,” Allison tells me. It was her father’s party: he’d planned it all, far in advance of being approached by MTV. When the camera crews arrived, there wasn’t much to do, so “we were kind of reaching for material,” the family pretending to plan, to shop, to talk to the party planner about an entrance parade. This was pretty obvious from the episode, I say, and she laughs. She’s not that concerned. For her, the day was about her dad. “Every little girl wants to be like her daddy in some way,” she says, “and that was my way to be like him, to have a huge party.”

The show made it seem as if it were the other way around, I point out, as if she were a domineering teen and her parents were doing whatever she said. She agrees. “There’s a lot of leading questions, like, ‘Oh, so you really want this party to be great, and you want your friends to have a really great time, right?’ And you’re like, ‘Yeah.’ And they’re like, ‘Can you repeat that back?’ ”

I ask her about the things she does — blogging, posting careful selfies of her new outfits, performing her life online — that make millennials seem, to those who are older, so mysterious, shallow, and conceited. “I don’t think we are necessarily narcissistic,” she says. “This is going to sound narcissistic, but I think we care about each other more.”

This confuses me, until I realize that she means we care more about strangers. “We care about other people’s experiences,” she confirms, “even if we’ll never meet them. I care about the girl I don’t know who’s writing a blog about how she and her husband, as newlyweds, packed up and traveled the world. I want to read it; I’m glad she’s sharing it.” I ask her why she cares, and she says, “Because I think I can learn from her.”

Once Allison gets her counseling degree, she hopes to work with couples. She’s always believed in family and wanted to understand how it works.

The cameras couldn’t show her future, any more than they showed that on her sixteenth birthday, it was only one lane of Peachtree’s six that was shut down for five minutes, and it wasn’t Allison’s idea at all.

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