If this trend continues, fueled even more by technology, the implications are disturbing. Narcissism, at its most malignant, fosters lack of empathy, poor impulse control, and frank aggression when insult or threat is perceived,3 particularly in the context of social rejection.4 It is the most extreme narcissistic individuals who tend to be the most dangerous. While it can be argued that any perceived increases are small, at best, they cannot be minimized. Small changes on a bell curve are most apparent, not at the average, but at the extremes. Therefore, even small increases over time will foster the development of greater numbers at the far end of the curve.11
It is, therefore, imperative to understand the social and cultural underpinnings of this alarming rise in narcissistic attitudes. In 1979, Christopher Lasch argued in The Culture of Narcissism that increasingly permissive culture eroded the superego, making it secondary to the will of the ego.12 The growth of capitalism after World War II encouraged a focus on immediate gratification and improved social status. After years of sacrifice and rationing, Americans embarked on a course of mass consumerism. These pursuits fostered a narcissistic mindset.
The rise of an advanced industrial culture that stressed consumerism and equated social standing with personal possessions rather than personal achievements favored Freud’s id and ego. The superego, or internalization of societal mores and restrictions, was itself becoming more permissive as society broke down one barrier after another.12 Modesty and self-restraint took a backseat to affluence and self-indulgence.
Million and Davis13 identified that narcissism had gained prominence in the closing decades of the past century. The citizens of industrialized nations, now less preoccupied with mere survival than their Third World counterparts, were falling subject to the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Arrogance and grandiosity, once reserved only for royalty or the extremely wealthy, were now within reach of the populace at large. The United States in particular was viewed as a crucible of pathological narcissism, praising individualism and self-gratification over the needs of the community. Self-esteem was no longer derived from a sense of identification with the reputation and honor of a larger family, group, culture, or nation. Rather, the focus turned to the individual, fostering alienation over a sense of belonging and connectedness and further reinforcing narcissistic behaviors.13
Still other researchers point to changes in educational and parenting approaches that emphasized boosting self-esteem. The self-esteem movement began in 1969 with the publication of Nathaniel Braden’s The Psychology of Self-Esteem.14 In this seminal work, Braden put forth the theory that the development and fostering of self-esteem was the most valuable gift that could be given to any human being. This philosophy quickly permeated the public consciousness and generated more than 15,000 scholarly articles in the next 3 decades.15,16
When Baumeister and associates17 reviewed this body of work in 2003, only a small fraction of the articles were found to meet rigorous scientific criteria. By then, however, the damage had been done and these ideas had crept into the mainstream, becoming a foundation for educational systems across the country. Children were not only praised for less than noteworthy achievements, they were also shielded from any events or experiences that might be damaging to their self-esteem. Healthy competition was replaced by ribbons and prizes just for showing up. Failure was considered so potentially harmful to well-being that it had to be avoided at all costs. Doing so, we were promised, would save our children from drug abuse and criminal behavior.15,16,18
It all seemed like a good idea, but we are now beginning to see the error of our ways. Not only did we not see the promised decreases in vice, we found we had created new unforeseen problems. Individuals who are not subjected to failure and who are the recipients of constant praise without substance never learn to develop frustration tolerance. Vacuous praise discourages rather than encourages hard work and persistence. Rather than responding to disappointment and failure with increased effort, individuals who are indiscriminately praised more often opt to simply give up.15
Indeed, intermittent reinforcement is critical to the development of persistence and frustration tolerance and may be necessary for the proper development of brain circuits in the orbital and medial prefrontal cortex.19 These tenets are familiar to learning theorists who have understood for decades that intermittent reward reinforces behavior and is at the root of the addictive behavior of gambling.20 Indeed, Twitter has been described by some as an almost perfect model of intermittent variable reward,21 making it as potentially addictive as games of chance. Susan A. Greenfield, baroness and professor of synaptic pharmacology at Oxford University, has argued that social networking sites lead to a compulsion in seeking immediate reward that may be linked to the same brain pathways activated in drug addiction. Since gratification is being derived from interaction with a computer screen rather than face-to-face with another human being, the real social nature of the interaction becomes diminished and the pleasurable feelings generated are solipsistic, lacking in any concern for mutual gratification. Thus, rather than being an aid to social contact and interaction, such sites actually lead to an erosion of empathy and the creation of more alienation.22