The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement By Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell (Free Press, 2009)

The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (Paperback)
by Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell

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Both Twenge and Campbell are psychology PhDs and academicians: Twenge teaches at San Diego State University (and is the author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before, 2007); Campbell teaches at University of Georgia. For those of us who hold to the inspiration and veracity of the Bible, the thesis of The Narcissism Epidemic comes as no surprise: mankind is self-centered, narcissistic by nature! Nonetheless, to see the case being made for it from the enclaves of secular academia, and presented with a wry sense of humor, was refreshing.

The book is divided into four sections, each vaulting off the medical theme of the book: diagnosis, root causes of the epidemic, symptoms, and (bravely enough) prognosis and treatment.

There has been a “relentless rise of narcissism in our culture” (1). According to the authors, it all began in the 70’s with the drive to develop self-esteem, to find one’s self-expression, and the movement away from community-oriented thinking (62–64). “Not only are there more narcissists than ever, but non-narcissistic people are seduced by the increasing emphasis on material wealth, physical appearance, celebrity worship, and attention seeking. Standards have shifted, sucking otherwise humble people into the vortex of granite countertops, tricked-out MySpace pages, and plastic surgery” (2). A quarter of all college students agree with items on the standardized Narcissistic Personality Inventory, and 5% of all Americans even have the extreme version of the trait—Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Despite our having been warned a long time ago that in the “last days” difficult times would come, with mankind being “lovers of self,” “lovers of money,” etc., I am not convinced that this is a new disease. A more virulent mutant perhaps, its contagion spreading rapidly in a media-saturated culture.

Twenge and Campbell assert that this epidemic of narcissism has affected every American directly or indirectly, the recent mortgage meltdown being a case in point, in part due to the “narcissistic overconfidence” of homebuyers and greedy lenders (2–3). Culture now holds court not in reality, but in grandiose fantasy. “We have phony rich people (with interest-only mortgages and piles of debt), phony beauty (with plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures), phony athletes (with performance-enhancing drugs), phony celebrities (via reality TV and YouTube), phony genius students (with grade inflation), a phony national economy (with $11 trillion of government debt), phony feelings of being special among children (with parenting and education focused on self-esteem), and phony friends (with the social networking explosion). All this fantasy might feel good, but, unfortunately, reality always wins” (4). Indeed!

The symptoms of the disease are easily recognizable: an inflated view of the self and an absence of deep connections to others (19). The authors proceed to debunk, quite mercilessly, myths regarding narcissism (24–46). Narcissism is not high self-esteem: narcissists lack the critical element of caring for others. Narcissists are not necessarily insecure deep down: in fact, the evidence shows that narcissists think they are “awesome.” Narcissism is not healthy: at its core, it is antisocial behavior—“[s]elfishness, for example, might allow you to get a bigger piece of dessert after dinner, but will hurt your longer-term relationships with your companions” (29). Narcissism is not simply vanity: those afflicted are also “materialistic, entitled, aggressive when insulted, and uninterested in emotional closeness” (30). Twenge and Campbell cite a study in which 39% of eighth-graders were confident of their math skills, compared to 6% of comparable Korean children. The latter, however, did far better than the former in math tests. “We’re not number one, but we’re number one in thinking we are number one” (47). The apostle Paul’s sharp rebuke is apropos: “For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1 Cor 4:7). 

Why is narcissistic behavior so prevalent? The authors address the four root etiologies of the epidemic: parenting, media, Web 2.0, and easy credit.

Squarely, the authors bring the first cause to the door of the home, where “royalty” are raised: “[m]ore than at any time in history, the child’s needs come first” (74). Nationwide surveys tracking parental attitudes in the last five decades show that obedience is no longer high on the list of values parents want children to learn. All of that adds to overindulgence, role reversal (parents are no longer authority figures), and overpraising (75–81).

Media transmission of narcissism, via the depiction of narcissistic celebrities and their narcissistic lifestyles, is a second major cause of the epidemic. And this kind of fame and fortune is luscious bait for the rest of us commoners. More than half of those aged 18 through 25 said “becoming famous” was an important goal—five times as many as named “becoming more spiritual” as a goal (93). Apparently even being near fame is appealing: 43% of middle school girls would rather be a celebrity personal assistant, twice as many as those who wanted to be president of an Ivy-league school, three times as many as those who wanted to be a U.S. Senator, and four times as many as those who wanted to head up a company like GM (94).

Web 2.0—all of the user-focused internet sites, including social networking and virtual worlds—is labeled the third root cause of the epidemic. ideal for narcissists seeking to promote themselves (107). Friendships based on Web 2.0, the authors declare, “[facilitate] the kind of superficial, emotionally bankrupt relationships favored by narcissistic people” (111). Even blogs turn out to be “vapid exercises in self-expression and attention-seeking” (116–117). Andy Warhol’s prediction of fame for all—for 15 minutes—finally has become reality … on YouTube (120).

Fourthly, the availability of easy credit in the last decade encouraged people to live the kind of lifestyles they could not afford, spreading the epidemic of narcissism and the illusion of wealth and success (123). For the first time since the 1930s, in 2005, more was spent than earned by Americans; credit card debts have tripled since the 1990s (124). The average size of homes has increased 66% in the last three decades, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Needless to say, all of this affects everybody else, and not simply because the rest of the populace tries to keep up: when the mortgage enterprise was shipwrecked, it was the average taxpayer who was left holding the tab (132–135).

Twenge and Campbell’s diagnosis of the epidemic of narcissism is based upon the following symptoms: vanity, materialism, relationship problems, and entitlement, among others.

That vanity is a symptom of narcissism is almost a tautology. Botox was employed more than 3 million times in 2006, about 50 times more often than it was a decade ago (141). About 12 million people in the U.S. have submitted themselves to cosmetic procedures in 2007—five times as many as in 2005 (148).  As a practicing dermatologist, this reviewer can heartily attest to the fact that a veritable industry thrives on the narcissistic culture’s agonizing over the paleness of teeth, darkness of skin, shortness of eyelashes, wrinkling of brows, rippling of fat, and the urgency to wax, spray, laser, peel, lift, tuck, and color.

Narcissism is consumed with buying and using products that confer and convey status, and gradually, materialistic trends raise standards for everyone else (162). “The rich are … treated with an aspirational reverence—somewhat like the gods were to the Greeks, except that many people fervently hope they can soon join their ranks” (172). If square footage of retail space is any gauge of this avaricious consumerism, the numbers are striking: average retail space per person in theU.S.is 39 sq ft, compared to 20 sq ft forAustralia, 14 sq ft for theU.K., and 11 sq ft forJapan. In fact, consumption even has its own holiday—ironically, it is the day after Thanksgiving (“Black Friday”) (174).

Narcissists are prone to relationship problems; for them, relationships are all about bolstering their own egos (212). “In place of love for another person, put love for the self; in place of caring, put exploitation; and to commitment, add ‘as long as it benefits me’” (213). Twenge and Campbell label narcissists’ relationships “fungible”—interchangeable and disposable, relationships serve one end, that of self-exaltation (214). Unfortunately, “if you love yourself too much, you won’t have enough love left for anyone else” (223; italics removed). Contra mundum, the Scriptures teach Christians “to lay down our lives for the brethren,” modeling the paradigmatic expression of Christ’s sacrificial love (1 John3:16).

Entitlement, the state of mind that believes one deserves special treatment, is an important symptom of narcissism and a dangerous one at that, for invariably someone else is going to be left with the cost of entitling those so afflicted. A 2008 survey of college students revealed that two-thirds believed they were entitled to special consideration by their professors simply for trying hard; one-third thought they deserved a B just for attending class (232). Not only are the “entitled” ones self-focused, the attitude also betokens a fundamental lack of respect for others (234). Well might the church play a role in keeping check on this attitude of entitlement, for Paul recommended that one be concerned about benefiting others, not oneself:  “Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor” (1 Cor 10:24). Has the church failed to model that kind of altruism? No longer is religion making such expectations of its adherents, Twenge andCampbellallege; it has merely become a means to fulfill one’s dreams (249). A sad indictment upon those who ought know better.

The authors must be applauded for being plucky enough to prescribe a chapter-full of suggested treatments for narcissism, “the fast food of the soul” (259). Briefly, one must avoid the epidemic, cut off the spread, and quarantine the disease. Humility, Twenge and Campbell aver, is the opposite of narcissism, and they recommend “religion,” where values such as love, compassion, community, and forgiveness are espoused—elements sorely lacking in a narcissistic world (281–284). One of the refrains encountered in this book is that the home is primary locus where the epidemic may be nipped in the bud (293). In addition, education  itself must be reformed with the elimination of the emphasis on self-esteem (295); media must change with the projection of community values, and with priority given to humility and not on self-exalting, on saving and not on consumption (297).

Twenge and Campbell confess: “We realize that this level of change is probably a pipe dream” (292). It probably is. On the other hand, Christians, and particularly as those who hold to the inspiration and inerrancy of the Word of God, have a greater responsibility in this matter and stand a better chance of realizing positive change. When the secular press points an accusatory finger at self-centeredness and its threatening consequences, pastors, teachers, and laymen and women of every stripe would do well to heed its warnings. Not that we, who were exhorted millennia ago not to look out for our own personal interests, but also for the interests of others (Phil 2:24), needed any goading. Resisting the progress of this epidemic is crucial, lest a greater implosion of character and culture take place. May the words of Paul ring in our ears: “For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment…. Do not be haughty in mind” (Rom 12:3, 16). Wise words, indeed.

Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 52 (2010): 877–880

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