Narcissism and superficality

by Jan 4, 2013Mental Health0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 3 minutes

Interesting but worrying new research has just been published by Jean Twenge who has been researching about the changes in the American character for several decades now. The trends that are being seen are an increase in narcissistic attitudes up 30% it seems in those few decades. At the same time more ‘prosocial’ (rather than antisocial) traits, like cooperativeness and understanding other people,  seem to be on the decrease  [1], [2].

In addition we are seeing a much bigger sense of entitlement, more overconfidence and belief in people’s own abilities, what popular psychology describes as self-esteem. While low self-esteem is obviously a problem, what in fact we are seeing is huge levels of over-confidence and a decrease in old fashioned values such as humility and modesty. Interestingly this increase in self-belief does not correlate with actual better performances, so it is delusional in some ways. Better performance in fact correlates with traits like being able to defer gratification and regulate ones emotions, as do all manner of things like holding down a good job or being in a relationship that lasts [3].


Confidence is important. In fact we want children to have lots of it, so they keep trying, learning and do not give up. Overconfidence in a child is a hopeful sign, and children who are too realistic in fact are often depressed [4]. However this is not the case with adults,  as maturity has generally come with more realism. Maybe that is changing.

The narcissisits growing up today it seems can be often outwardly charming and charismatic. They find it easy to start relationships and have confidence socially and in job interviews. Yet their prognosis is not so good in other ways. Interestingly it seems that we now like our leaders to be confident and strong in way that has not always been the case, that these are the traits we now encourage and admire

This links with what others have said about the increase, for example, in sociopathic traits in our society [5] and the decrease in prosocial and sociocentric ones [6]. Maybe we are creating a world in which these kind of more superficial and self-centred character traits are an advantage, in a way in which they never were in our evolutionary history [7]. Time to sit up and take note?

[1]        J. M. Twenge, W. K. Campbell, and B. Gentile, ‘Generational increases in agentic self-evaluations among American college students, 1966–2009’, Self and Identity, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 409–427, 2012.

[2]        J. M. Twenge, W. K. Campbell, and E. C. Freeman, ‘Generational differences in young adults’ life goals, concern for others, and civic orientation, 1966–2009.’, Journal of personality and social psychology, vol. 102, no. 5, p. 1045, 2012.

[3]        J. Metcalfe and W. Mischel, ‘A hot/cool-system analysis of delay of gratification: Dynamics of willpower’, PSYCHOLOGICAL REVIEW-NEW YORK-, vol. 106, pp. 3–19, 1999.

[4]        A. D. Pellegrini, ‘The development and function of rough-and-tumble play in childhood and adolescence: A sexual selection theory perspective’, in Play and development: Evolutionary, sociocultural, and functional perspectives, A. Goncu and S. Gaskins, Eds. New York: Psychology Press, 2007, pp. 77–98.

[5]        M. Stout, The Sociopath Next Door. Broadway Books (A Division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc), 2007.

[6]        H. Keller and B. Lamm, ‘Parenting as the expression of sociohistorical time: The case of German individualisation’, International Journal of Behavioral Development, vol. 29, no. 3, pp. 238–246, 2005.

[7]        C. Boehm, Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. Basic

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