Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Narcissism Epidemic

I’ve always been fascinated by compulsive and self-destructive behavior – gambling, shopping, and so on. So I wanted to read Jean Twenge’s and Keith Campbell’s The Narcissism Epidemic, which seemed to focus on another type of compulsion – a fixation on self-esteem, specialness and feeling good about oneself no matter what.

Though I must admit, another reason I picked up the book was its subtitle – “Living in the Age of Entitlement”. The last word intrigued me. I wanted to see if this book would have anything to say about the sense of entitlement that’s sometimes seen in writers who get angry about negative reviews, or who believe everyone has the right to be published.

Despite the title, the book isn’t about people with narcissistic personality disorder. Instead, it’s about self-admiration, how this sabotages effort and – taken to extremes – leads to problems such as debt, antisocial behavior and an obsession with appearance. It also explores social trends, contrasting modern attitudes with those of prior decades to show how matters have changed.

The authors provide examples of everything they discuss – not just statistics and charts, but amusing facts such as “223 babies born in the 1990s in California were named Unique” – again, reinforcing the you’re special message. But how to be special with so many Uniques around? Well, some parents don’t settle for the regular spelling and instead try “Uneek, Uneque, or Uneqqee”. Good luck with pronouncing the last one.

From there it goes on to the teen years – I learned about reality shows such as My Super Sweet 16 - and to adulthood, where people can get credit cards and keep living at a standard which they believe they deserve. The book also provides solutions for narcissism, examples of good role models in the media, and suggestions for giving children different messages and different values – e.g. not handing out prizes simply for showing up and participating.

I also liked the graduate seminar where students received a lecture on how to be successful in academics. Basically, this is an arduous process requiring hard work and persistence – much like trying for commercial publication.

Many of the students, however, weren’t very pleased with the idea of a 10-year career path. They thought success should come quickly…

Sounds like a familiar story with the same ending. Low frustration tolerance often leads people to make less-than-wise decisions, whether these are to do with academics or publishing.

That being said, I wasn’t keen on the presentation of Asian cultures as models of good values. Coming from such a culture, I can confirm that it went to the opposite extreme, preserving the family/community at the expense of the individual. The authors also seem to have the past on a pedestal, tenderly describing the days when people named their kids John or Mary and lived in little houses on the prairie. Things weren't so perfect back then either, even if there was no MySpace and kids were happy with one Christmas present.

My other concern is that this book has a slightly pro-Christian slant. Not really in-your-face, but there’s a reference to Jesus being “God’s greatest gift to mankind” and a question as to why kids are encouraged to be Baby Einstein rather than Baby Mother Teresa. But other than these issues, the book was a brisk, informative read and one that I’d keep for my collection.


Unknown said...

I honestly don't know why people consider a "Christian slant" to be a bad thing. Can someone explain the reasoning behind this please?
This sounds like an informative book. Our culture has become so obsessed with positive self image that it's become destructive. People need to deal with the fact that being average in certain aspects is not a bad thing and that being "special" is not necessarily good.

Marian Perera said...

The self-help books I value most are neutral when it comes to religion.

A Christian slant isn't a bad thing, just something that readers should be aware of as a possible bias on the part of a self-help author. I'd give the same warning for a self-help book that asked why there were no Baby Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) tapes.

But you're right, on the whole it was an informative book, and I just borrowed one of the authors' previous books, Generation Me from the library.