Another repost of a book review. I originally reviewed this book on Epinions.com in 2009. I reposted it on my old blog and am reposting it again as/is, because narcissism is a hot topic.
Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way… I can’t wait to look in the mirror, cuz I get better lookin’ each day…” (Mac Davis, “It’s Hard To Be Humble”)
According to authors Jean M. Twenge Ph.D and W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D, Americans have a serious self-esteem problem that needs prompt attention. Look around and you might see what they’re talking about. Today’s babies wear bibs that say “Supermodel” or “Chick Magnet” on them. Today’s children win sports trophies just for showing up to play the game. Today’s adults live in huge, well furnished homes and drive luxury cars, yet they’re drowning in consumer debt. Yes, many Americans have a self-esteem problem, but despite the conventional thinking that our collective self-esteem is too low, Twenge and Campbell, authors of the 2009 book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, propose that it’s too high. They write on page 14, “American culture has embraced the value of self-admiration with a big, warm hug.” And now that I’ve read their book and considered their observations, I’m inclined to agree with them.
I purchased The Narcissism Epidemic while shopping for Stepmonsters, the subject of my last book review. Amazon.com quite brilliantly offered The Narcissism Epidemic as a suggestive sell and I took the bait. I am fairly pleased with the purchase, since psychologists Twenge and Campbell have written a very timely book about a problem that plagues a lot of Americans and may well be causing our downfall. A growing number of people in our country think that rules don’t apply to them because they are somehow exceptional. Too many people lack empathy and are too willing to put their needs above everything else.
Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, former fellow postdocs at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, first started thinking about the narcissism problem back in 1999, when they were both working in well-known social psychologist Roy Baumeister’s lab. The authors claim that there’s not much to do in Cleveland, especially in the winter. One day, as they were chatting with a fellow postdoc, the two came up with the idea of looking at trends related to narcissism. However, in 1999, the standard measure of narcissism had only been around for about ten years, which wasn’t long enough for them to do a solid study of change over time (6). They both eventually became college professors and decided to revisit the idea in 2006. The end result is this book, which focuses much of its discussion on narcissism in the United States, but also explores global trends of the narcissim epidemic in Europe, Asia, and Australia.
What this book is about
This book is about the collective “me first” attitude demonstrated by so many people today. Twenge and Campbell point out how the “me first” can attitude start out in the womb, as parents go to great lengths to come up with “special” names for their unborn children. When their babies are born, they’re photographed and fawned over and dressed in little t-shirts that point out how cute and “special” they are. As pre-schoolers, they sing cute little songs like “I Am Special, Look At Me”, a song that no doubt was written as a way of celebrating individuality and self-esteem, but may actually result in cultivating narcissism.
As kids come of age, some of them may be overvalued by their parents, who may refer to them as “little princesses” or “little princes”. Young girls may find themselves wearing makeup and attending spa appointments before they’ve left elementary school. Kids of both genders may aspire to be rich and famous over anything else when they grow up.
The authors explore how reality TV shows can entice ordinary people to dream of fame and fortune. Public figures like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears promote the shallow message that it’s more important to be rich, beautiful, and famous than it is to be a decent person. MTV’s highly obnoxious show, My Super Sweet 16 gets a lot of discussion, as the authors show how teenaged girls are encouraged to be shallow and haughty, as their parents scramble to throw them the best sweet 16 party ever, complete with $100,000 cars, exclusive invitations, and top of the line entertainment.
The authors even step into the church sanctuary, pointing out how megachurches take a tradition that once reined in narcissistic impulses and turn it into something that promotes it. For many people, going to church used to be a humbling exercise, where people came to be reminded of the consequences of acting like jerks. People drank bad coffee or Kool-Aid, ate stale donuts, and depending on the faith, might be given a stern warning about how sinners will end up in Hell. With the advent of megachurches, that warning message may well have gone away for a large segment of the population. Parishoners can listen to messages inspired by the prosperity gospel, where they will be told how special they are and how much God loves them. They can listen to high quality music, drink high quality coffee, and later purchase feel good books from the church bookstore. The prospect of going to Hell barely gets a mention.
I wasn’t surprised to see the authors take on college students. They write about students who have the audacity to demand better grades and expect passing grades simply for showing up to class. They quote students as having said to their professors, “You work for me.” On the other hand, they also explore how being a college professor can promote narcissism, too. After all, people tend to take notes on everything a professor says.
After college, it seems a lot of young people expect to get a fulfilling job that immediately pays six figures a year. Many of them lack the ability to fail with grace and handle disappointments. Some of them may sink into depression. I have to admit, having been through that myself after college and graduate school, I can relate. On the other hand, I have never expected to make a six figure salary in my lifetime.
Along with the expectation of a high paying job after graduation, some of these young people also expect to be able to wear the very best clothes, drive the best cars, and live in fine homes. They may succumb to easy credit, running up huge debts in their efforts to look successful and live the sweet life… only the sweet life is soured by the burden of huge bills they can’t hope to pay. No wonder America’s economy is in the toilet.
What I liked about this book
The Narcissism Epidemic is a good example of how research doesn’t have to be presented in a boring way. The authors present their case in a clear, logical, and very entertaining manner, often adding cleverly pithy comments that are fun to read. I liked the fact that the authors explored many different aspects of society to make their case about how narcissistic we’ve become. They cover everything from the adulation kids may get during early childhood to the school shooting sprees perpetrated by young people who felt the world owed them something. They also devote a lot of discussion to how the Internet promotes narcissism through Web sites like YouTube, MySpace, and Facebook… hell, I guess even Epinions could be included in that list. How many of us reviewers live for ego-boo through this site?
What I didn’t like about this book
As much as I enjoyed reading The Narcissism Epidemic, I couldn’t help but realize that the authors may be a little guilty of narcissism themselves. After all, their lofty academic achievements are clearly presented on the book’s dust jacket. They presume to offer suggestions on how people might become less narcissistic. I thought their suggestions were good ones and was glad to see them attempting to “solve” the problem. The irony is, in their attempt to solve narcissism, they seem to perpetrate it themselves. But again, I guess it really is hard to be humble sometimes.
I also felt the authors got a little carried away with this book. They include a huge range of examples, which while interesting to read about, made this book a little longer than it might have been. Some topics got mentioned more than once. For instance, I remember reading about the babies with the “Supermodel” bibs, Paris Hilton, and My Super Sweet 16 more than a couple of times as I made my way through this book.
I really did enjoy reading The Narcissism Epidemic, especially since I happen to agree with a lot of the authors’ points. Even if most Americans aren’t suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a lot of us could stand to take a good look at they way we’re living. We work so hard to protect ourselves and our children from hardship and disappointment. We surround ourselves with useless toys and status symbols. We may even start to look at fellow human beings as “trophies” of sorts, caring more about what another person can do for us rather than who they are as people. All of this can lead to depression over a dull, meaningless, existence, not to mention the potential shame of bankruptcy and foreclosure when the fantasy of artificial wealth comes crashing down into reality.
I think The Narcissism Epidemic is a fine book and hereby recommend it with four stars.
As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.