Wednesday, August 7, 2013

What Jean Twenge Gets Wrong About Narcissism

Earlier this week, a New York Times article, Seeing Narcissists Everywhere, featured psychologist Jean Twenge, who has documented the rise of narcissism in Millenials in academic papers and two books. She has also made numerous appearances on TV programs such as Good Morning America and Today touting her view that the promotion of self-esteem over the past few decades has led to the current generation's sense of entitlement. She bases much of her views on standardized questionnaires given to college students, especially the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI).

Unfortunately, the article featured only the most superficial criticism of Dr. Twenge's work, including other researchers who "calculated self-esteem scores" over time and did not find a change, or who disagree that the NPI actually measures narcissism, or who analyzed other sets of NPI data and did not see a significant change over time. I would like to offer some more in-depth critiques. To be clear, I absolutely agree that narcissism is prevalent in our society and that it leads to a host of ills.

Endemic, not epidemic

First, I find the title of one of Twenge's books, The Narcissism Epidemic, to be deeply misleading and alarmist. According to the MedlinePlus Medical Dictionary, "epidemic" is defined:
affecting or tending to affect an atypically large number of individuals within a population, community, or region at the same time
What's "atypically large" about the prevalence of narcissism, given our status and wealth-obsessed culture? I think it would be more accurate to call narcissism "endemic" rather than "epidemic." We all have narcissistic tendencies, and to characterize it as an epidemic externalizes and puts the focus on others. It's as misguided as those "how to spot a narcissist" articles. The title also implies that Twenge has somehow discovered something new, which is certainly not the case. In 1979, Christopher Lasch published The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, a deeper critique of our culture that obviously predates the "self-esteem movement" of the 1980's.

More than meets the eye

Narcissism presents in more than just one way. There is the stereotypical view of a self-absorbed, overconfident, extroverted, somewhat callous individual, and this is likely the construct that the NPI measures. However, there's also covert narcissism, which is well-recognized in the literature, but which Twenge does not seem to appreciate. For example, suppose there are people who think I'm more altruistic than anyone else or no one else can appreciate the uniqueness of my suffering, or who base their sense of self-worth entirely on what other people think while outwardly appearing anxious or depressed. I would argue that these people also have narcissistic issues, even though their form of narcissism is not well-measured by the NPI or formally a part of the DSM definition of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Originally, the DSM-5 draft had proposed changes to NPD that encompassed the covert form as well, but ultimately (and unfortunately) those changes did not make the cut.

Beyond the explicit message

Twenge seems to think that there's a direct path from parents telling their children how special they are to the children becoming narcissistic and entitled adults. That may be true, but people are a bit more complicated than that. I won't talk about any particular person, since it's unethical for me to diagnose someone I'm not treating. But let's say there's a politician who has done little over his career other than appearing on TV and provoking the opposition. And suppose this politician admits in a major interview that when growing up, his parents were distant and far from the self-esteem boosting types. And then suppose that this man's sexually-charged text messages are released to the public and reveal a deep fount of insecurity rather than confidence.

Thus, the implicit message that children and adolescents receive from parents and from society is just as influential or more so than the explicit message. Take for example this passage from the NYT article:
 "I got a onesie as a gift that I gave away on principle," said Dr. Twenge, 41, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and a mother of three girls under 7, in an interview at a diner on the West Side of Manhattan.

"It said, 'One of a Kind,' " she said, poking at a fruit salad. "That actually isn’t so bad, because it’s true of any baby. But it’s just not something I want to emphasize."
So she's not telling her children they are "unique" or "special." That's all well and good, but what if she's reinforcing society's message that to be successful, one has to publish best-selling books or appear on the Today show? How she handles these issues with her children is far more important than what's on the onesies that they wear. If she truly is not aware of this, then perhaps the article would be better titled: "Seeing Narcissists Everywhere, Except the One in the Mirror."