Thursday, 15 November 2012

Narcissus unbound

I just caught up with an episode of All In The Mind, on BBC iPlayer, which included an interesting interview with Jean M. Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before.  Here's a taste of what Twenge's got to say about narcissism from a piece she wrote for HuffPo:
We strive to raise our children's self-esteem in the belief that confidence leads to success, but often err on the side of too much self-focus as we favor competition over consideration. Ironically, self-esteem is unrelated to success, and narcissism leads to eventual failure -- so our obsession with supreme self-confidence doesn't even benefit individuals. And it harms others: though it's commonly believed that aggression arises out of low self-esteem, the most aggressive people are those high in both self-esteem and narcissism, most likely because they lack empathy. In our rush to teach self-love, we have forgotten that it's both harder, and more valuable, to love others just as much.

Of course, parents didn't just make this stuff up. As W. Keith Campbell and I argue in The Narcissism Epidemic, extreme self-centeredness has seeped into every aspect of our culture, from routine plastic surgery to reality TV to the massive debt that allows us to look better off than we actually are. According to a slick website, February 13, 2010 is "Madly in Love with Me" day.* To celebrate, people are encouraged to write a song about how great they are. Having a basic sense of self-esteem doesn't routinely compromise empathy, but once self-esteem bloats into narcissism, other people's needs become irrelevant. If you love yourself too much, you won't have much love left for anyone else.

Modern life also undermines human empathy through our increasingly lonely lives. My colleagues and I recently published a series of experiments showing that people who felt rejected or lonely were significantly less likely to help others.
That sounds plausible to me, although a health warning is in order. Just as true believers in astrology are predisposed to accept 'vague and general personality descriptions as uniquely applicable to themselves without realising that the same description could be applied to just about anyone' (the Forer effect) you've got to beware of confirmation bias when a description of something as potentially fuzzy and slippery as personality types sounds uniquely applicable to what you already think's going on in something as complex and diverse as society.

So take this with a pinch of salt to taste, but I was quite interested by how neatly the characteristics Twenge describes seem to map on to the dominant ideology of recent times. I'm wary of even talking about this in generational terms (for the last few milllennia wrinklies have been warning about "young people today" as the vectors of a coming moral apocalypse, yet the expected end of the world has always reliably failed to arrive). If this is an actual thing, it's located in culture, power relations and ideology, rather than the defective moral fibre of the rising generation.

Aleksandr Zinovyev once coined the sarcastic term "Homo Sovieticus" to describe the "ideal" collectivised, passive, brainwashed, indifferent Soviet citizen. Twenge's description of our plucky little narcissists sounds like a satirical description of an "ideal" Narcissist Citizen, a fully-functioning Mini-Me, adapted to the dominant prejudices and ideology of managerialist capitalism. Some of Mini-Me's vices are the precise opposite of those attributed to Homo Sovieticus, others are similar, but both sets of traits help the possessor conform to the dysfunctional ideology of the times. In the case of the narcissist, these adaptive traits include:
  • Inflated self-confidence (often unwarranted). All members of Mini-Me community just know that, like the children of Lake Wobegon, they are all above average, a useful (but risky) trait in a winner-takes-all society that values a narrow, but intense, focus on short-term rewards over the conscientious long-term effort needed to achieve anything more sustainable. This sense of superiority leads to the next trait:
  • A lack of empathy, an indifference to anybody else who is of no direct use to Mini-Me. As the people who can help you are most likely the most powerful and successful, Mini-Me will socialise (or at least network with) his or her peers and superiors and dismiss anyone less influential as an annoying distraction. This is good news for those at the top, to whom the Mini-Me will defer and pay court, whilst directing any anger and frustration downwards towards the the powerless and less fortunate, who always get the blame for being unforgivably below average.
  • Relentless competitiveness, Sometimes competitiveness works, sometimes cooperation works. For managerialist ideologues extreme competitiveness wins every time - not because it's always the best way of getting the job done, but because there's no better way of stopping your underlings from bothering you than keeping them at each others' throats 24/7. Stops 'em ganging up, joining unions, or displaying other inconvenient forms of solidarity. This competitive urge is also useful for managerialists who'd like to maintain a well-defined pecking order by watching their underlings jump through humiliating hoops, like the confidently clueless baby tycoons on The Apprentice.
  • A sense of entitlement - the Mini-Me community is where we find one of he most profitable of all demographics - consumers who'll buy more stuff just 'because you're worth it'. And if you have to get into debt to buy it, there's a whole industry out there, living and thriving on people's over-confident willingness to embrace debt in order to live the dream, from the primary stage of credit cards for the aspirational, to loan sharks for the penultimate stage of financial desperation, (I'm normally all for motherhood, apple pie n'stuff, and totally against the physical abuse of senior citizens, but I'll make an exception for those whimsical oldsters from the Wonga ad, who I can't see without wanting to batter their smug, plastic faces into a squishy pulp).
  • The sense of entitlement joins forces with the narcissists' relentless self-focus to make them the ideal demographic for charlatans peddling self-help and get-rich-quick publications and courses posited on the claim that happiness, power and riches are just round the corner if you can only be persuaded to be just that little bit more truly, madly, deeply in love with yourself.
  • Lack of political engagement - how can politics be interesting, if it's not, in the words of that other famous slogan, 'all about you'?
Like Homo Sovieticus and Angry Libertarian, I think the conformist Mini-Me is a usefully compliant tool for an elite which ultimately depends on people prepared to unquestioningly buy into a set of self-destructive values that don't challenge the status quo. They're the little people who keep the wheels turning - at least until the wheels come off.

*Did their February 14 turn into "Desperately Disappointed Day", I wonder?