Every so often I’ll imagine someone writing my biography, chronicling all the great things I’ve accomplished. Even when I’m in a rush, it’s hard to pass a mirror without pausing to check myself out. When someone criticizes me, I know it’s just because I’m too sexy for my shirt.
If recent arguments about the rise of egocentric behavior among today’s 20-somethings have any merit, there’s a good chance I might be a narcissist. Social psychologists have started analyzing trends in narcissistic behavior among young people from the 1980s to present. And while some psychologists suggest the current generation of Americans between 18 and 22 is the most self-obsessed ever, others think these young adults are just as likely to dance with themselves as their parents and grandparents once were .
It’s Not You, It’s Me — A Pretty Narcissistic Face
Perhaps fittingly, narcissists have been in the news a lot lately — from studies on the scary health effects of male narcissism to claims that Facebook pokes and likes reveal a whole new level of self-centeredness. Over the last few years, the mental health community has discussed the pros and cons of keeping narcissism classified as a mental disorder   . The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is a handbook that clinicians use to diagnose patients, and later in 2012, the American Psychiatric Association will decide whether to include Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the newest edition.
According to a popular legend, the original narcissist was a Greek god who died from sorrow after he fell in love with his own reflection. (And we thought our romantic lives were weird.) As for modern-day narcissists, most experts agree the behavior results from a range of factors including genetic and environmental influences. Mental health professionals usually diagnose narcissism using tools including a questionnaire called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Narcissists typically act self-centered, seek attention, and have a hard time showing empathy.
But bragging about how many pull-ups you did during that last gym session or rolling your eyes at a friend weeping over a breakup don’t necessarily constitute NPD. The definition of narcissism varies between specialists, and there’s no clear line as to when the personality traits become a disorder. Generally, narcissistic behaviors are only an issue when they start having a negative impact on daily functioning and personal relationships.
Because narcissists are usually extroverted and enjoy socializing, they make pretty good first impressions on potential pals and dates . The problem is more about keeping these buddies around, since narcissists often exhibit negative behaviors as the relationship goes on, like demanding their partners wear more fashionable outfits or even cheating on their significant others . It’s not clear whether narcissists realize they’re acting so unlikeable — some studies suggest narcissists aren’t aware of their negative behaviors, while others say narcissists know they’re their own biggest fans  .
Regardless of whether it’s because of biology or the environment, narcissistic traits seem to develop pretty early. Adolescents and young adults who score high on tests of narcissism are usually the same kids who threw blocks and demanded to play Sheriff in playground games of Cowboys and Indians . Psychiatrist and Greatist Expert John Sharp believes narcissists consistently try to "block off … the ability to relate not only to [their] feelings but to the feelings of others."
There may also be neurological factors involved in egotistic behavior. Scans of narcissistic brains show a lot of activity in regions associated with thoughts about the self, and not so much in areas associated with empathy . Julian Keenan, a professor of psychology at Montclair State University, described the neurology of a narcissist: “What’s really going on in the brains of people scoring high on [the Narcissistic Personality Inventory] is that they just have this area that’s like glowing, this area in the brain that’s just like throbbing with self-awareness. It’s like this egotistical, nuclear, radioactive dump in their brain.” What's uncertain is whether certain types of brain activity make people self-centered or whether narcissistic behavior causes the brain to change. And Keenan thinks the relationship might work both ways: “As you get more egotistical the brain changes and because the brain changes you get more egotistical.”
Genetics might be part of the issue, but a person’s environment can be just as — or more — important. Keith Campbell, a professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, co-authored The Narcissism Epidemic, in which he discusses increasing rates of egocentric behavior among young adults. According to Campbell, almost everything about American culture today — education practices, television programs, and social networking sites — contributes to the rise of narcissism. “We grew up in a culture that supports narcissism,” he said.
In particular, Campbell cites certain parenting styles as a cause of self-centeredness. “There’s some evidence that permissive parenting and overpraise are linked to narcissism,” he said, adding that strict parenting and contingent love may also contribute to the development of narcissism. And just ask Beyonce, Beyonce, and Beyonce — contemporary media may also have a lot to do with egocentricity. Campbell mentioned kids’ television shows like iCarly that are all about fame and “people with no parents.”
Campbell and Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, were part of a research team that found a 30 percent increase in narcissistic traits (as measured by the Narcissistic Personality Inventory) among college students between 1982 and 2006. Twenge argues one negative consequence of the rise in narcissism is that contemporary Americans don’t have to mature out of their self-absorption. So young people might delay adult responsibilities like marriage, parenthood, and leaving their childhood bedrooms behind. (It’s hard to say narcissism is the reason for any social trend. But it’s also worth noting that marriage rates in the USA are at an all-time low, people are having kids later, and more young adults are living at home today than anytime in the last 50 years.)
But it’s possible not all college kids today are majoring in self-love, or even that narcissism is a negative trait. A different set of researchers looked at almost the same data as Twenge and Campbell and found no noticeable uptick in narcissism . Another possibility is that the current generation of young adults has a right to be more self-assured than ever. “I think that there has been a generational increase in confidence, not narcissism,” Keenan said, flattering me with his suggestion that my generation is smarter, better nourished, and better educated (how could he forget more attractive?!) than older ones.
When I called Keenan to talk about his research, he was quick to tell me his interest in narcissism stemmed from a belief that it could actually have some advantages. Moreover, Keenan said narcissism shows a definite evolutionary benefit because it “allows you to take chances that you wouldn’t normally take.” For a narcissist today, that might mean a greater chance of career success. If a narcissist writes a book “and people say it’s horrible, you know you would just say those people don’t know what they’re talking about. And you go and write the next book and it becomes a bestseller.”
Recent research suggests egocentric behavior might actually be a good thing, at least for young people. People who show narcissistic traits like self-enhancement tend to be healthier and fitter, less depressed and anxious, and more self-confident than the rest of us  . But that’s no excuse to fill the family photo album with self-portraits. These studies focus on the advantages of normal narcissism, or what some psychologists call “adaptive narcissism,” and not the personality disorder. In other words, normal narcissists might feel confident they’ll do well on an exam, but they won’t steal the thunder at their BFF’s wedding by dressing like Lady Gaga.
Not so Hot After All — A Dose of Reality for Narcissists
When narcissism actually does start to interfere with personal relationships, there’s no one remedy that’s been proven to work. In fact, narcissists usually only seek therapy because someone else, like their boss or spouse, insists. Even narcissists who have had a series of failed relationships often don’t understand why, said psychologist and Greatist Expert Sherry Pagoto. “The problematic consequences,” she added, “are what lead them to therapy.” Narcissists might also struggle with issues like anxiety, depression, and addictive behaviors.
Pagoto discussed the way a therapist might work with a narcissist to help them develop deeper relationships and build a more realistic self-image. Campbell also suggested a few possible ways to address the issue, like practicing compassion and taking responsibility for mistakes. It can be especially helpful for narcissists to find “flow,” or get deeply involved in and passionate about an activity. The narcissist’s ego might be less likely to emerge when they’re absorbed in a creative project.
But Campbell was pretty pessimistic about the future of narcissism among young adults. “What everything seems to point to is that [narcissism] will increase,” he said. The only exception, he added, might be the economic downturn, which has made people a little less materialistic. (In The Narcissism Epidemic, Campbell and Twenge argue materialism and narcissism are closely connected.)
Regardless of whether the next few decades bring an upswing in pocket-mirror sales, it’s possible we’ll soon see new tools that diagnose narcissism. When I asked Keenan if there might one day be brain scans that predict who’s likely to become a narcissist, he said he wasn’t sure. “But is it theoretically possible? Absolutely.”
A few weeks ago I asked a close friend if he wanted to hear about my research on narcissism. “Well, thanks,” he responded. For a few seconds I was confused, until I realized he thought I was implying he’d be interested in my work because he was a narcissist. I started to reassure him the article had nothing to do with him, then stopped and started to laugh. “What is it?” he asked. I shook my head. “Never mind.”