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Exploring our narcissism obsession

In the age of selfies and social media, narcissism has become a cultural phenomenon. Our interest in this much-maligned personality trait is off the charts, with trend maps showing Google searches of the word “narcissist” have risen five-fold in the past decade. And if you take a look at recent news headlines, the obsession shows no signs of abating.

Alongside this narrative runs a notion that narcissistic behaviour is on an upward trajectory, with young adults who are manifestly more self-absorbed and entitled than in previous generations.

“It is quite apparent that there’s this broad perception that narcissism is on the rise,” says Dr Megan Willis, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at ACU’s School of Behavioural and Health Sciences

The recent spread of this theory can be charted back to the mid-2000s, Dr Willis says, when a series of headline-grabbing research papers helped to propel narcissism into the mainstream. 

“That research generated a lot of media attention and fuelled this idea that narcissism is on the rise, and as is often the case, these ideas take on a life of their own independent of what the broader evidence base suggests, which is a bit of a worry, really.” 

Leading the charge among those who believed narcissism had increased was a psychology professor named Jean Twenge, who authored the book, Generation Me. Using a novel research method termed “cross-temporal meta-analysis”, Twenge published several pieces of research showing that narcissism among young people had risen dramatically in recent decades.  

One of her early narcissism studies, titled “Egos Inflating Over Time”, found that narcissism had increased between the early 1980s and 2006, with American university students “approaching celebrities in their levels of narcissism”. 

The paper also speculated that the rise in narcissism could be related to societal trends, including the popularity of social media sites like MySpace and YouTube, which “permit self-promotion far beyond that allowed by traditional media”. 

Before long, news websites began proclaiming we were in the midst of an epidemic, helped along by the popular book, The Narcissism Epidemic, co-authored by Twenge with fellow psychology professor, William Keith Campbell. 

Meanwhile, other behavioural scientists were finding contradictory results in their own research, including a 2009 study which in its title posed the question: “An emerging epidemic of narcissism or much ado about nothing?”

The authors of that study strongly contested the idea that young people were more self-centred and self-aggrandising than in previous generations.

“Kids today are remarkably similar to previous generations, at least in terms of their traits and behaviours,” said one of the authors, Kali Trzesniewski, in Monitor on Psychology. “They are just as narcissistic as we were at their age.”

Having closely examined the literature on the topic, Dr Willis tends to agree, arguing that claims of an epidemic of narcissism are not supported by the evidence. 

“My reading of the evidence is that the claim of a narcissism epidemic is not very strong, and most of the studies that do support that notion come from the one research lab,” says Dr Willis, pointing to various other studies with vastly different conclusions.

Take the provocatively titled, “The Narcissism Epidemic Is Dead; Long Live the Narcissism Epidemic”, whose authors state: “Our study suggests that today’s college students are less narcissistic than their predecessors, and that there may never have been an epidemic of narcissism.” 

Dr Willis points out that even Jean Twenge and her colleagues have since published research showing a decline in narcissism. In a study titled, “Egos deflating with the Great Recession”, the researchers suggest that the economic downturn of 2008 “may have acted as a reset for the steady rise in narcissism between the 1980s and the 2000s”. 

“That finding is quite important,” says Dr Willis, “because the dominant narrative is that social media has led to this surge in narcissism, and the year 2008 was around the time that Facebook really took off and gained popularity.” 

The great magnifier

It is undeniable, however, that the likes of Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and other such websites do a play a role in this saga. On these platforms, those with narcissistic tendencies post incessantly, feeding their egos in a hunt for engagement.

“What we know about narcissists, and particularly grandiose narcissists, is that they crave attention and admiration,” says Dr Willis, whose research interests are in first impressions, online dating and dark personality traits.  

“Social media therefore serves as a platform for them to get that attention and admiration. It fuels a need in these individuals to invest in social media in a way that people who don’t have narcissistic tendencies are less likely to get caught up in.” 

That’s not to say that narcissistic behaviour is any more prevalent than it was before the advent of Facebook et al; rather, it has simply been exposed to a level we’ve never seen before. 

“Narcissism can be displayed on social media on a grander scale than can be detected in everyday life, and those who are high on narcissistic traits engage in a way that can be very ‘in-your-face’ in a social media setting,” Dr Willis says. 

“It really magnifies those traits and exposes us to them in a medium and at a volume that wasn’t present before, and if you don’t enjoy those qualities in other people, that can be quite off-putting.”

But while we might not necessarily approve of the actions of narcissists on social media, we also seem to have trouble looking away. This partly explains our intense interest in narcissism, says Dr Willis, as we’re simultaneously repulsed and entertained by narcissistic behaviour. 

“For people who are low on those narcissistic traits, they might find they have an aversion to it, because it can be maddening to witness and certainly to experience close interactions with someone who has narcissistic traits,” she says. “At the same time, there’s also an element of it being kind of fascinating to watch people display that level of entitlement, that lack of empathy.” 

Dating in the dark

From a research perspective, Dr Willis’s interest in narcissism was sparked by curiosity regarding inauthentic self-presentation on online-dating platforms. This led her to explore the personality traits of those who misrepresent themselves on these websites.  

“What emerged was that ‘vulnerable narcissism’ was associated with presenting inauthentically when online-dating,” says Dr Willis, whose previous work has explored how first impressions are formed predominantly from people’s facial appearance.

Vulnerable narcissism is one of two main forms of trait narcissism, with individuals tending to be defensive and insecure, their need for social approval masking feelings of inadequacy. They differ from grandiose narcissists, who tend to believe in their own superiority and greatness, often displaying dominance and aggression. (Importantly, trait narcissists may or may not meet the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD, a diagnosis that only affects around one per cent of the population.)

In a recent study titled “Dating in the dark”, authored by Dr Willis alongside fellow researchers Eliza Oliver and Evita March, it was found that higher levels of vulnerable narcissism were associated with more inauthentic self-presentation on dating sites. These individuals are also more likely to engage in antisocial behaviours, including “ghosting” (where one person silences communication with a potential partner, indirectly terminating the relationship) and “breadcrumbing” (a manipulative behaviour where the potential partner is given ‘crumbs’ of attention with no intention to progress the relationship). 

This type of behaviour is concerning, Dr Willis says, because vulnerable narcissists could be using online dating sites as a kind of ‘hunting ground’, gaining access to potential victims with little or no accountability. 

“I think it’s a problem, because online dating has surged in popularity, and this raises the possibility that, at least with some people who use these platforms, they can engage in behaviours that could be harmful to others,” she says. “It’s an issue when people are going on there pretending that they’re looking for a relationship, and then they're instigating interactions and not being genuine about their motives.” 

Her current research is exploring whether vulnerable narcissism can be detected from people’s profile photos on online-dating sites, while also investigating the relationship between narcissism and intimate partner violence. 

Dr Willis is mindful, however, to avoid vilifying those with narcissistic tendencies, noting that public scapegoating might deter those with such traits from seeking treatment.  

“The evidence points to the fact that child maltreatment and adverse child experiences are associated with higher levels of vulnerable narcissism,” she says, hinting that the current preoccupation with narcissism – and the associated stigma surrounding it – might have some unwanted side-effects. 

“These are people who likely need mental health support and who are really in pain ... On the one hand you want to protect those who might be harmed from the problematic behaviours of narcissistic individuals, and on the other, the people engaging in those behaviours have in many cases experienced harm themselves. That makes it an interesting but challenging area to work in.” 

Dr Megan Willis is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at ACU’s Strathfield Campus. Her primary research interests are in first impressions, online dating, dark personality traits, and intimate partner violence.

Interested in psychology? Explore our courses. 

Dr Megan Willis

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Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2024 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS registered provider: 00004G | PRV12008