Mary Ann Sieghart: A generation in love with itself

Narcissists live in a fantasy world – they think they are better, richer, more attractive and more intelligent than they are

Share
Related Topics

In 1964, when Charlie And The Chocolate Factory was written, Roald Dahl thought he had invented grotesque caricatures of unimaginably awful children. Mike Teevee is obsessed with television; Veruca Salt wants everything and she wants it now; Violet Beauregarde is rude and competitive; and Augustus Gloop is greedy and obese. The hero, Charlie Bucket, by contrast, is kind, poor and refuses to cheat.

Today, the first four characters seem barely exaggerated representations of our celebrity-fixated, instant-gratification, something-for-nothing society, in which the impoverished Charlie Bucket is more likely to be seen as a loser than a winner. When even the Speaker's wife is prepared to demean herself on Celebrity Big Brother, and another contestant has had a fake six-pack sculpted on to his beer belly, you have to wonder whether the rot of narcissism is eating away at Britain as corrosively as it is in the US.

In The Narcissism Epidemic: Living In The Age Of Entitlement, two social psychologists, Jean M Twenge and W Keith Campbell, chart the alarming spread of narcissism: the personality trait that makes people believe they are better than others, that they are special, entitled and unique. Narcissists also lack warm, loving relationships and empathy, which is how they differ from those who just have high self-esteem. Twenge and Campbell tracked the increase in narcissism in American college students from 1979 to 2006 and found that, by 2006, two-thirds of them scored above the 1979 average, a rise of 30 per cent in just two decades. Another US study compared teenagers who filled out a questionnaire in 1951 and 1989. In 1951, only 12 per cent agreed that "I am an important person"; by 1989, around 80 per cent did.

Narcissists live in a fantasy world – they think they are better, richer, more attractive and more intelligent than they are. They favour short-term gratification over long-term grind and believe they deserve happiness, wealth and success as a matter of right. As Freud argued, we all have to deal with the conflict between our infantile desires, the pleasure principle, and the demands of the adult world, the reality principle. But the narcissism of today's culture keeps trying to drag us away from reality towards an infantilised – and fake – fantasy of pleasure. We are encouraged to seek fake riches, financed by debt, not earnings; fake beauty, gained through Botox injections or surgery; fake celebrity, displayed by reality TV "stars" who have done nothing to earn it; fake friends on Facebook; and a fake sense of being special, thanks to over-praising parents and teachers.

The extreme manifestations of narcissism have done serious damage to our society. Young people are constantly being told that they "must have" the latest brands. Few are prepared to save up for them, as their parents' generation did. Instead, they use easy credit to buy them now. The most venal are prepared to smash shop windows to steal them, as we saw in the riots. Combine the "must-have" message with the equally pernicious "you deserve the best" or "because you're worth it", and you can see how a sense of entitlement is kindled. No one ever told my generation, when we were teenagers, that we must have designer goods – they belonged to a different universe, inhabited by the very rich. Nor did anyone tell us that we deserved any better. As a result, we didn't crave it.

Narcissism at the top of society has done just as much damage. The boardrooms and trading floors of the City before the crash were thronged with narcissists. Studies show that narcissists, because of their over-confidence, do well in bull markets but tend to lose everything when markets turn down. In the credit boom, both borrowers and lenders showed a narcissistic over-optimism about house prices and about their ability to repay loans. Those who didn't get into debt and paid off their credit cards every month are still shouldering the bills for the antisocial narcissists who took unsustainable risks.

This is just one of many examples of narcissists changing the terms of trade for everyone else. If enough vain women opt for Botox and surgery, the rest of us start to look raddled and old by comparison. If narcissistic teens cover their Facebook pages with half-naked photos of themselves, other teens feel prim and unattractive if they don't follow suit. Once cheating and plagiarism are rampant, those students who don't indulge lose out (three-quarters of American high-school pupils now admit to cheating, up from 34 per cent in 1969).

It is an incredibly hard trend to reverse. We need more children's books like Harry Potter, in which narcissistic characters like Gilderoy Lockhart are pilloried and the values of courage, altruism and friendship are elevated. We need parents to tell their children that they are loved, but not that they are special. We need reality TV contestants who are more like Anna, the heart-warming ex-nun in the first series of Big Brother, and less like Nasty Nick, the vain, conniving manipulator.

Otherwise, we shall raise another generation who believe that bling is best, that cheating pays off and that fame is the ultimate goal. It won't make them happy: the short-term highs are far outweighed by the crashes that follow. Just like a superficially enticing Happy Meal, in fact. As Twenge and Campbell so rightly say: "Narcissism is the fast food of the soul."



React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

Neil Pavier: Commercial Analyst

£50,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you a professionally qualified commercial ...

Loren Hughes: Financial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Loren Hughes: Are you looking for a new opportunity that wi...

Sheridan Maine: Finance Analyst

Circa £45,000-£50,000 + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ac...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I might be an MP, but that doesn't stop me fighting sexism with my breasts

Björt Ólafsdóttir
 

Daily catch-up: opening round in the election contest of the YouTube videos

John Rentoul
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor