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

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

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The law is too hard on sexting teenagers

Memphis Barker
 

Obama must speak out – Americans are worried no one is listening to them

David Usborne
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game