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

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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."

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