Cultural Narcissism

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Is American Culture Breeding a Society of Narcissists?
Melati S. Frankfort
California State University Channel Islands

Abstract

In America today, it seems we live in an individualist culture based on materialism, self-indulgence, grandiosity, and a quest for fame or infamy via reality shows and social networking sites, and that these values have replaced those of family, morality, and community. Is then American culture breeding a society of narcissists fueled by the self-esteem movement that commenced in the 1970s? Is the current state of constant mainstream media coverage on overly exuberant celebrities flaunting their wealth, along with the ability of anyone to post their private lives on the internet for public viewing making narcissism the norm? Can narcissism as a personality disorder be applied dimensionally to an entire culture in a social psychology context? This paper will explore theories on cultural narcissism, the roots of narcissism dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries when the first individualism movement emerged, and how in recent history focus has again shifted on the individual with the dawn of the self-esteem movement of the 1970s, its resulting effect on current generations, and potential effect on future generations in the form of cultural narcissism.

Is American Culture Breeding a Society of Narcissists?
There is an assertion in cultural theory that the current cultural trend in America is fueling a narcissistic society, but that according to psychoanalytic theory, narcissism can only be applied to an individual as a diagnosed personality disorder that develops during childhood (Morales, 1995). Therefore, can narcissism be applied to define the state of an entire culture in in a social psychology context? In the DSM-IV-TR, narcissism is defined as a personality disorder consisting of a “pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy . . .” with at least five criteria that must be met in order to be diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder; for example, having a “grandiose sense of self-importance,” a belief that one is “special,” possessing a “sense of entitlement,” a desire for “success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love,” and a desire to associate with only those who are of “high-status” in society (American Psychiatric Association, 2000, p. 294). However, the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) test developed by social psychologists, is used for broad spectrum dimensional assessment of the general population to measure narcissism in a social context and has been quite reliable in measuring narcissism in society (Foster & Campbell, 2007).

To understand theories in the development of individual narcissism, Sigmund Freud in his 1914 essay ‘On Narcissism: an introduction’ (as cited in Crockatt, 2006, p. 5), proposes primary narcissism occurs in every child as a stage of development, thereby suggesting each and every person is prone to develop narcissism at that stage. Later, Heinz Kohut (1913 - 1981) proposed his own views on the etiology of narcissism and focused on development of the self in conjunction with the narcissistic self-object, and if a child’s narcissistic wishes are not treated with empathy by the self-object, narcissistic problems ensue (as cited in Meronen, 1999).

Historically it is conceivable, according to Trzesniewski, Donnellan, & Robins (2008), that the root of cultural narcissism dates as far back as the 17th century at which time the individualism movement in Europe was born. Suggesting that the movement began earlier, Leeds (2004, p. 109), refers to essays written by Morris Croll (1921 & 1927) who emphasized that during the 16th century a “new movement” shifted the focus to “inner and individual life of men in contrast with the plausible and public forms of their social existence,” and that this earlier movement essentially took away from societal...
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