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I bet you think this post is about you

September 6, 2009 |  5:00 pm


The book "The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement" caught my eye at the office -- maybe because much of its cover is shiny and silver. It's designed to look like a mirror, I suppose -- you couldn't fix your makeup looking into it, but it is reflective enough to let you know you're there, blob-ishly. And if you hang around narcissists a lot, you might need some reassurance about that, because to a narcissist, other people aren't all that real.

The book, which came out in April, quickly explains what narcissism personality disorder, or NPD, is, then moves on to the matter at hand: how the values of our culture have shifted in a narcissistic direction. Coauthors Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell write:

In the three decades since [the publication of the article "The Me Decade" by Tom Wolfe], narcissism has grown in ways these authors never could have imagined. The fight for the greater good of the 1960s became looking out for number one by the 1980s. Parenting became more indulgent, celebrity worship grew and reality TV became a showcase of narcissistic people. The Internet brought useful technology but also the possibility of instant fame and a "look at me!" mentality. Using botulinum toxin to smooth facial wrinkles to perpetuate a youthful face birthed a huge industry. The easy accessibility of credit allowed people to look better off financially that they actually were.

The authors, both psychology professors, connect cultural values with empirical research. Plastic surgery and cosmetics procedures have increased fivefold. The size of U.S. homes went from about 1,500 square feet in 1970 to more than 2,400 square feet in 2005. Only 10% of babies born these days are given common names, compared with about 30% in 1945. Men's skin care sales went up 50% in 2005. And in 2007, 2.8 million people got Botox injections.

Narcissism is an attention-getting term, and we do not use it lightly. We discuss some research on NPD, but primarily concentrate on narcissistic personality traits among the normal population -- behavior and attitudes that don't go far enough to merit a clinical diagnosis but that can nevertheless be destructive to the individual and other people. This "normal" narcissism is potentially even more harmful because it is so much more common.

Twenge and Campbell warn, "Narcissism is the fast food of the soul. It tastes great in the short term, has negative, even dire, consequences in the long run, and yet continues to have widespread appeal." They're probably right -- but I'm not sure the metaphor holds here in L.A. -- where Botox may be even more popular than Big Macs.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: A Botox injection. Credit: Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press