Our generation is growing up in a time radically different from any other in history; the age post-invention of social media, a development shaping the way our culture and society functions like none before. We want to know, how will this affect our personality?
It’s common knowledge that the rise of apps such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and even websites like Youtube and LinkedIn involve sharing self-promoting content. Whilst there’s range of different reasons for utilising social media channels, a general consensus is that online personas present idealised versions of our true selves; a ‘highlight reel’ that cherry-picks our best moments and angles. The validation that accompanies the accumulation of followers, likes, comments and attention provides a dopamine rush that keeps users hooked.
The behaviour showcased on social media has links with narcissistic personality traits inherent in all of us. Will the prevalence of these channels in the modern era pair with an increase in narcissism? Even setting social media aside, we’ve been raised in a different world to our parents. The self-esteem movement of the late 1900s provokes an entirely different discussion - we don’t have evidence on hand, but it’s conceivable that new age parenting styles which are heavy on mollycoddling, showerings of praise, and shelter from criticism could lead to the inflated ego and entitlement associated with narcissistic personality.
Dr. Armon Tamatea, clinical psychologist and senior lecturer in psychology, helped us delve into these questions and explain exactly what narcissism means.
While narcissism comes in many forms and differs according to cultural groups, Dr. Tamatea suggested a working definition where narcissism is described as “a personality style or an interpersonal interaction style” whose core traits involve “a high degree of entitlement, grandiosity, self-centredness, arrogance, those kinds of behaviours.” There remains debate on the separation of narcissism as an umbrella term from narcissistic personality disorder, which is more extreme. The issue is that the term ‘disorder’ would normally suggest a level of distress, but when it comes to narcissism, “people around them may suffer, but the person themself may not be suffering” (which, if you happen to know a narcissist, you’ll definitely agree with).
So, what’s the difference between being narcissistic and just having a big ego?
“Narcissism really is talking about a cluster of particular traits…so it’s possible to have a big ego but not be narcissistic…for example, you might be the best person in your particular sports code, the fastest human being on Earth, the best rugby player on the planet and you may have the best track record to prove that; with narcissism, you may not. So folk may strut around like they’re God’s gift to whatever, but they may not have the experience or the credentials to warrant that. So yeah, a big ego is often a tip-off for narcissism, but it’s not necessarily the same thing.”
Narcissists have a slightly warped way of interacting with others, and there are complex factors leading to the personality traits they express. “On one hand it’s about seeking adulation and I guess regarding people around them as more of an audience than as people to interact with necessarily…some folk may feel like they are just that important or that interesting that other people will just want to know about their lives or want to know about their thoughts on this issue or that”. However, their behaviours may also stem from insecurity, and the urge to avoid “being seen as worthless”.
So, where did it come from? Well, it may stem from a childhood where a person was “perhaps overly rewarded by parents for every little thing, so they come to believe that all their behaviour is worth adulation and positive attention and those kinds of things.” On the other end of the scale, a narcissist could have experienced “a very neglected upbringing or a very punitive one, and so work extra hard for people's’ acceptance. So the behaviour may look very similar, but what sits behind that and what leads that behaviour may be really different.”
New Zealanders are known for our down to earth, number 8 wire roots. You may hear the term Tall Poppy Syndrome dropped into conversation every now and then – we’re big on humility. Arguably, narcissism may not be viewed as a great thing in our culture; after all, “the ultimate negative consequence for narcissism is being ostracised… here’s someone who perhaps comes across as seeing themselves as more important than you or interesting than you and by extension of all that more valuable than you, and so the interpersonal power dynamic becomes interesting there…how long do you want to sit down and have a beer with those folk?”
A typical person could probably pick up on social cues and figure out when their behaviour is alienating others. However, “for people who are quite extraordinarily narcissistic in terms of their self-centeredness, in sense of entitlement, in sense of specialness, in sense of admirability and all those things, they may relate to other people more as an audience to be informed or an audience to be entertained rather than as other people to have conversations with, to learn things from, to participate in some kind of to and fro. These could be people to be dominated or people to manoeuvre into your narrative, not the other way round.” An elevated sense of self-importance means narcissists will “engineer their lives in such a way to direct social resources to themselves”, hence they “may not be open to feedback from others, so they don’t necessarily let their behaviour be shaped by others and don’t feel social changes around others as well”.
There may well be cases where narcissistic traits provide some benefits. Dr Tamatea explained that “in some places, people who are quite modest and humble will probably do quite well, because they show deference and respect to others naturally in that type of behaviour, but in environments where you have to self-promote, that behaviour may not be a good fit at all, and in some cases those folk may well be sidelined or overlooked or dismissed because they don’t have the social or psychological strategies to self-promote in an environment where that’s advantageous.” In that case, narcissistic traits geared towards not caring what other people think may actually benefit and be expressed healthily in someone “who seeks adulation and adoration from an audience as part of their interactional style”.
Social media crosses over with the disorder when it comes to engineering a façade of a person who’s so sexy, attractive, and interesting that “you want people to buy into the image and not necessarily what sits behind that… the presentation of self becomes quite a defensive strategy”. The reality is that anyone can easily make it out like they lead a more interesting, affluent, attractive life than what they really do. A small study he supervised saw a student investigate the relationship between narcissism and Instagram use. Interestingly enough, findings indicated that users who scored high on a measure of narcissistic personality would also have a greater ratio of followers compared to following others (a.k.a, someone with 100,000 followers who’s only following 100).
Whether narcissistic personality is becoming more common due to the rise of social media?
“I don’t know if we’re seeing more narcissism; I’m wondering if we’re seeing more outlets where narcissists can be more conspicuous, perhaps”, which raises a great point. It’s a murky area where the line blurs between confident, over-sharing people (who may be, for example, YouTubers or social media influencers) being brave, financially strategic where endorsements are involved, or simply narcissistic. The truth is, “the notion of fame goes back as long as there’s been people…[while] the heroes of old were known for their great deeds, I think the heroes of today are known for their great fashion”. Whether that self-centredness extends into narcissistic personality disorder is another question, based on how they interact consistently across a range of social contexts.
The jury’s still out on this one. More research needs to be done before we can fully understand the impact that social media will have had on the occurrence of narcissistic personality in our generation and beyond; considering the obsession humans instinctively harbour for fame, beauty, and reverence, it’s hard to say for sure whether narcissism is exacerbated by modern lifestyles or whether narcissistic traits have simply become more visible with the platform social media provides. Thesis project, anyone?