Arthur C. Brooks FEB. 13, 2016, New York Times
MY teenage son recently informed me that there is an Internet quiz to test
oneself for narcissism. His friend had just taken it. “How did it turn out?” I
asked. “He says he did great!” my son responded. “He got the maximum
When I was a child, no one outside the mental health profession talked
about narcissism; people were more concerned with inadequate self-esteem,
which at the time was believed to lurk behind nearly every difficulty. Like so
many excesses of the 1970s, the self-love cult spun out of control and is now
rampaging through our culture like Godzilla through Tokyo.
A 2010 study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science
found that the percentage of college students exhibiting narcissistic
personality traits, based on their scores on the Narcissistic Personality
Inventory, a widely used diagnostic test, has increased by more than half since
the early 1980s, to 30 percent. In their book “Narcissism Epidemic,” the
psychology professors Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell show that
narcissism has increased as quickly as obesity has since the 1980s. Even our
egos are getting fat.
It has even infected our political debate. Donald Trump? “Remarkably
narcissistic,” the developmental psychologist Howard Gardner told Vanity Fair
magazine. I can’t say whether Mr. Trump is or isn’t a narcissist. But I do
dispute the assertion that if he is, it is somehow remarkable.
This is a costly problem. While full-blown narcissists often report high
levels of personal satisfaction, they create havoc and misery around them.
There is overwhelming evidence linking narcissism with lower honesty and
raised aggression. It’s notable for Valentine’s Day that narcissists struggle to
stay committed to romantic partners, in no small part because they consider
The full-blown narcissist might reply, “So what?” But narcissism isn’t an
either-or characteristic. It’s more of a set of progressive symptoms (like
alcoholism) than an identifiable state (like diabetes). Millions of Americans
exhibit symptoms, but still have a conscience and a hunger for moral
improvement. At the very least, they really don’t want to be terrible people.
To solve the problem, we have to understand it. Philosophy helps us do so
every bit as well as psychology. The 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques
Rousseau wrote about “amour-propre,” a kind of self-love based on
the opinions of others. He considered it unnatural and unhealthy, and believed
that arbitrary social comparison led to people wasting their lives trying to look
and sound attractive to others.
This would seem to describe our current epidemic. Indeed, in the Greek
myth, Narcissus falls in love not with himself, but with his reflection. In the
modern version, Narcissus would fall in love with his own Instagram feed, and
starve himself to death while compulsively counting his followers.
If our egos are obese with amour-propre, social media can indeed serve up
the empty emotional carbs we crave. Instagram and the like doesn’t create a
narcissist, but studies suggest it acts as an accelerant — a near ideal platform
to facilitate what psychologists call “grandiose exhibitionism.” No doubt you
have seen this in others, and maybe even a little of it in yourself as you posted
a flattering selfie — and then checked back 20 times for “likes.”
A healthy self-love that leads to true happiness is what Rousseau called
“amour de soi.” It builds up one’s intrinsic wellbeing, as opposed to feeding
shallow cravings to be admired. Cultivating amour de soi requires being fully
alive at this moment, as opposed to being virtually alive while wondering what
others think. The soulful connection with another person, the enjoyment of a
beautiful hike alone (not shared on Facebook) or a prayer of thanks over your
sleeping child (absent a #blessed tweet) could be considered expressions of
amour de soi.
Translating Rousseau’s wisdom into a master plan to rescue our culture
may itself seem grandiose. But it can help each of us shed the traits of the
narcissist. Here is an individual self-improvement strategy that combines a
healthy self-love (for Valentine’s Day) with a small sacrifice (possibly for Lent).
First, take the Narcissistic Personality Inventory test. If you got a “great
score” like my son’s friend, perhaps it’s time to reflect a little. Ask, “Is this the
person I want to be?”
Second, get rid of the emotional junk food that is feeding any unhealthy
self-obsession. Make a list of opinions to disregard — especially those of
flatterers and critics — and review the list each day. Resolve not to waste a
moment trying to impress others, but rather to treat them (and yourself) with
kindness, whether it is earned or not.
Third, go on a social media fast. Post to communicate, praise and learn —
never to self-promote. What have you got to lose? Only your distorted,
Are these practices easy? Of course not. But I know you can do it. After all,
you’re the best.
Arthur C. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise
Institute and a contributing opinion writer