Narcissism, writers, and readers

I recently came across an article discussing how narcissism has become an increasing problem in America.

In 2008, Twenge published a study comparing college students’ scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory scale to scores from students in 1979, finding that levels of narcissism had risen roughly 30 percent.

Additional research has evinced this increase. “59% of American college freshmen rated themselves above average in intellectual self-confidence in 2014, compared with 39% in 1966,” Shen wrote.

. . .

Narcissism is often driven by low self-esteem and insecurity. Since the 1950s, wealth inequality has risen, cost of living has exploded, especially for housing, and puchasing power has stagnated. Combine these economic pressures with the competitive, pressure-filled media environment since the turn of the century and you have a recipe for a rise in narcissism. And sadly, narcissism is linked to elevated hostility and aggression towards others. One hopes that Americans can find a way to cool their collective narcissism before it boils over.

There’s more at the link.

I’m not speaking about narcissistic personality disorder, which is a whole new ball of wax.  I’m speaking about ordinary, everyday, subliminal narcissism.  Wikipedia (yes, I know, it’s not a trustworthy primary resource, but it does offer a reasonably approachable summary of many topics) has this to say:

Narcissism is a self-centered personality style characterized as having an excessive interest in one’s physical appearance and an excessive preoccupation with one’s own needs, often at the expense of others.

It is human nature for people to be selfish and narcissism exists on a spectrum that ranges from normal to abnormal personality expression. There is a significant difference between normal, healthy levels of narcissism and people who are difficult/self-absorbed, or people having a pathological mental illness like narcissistic personality disorder.

Again, more at the link.

Given that a certain level of narcissism is inherent, normal and healthy in all humans, that started me thinking about narcissism as an influence both on our writing, and on our audience.  Do we write out of a narcissistic tendency – not all the time, of course, but as a subconscious motivation for ourselves?  And do our readers share the same motivation, buying books that fit into their narcissistic tendencies and rejecting those that don’t?

It’s not a simple question, and I’m sure the answers aren’t simple either.  I haven’t worked through it all the way yet.  Nevertheless, I think it’s a topic worth exploring.  It might add a level of motivation to what and how we write, and what our readers expect – affirming ourselves, and self-affirmation for them in what they read.

What say you, readers?  Let’s hear from you in Comments.

22 comments

  1. Hmm . . . as a way to bolster weak self-esteem, writing seems to be a flop for the vast majority of writers. Now I can pick elements out of the descriptions and say, yes, “driven” “self absorbed” and even “difficult” might describe a lot of us. Excessive interest our physical appearance and preoccupation of our needs doesn’t work, as we schlep around in our jammies forgetting to eat . . .

    But then there are the Woke Writers. Do they write to gain attention? Admiration? I don’t know any personally, so I can’t speak to the dressing nicely, eating well, and so forth, but they do seem to need the admiration of the woke crowd, and react _very_ poorly to criticism.

    So I’m going to be self-aggrandizing and say “Not the REAL writers.”

  2. I do know that at least part of the reason I write is because I am a show-off, If I were an extrovert instead of a mild-to-mid introvert, and my ability for performance art (which stinks) exceeded my writing ability (which is pretty good) I suspect I would have pursued acting or music. But writing lets me show off without going before the public.

    Plus, although I am good, I am not in the “New York 3%” good. (Only 3% of authors get published by New York City publishers.) In fact, I suspect I am only in the 89th percentile. That’s good, but still within the 90% of Theodore Sturgeon’s “90% of everything is crap” range, What I write may be good compared to other crap out there, but it is still crap.

    Keeps me humble, and keeps me realistic about my abilities. But, yeah, I write to prove to the universe I exist. Even if it doesn’t instill the universe with a sense of obligation.

  3. I wonder if it is driven by the “failure is not an option” culture that seems to be creeping into everything?

    If you cannot afford to be seen to have failed, you will do everything in your power to not be seen to have failed, even if you could have otherwise learned and grown from it.

    I notice we’ve also got a lot of imposter syndrome floating around too.

    1. I wonder too if the seeming requirement to have a popular presence on social media/internet plays a role. You have to look perfect, be perfect, do the right things, up-vote the right music and videos . . . And in turn you get lauded and have lots of “friends” and followers. That’s going to leak down and out, somehow. So young people hear over and over that they are special, and the world is their oyster, and so on. (Yet at the same time they are victims or victimizers, GrrrrrrlPower and helpless women, and people wonder why mental health is greater and greater problem.)

        1. Completely unrealistic too. If you never fail, it’s because you haven’t tried.
          Besides, failure is *always* an option, even when you don’t want it to be. The other side is also trying its darnedest to succeed and if they do, you fail!

  4. “…narcissism has become an increasing problem in America.”

    I’m going to have to go back to the article Amanda posted the other day in “Manipulation of Data Lives” and express my doubts. “Narcissism has become an increasing problem in America…” yeah but has it -really- though? Or is it more likely that this is yet another artifact of the Ivory Tower ‘publish or perish’ journal mill? Shortages of baby formula is a Problem in America right now. Is this like that? I think not.

    I find it far more likely that the study authors are riding on the back of yet another moral panic. How many of these things have we seen since the 1950s? First comics were rotting your kid’s brain. Then TV was rotting your kid’s brain. Then computers. Then video games. Then the Internet. Then social media. Then ‘screen time’.

    Then there’s this: “Kids these days! Why, when I was that age…” That’s a theme since 600BC Greece. I’m old, but I still REMEMBER what it was like being a kid, and a teen, and a twenty-something, and it -sucked!- So anytime some guy begins a study with “Kids these days…” I turn my Skepticism Meter to 11. Kids are the same as they’ve always been, cranky old farts are the same too, apparently.

    As to why I write, initially it was because I had a story in my head and it wouldn’t go away. For years and years it was in there, yelling to be let out. Finally around 2012 I started typing the damn thing out. About half-way along I got some much needed encouragement, and I finally believed my little story might be good enough for other people to read. That is sort of the reverse of narcissism, hoping you might be good enough.

    These days I write because I want to find out what happens. ~:D

    1. Except now we’ve got a social media culture that’s extremely conducive to narcissism. Just look at the media awareness and focus on ‘optics’ among younger and younger people. One of the biggest YA crazes – the Hunger Games – was all about celebrity culture.

      1. I’m sorry, but what is this ‘optics’ stuff you refer to? The only kind I know of involves eyeglasses and the like.

        1. How people perceive you. “What will this do for my reputation?” Not is it right or wrong, smart or stupid, but will the crowd approve? Does it make me look good? Am I doing what the Cool People are doing/approve of/like? It’s the shame culture idea of “face” but in pixels. Political handlers talked about it first. “What are the optics of the president/candidate doing something or going somewhere?” or “Yes, you didn’t want to irk China, but having the Dali Lama leave through the service door had really poor optics.”

          1. Ah. Thank you. It basically sounds the old high school pecking order on a larger level.

            I hated it back then, too.

  5. Ironically, last night I watched a vid that touched on some elements of the inherent narcissism in progressive storytelling.

    It’s a bit lengthy but worth a viewing. Basically the obsession with ‘representation’ goes a lot deeper than physical markers: progressive storytellers have got everything backward. It’s not the ACTIONS someone performs that make him or her a hero, it’s being “the hero,” then whatever action they do is good BECAUSE THE HERO DID IT.

    It’s why characters like Rey or Captain Marvel never have to train or change or even learn (except to learn how awesome they are) and can do awful or irresponsible things and still expect to be loved and admired – because they’re “the heroes.”

  6. I’m sorry my brain shut down the second that article started complaining about ‘wealth inequality’ can you give me the TLDR?

  7. I’m sorry my brain shuit down the second the quoted article mentioned ‘wealth inequality’

  8. Problem, there is a fundamental issue with /automatically/ taking a psychological instrument seriously.

    Actually, there are several concerns with any report based on a psychological instrument. Including measurement difficultly, measurement skill, statistical assumptions, and whether the inferences from the instrument are a correct application.

    Suppose you want to measure the diameter of cases used in ammunition. You understand what exactly you would be measuring, and maybe that a good set of calipers will do the job. But, it is possible to misuse calipers, and get an invalid measurement, with an unusually high measurement error. Say, by holding the case crookedly to the calipers, or by crushing the case with the calipers.

    With psychological instruments, measurement error is also possible. Additionally, it is really easy to accidentally screw up the measurement using a psychological instrument. Animal behavior testing is easily contaminated by unobserved behavioral cues, and human behavior testing is very easily contaminated.

    If the psychologist administering the instrument is a lunatic, or unskilled, that can also throw off the results.

    Validating psychological instruments, in the first place, is difficult, and they are /not/ all of the same level of reliability and trustworthiness.

    For the state of argument, I will ignore the possibility of issues with the instrument, or the administration of it, because those are not the ones that obviously draw attention first.

    First, this is college students to college students, and it is pretty obvious that the student cohorts will /not/ be the same degree of representative of the same population. Older measurements likely over sample men. Newer measurements would almost certainly oversample women.

    And, it is already strongly inferred that college track women in the current era are not getting the same social feedback as current men, or as the older men and women. We expect that feminists with only Education degrees have been grading girls generously, and telling them that they are super smart, college track, etc., without adequately preparing them to study towards the degrees with any residual challenge.

    But, that line of argument can also be ignored. Because psychological tests of college students often heavily sample people taking freshman psychology, and the cohorts taking freshman psychology would absolutely not be the same in 1979 and 2008. We have more information access, so there is more to stimulate weird bookish highschoolers to read psychological research, misunderstand, self-diagnose, and select themselves into psychology. This was in fact already a fad in the 2008 time period. Furthermore, in the service of disability inequality/accommodation, and in ‘not harmfully stigmatizing mental illness’, Education majors in secondary schools would be encouraging weird bookish kids to study psychology research, and to misunderstand it. The general suspicion with psychological research showing a change over generations in some weird behavior, should be that this sort of contamination has occurred.

    Going back to validity of the instrument, if the old instrument was biased due to one cultural state, then it could be invalid for a newer cohort with a different cultural state.

    The conclusion about the over all American population is not valid, and we can in fact suspect sample contamination.

    The discussions about economic situation, and about media environment, smell like throwing in potentially unsound measurements, that don’t necessarily have a causal relationship.

    Haven’t drilled down to the actual study yet. A secondary link mentions that the study involved 85 samples that they compared. Haven’t found a breakdown on the sample sizes. Breakdown would matter if almost everything else were sound.

    Much research in psychology, sociology, Education, economics, etc., has flaws that amount to trying to extract too much significance from weak or overly simple measurements. Before you consider theoretical approaches based in fundamentally flawed theory.

  9. I’m having trouble finding the study itself– since the link to “did a study” is an article, and the article doesn’t say WHICH study it is citing!

    …kind of sad that actually including a name still sets a relatively high bar for pop science reporting. /wry

    I am guessing that it’s Egos inflating over time: A cross‐temporal meta‐analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, but it could be Further evidence of an increase in narcissism among college students or maybe Mapping the scale of the narcissism epidemic: Increases in narcissism 2002–2007 within ethnic groups; I’d like to think if it was Generation me, the origins of birth cohort differences in personality traits, and cross‐temporal meta‐analysis they’d at least have mentioned the name of the study, because that one is a zinger.

    Names and information to go looking for the actual study here:
    https://scholar.google.com/citations?hl=en&user=YsAsEXUAAAAJ&view_op=list_works&sortby=pubdate

  10. I primarily write to solve a problem, I guess dealing with culture and human relationships.

    With Harry Potter, before Book 7, it was how JKR would redeem Slytherin House, explain why a Slytherin half-blood would join the Death Eaters in the first place, explain what the Dark Arts actually are and what makes them dark, and explain what happened at Godric’s Hollow. Got it all wrong, of course.

    With FMA, it was how Mustang got his eyesight back on the way to becoming a full general. (The Toll) And then, how Mustang picked his people and how they became a team. (Team Players) Both are generally manga compliant, although both were written without the info on Creta and Aerugo we got later, so those don’t match. And I missed the fact that Havoc and Breda were probably in the same class at the Academy, so I got that wrong, too.

    New FMA project: How the survivors of genocide can work with the people who committed it. Got some one shots and shorts on that, but still can’t figure out how that can work. I’m really stuck, and keep writing bits, and I think I have some ideas that work, but how do you solve that problem anyway? It’s the equivalent of former Nazi concentration camp guards working with Jewish survivors. Especially in the FMA world, where there is a concept of “enduring” but not of “forgiving.”

    So as for narcissism, I think like someone said elsewhere, it’s more like a boil that needs to be lanced. There’s a problem I can only attempt to solve by writing out the people and scenarios and seeing how it’s possible to get from point A to point B.

  11. I’d say yes based on how people I’ve beta read have taken criticism. Most of them just want to be flattered and don’t care at all about improving. They believe their writing is gold and everyone should support them blindly and praise their creativity.

    I used to enthusiastically agree to any beta read requests that were sent my way, but I’ve started being a lot more particular. It doesn’t feel good to put hours of work into a chapter and then get either no response or someone upset that I suggested maybe they might want to change some things.

    I’ve found a handful of people I enjoy beta reading for… the rest just frustrate me. Spent hours on someone’s first two chapters a couple weeks ago after she bemoaned rejections by agents and asked for feedback. I did a full in-line review and a good three pages of commentary explaining dialogue grammar rules, exposition issues and some character issues–not even a thank you. Nothing at all.

    As far as why people write, I’m pretty sure I’m more a glutton than a narcissist. I write like I eat, with no self-control. I find creating characters and worlds exciting. I’ve always been a day dreamer and I’ve always loved stories. Writing is just a compulsive desire for me to give some permanence to the fleeting imaginings that entertain me throughout the workday.

    1. We once had a guy of whose reactions we can only say that when he came back to gloat that he had placed his book with Publish America, we rejoiced.

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