Mattering can be overdone. We can obsess about our own importance and need to feel valued. So much so that some people behave pathologically. By pathological we mean dysfunctional; hurting self or others, consciously or unconsciously. One such pathology is behaving in ways that draw attention to yourself at the expense of others. Due to insecurity, frustration, previous neglect, cultural trends, entitlement, or just plain hubris, some people exhibit unrelenting self-importance, pomposity, and egotism. It is all about them. They are the embodiment of the “me first” culture. These qualities are distortions of mattering. This is a case of too much of a good thing. Feeling valued, by self and others, is good only in good measure, but for some people, the only way to matter is to be number one, always and everywhere. They thrive on adulation and cannot tolerate criticism.
You can recognize this pathology in a number of ways: incessant talk about themselves, affording others little recognition, taking up too much air time, showing no interest in other people’s lives, feeling entitled, praising one’s accomplishments, and lacking empathy. These people are calculating and uncaring. The official term for this irksome behavior is, you guessed it, narcissism. Psychologists Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell have conducted extensive research on this personality type. It won’t surprise you to learn that narcissism has been on the rise for the last four decades, with steep increases in the last fifteen years.
In a major study of 16,275 college students who completed the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, considerable growth has been observed from 1979 to 2006 in the number of students identifying with behaviors related to narcissism. In fact, 1 out of 4 college students who completed the inventory by 2006 answered most of the questions in the direction of narcissism. This represents a 30% increase from the previous two decades. When Twenge and Campbell updated their study in 2008, the sample of students went up to 49,818. With more data, the researchers discovered that by 2008 the numbers of students identifying with narcissistic tendencies has gone even higher. Using data from the University of South Alabama in 2009, a full third of USA college students were showing narcissistic traits. As a point of comparison, in 1994 only 1 in 5 students exhibited these characteristics.
In reviewing data from a population of 14 to 16 years old, researchers noted a dramatic change from 1951 and 1989. The item in the questionnaire was simple: “I am an important person.” In 1951 12% of teens agreed with the statement. By 1989 over 80% of girls and 77% of boys agreed with it.
When it comes to adults, a conservative estimate is that 1 out of 4 would experience clinical symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder by age 65. What these numbers show is that you are very likely to encounter narcissists at work and in the community, if you don’t already have one at home.
As Twenge and Campbell demonstrate, narcissists are manipulative, self-centered, exploitive, and uncaring. In many cases, they use people for self-aggrandizement, and when others no longer serve that function they are disposed of with ease. They often acquire trophy spouses but abandon them when a better one comes along. Not surprisingly, victims of narcissists often report feeling used.
Isaac Prilleltensky is an award-winning academic and humor writer. His latest books, The Laughing Guide to Change, and The Laughing Guide to a Better Life, co-authored with Ora Prilleltensky, combine humor with science.