Monthly Archives: August 2010

Are We More Narcissistic? Part 2

Read Part 1 on the “epidemic of narcissism” here. .

My sociology 101 professor at Rice, Bill Martin, once told us that his primary goal for the class was to help us develop our “built-in crap detector.” (He may have substituted a more colorful word for “crap” but you get the idea.) He hoped that as a result of the class that we would be able to analyze the news and culture and look beyond what seems obvious to what is really going on.

For example, I’m planning to let Caroline walk the half block from her bus stop to our house by herself this year. I will do this because despite widespread parental worries about kidnapping, I know that kid-snatching is NOT more prevalent than it was when I walked the two miles home from school in the 1970s. Human beings are terrible at assessing risk, it seems. But a built-in crap detector  looks at actual rates of kidnapping rather than focusing on the exceptionally rare (though admittedly heartbreaking) stories that make the news.

The built-in crap detector also helps us deal with “trend” articles in which writers for the New York Times style section dig up several egregious examples of something weird and breathlessly announce the latest fad.

Anyway, my built-in crap detector goes off all over the place with this narcissism stuff. Let me say that it is entirely possible that I am wrong, and that there really is an epidemic of narcissism. Or, I am partially wrong, and that there is merely a terrible outbreak of narcissism, plus a generous sprinkling of hysteria and savvy PR to make it look like an epidemic. Could be. It does feel like there is less of an emphasis on the common good than in the past. And the culture of celebrity gets kind of gross.

My skepticism may also be wishful thinking. Maybe I just don’t want to believe that my kids are growing up in a world in which narcissism is epidemic… not just because it will be a less pleasant place for them to live, but because if it’s true, then our planet is doomed.

With those caveats in place, here we go.

The primary statistical evidence for a rise in narcissism, especially among the young, is a survey called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, studied by Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. Apparently students’  scores have risen steadily since the test was introduced in 1982. By 2006, the researchers said, two-thirds of the students had above-average scores, 30 percent more than in 1982. Twenge says it is the self-esteem movement, among other factors, that have caused this sharp rise in the stats.

So here are some things that cause the crap detector to go PING!

1. There is something psychologically satisfying in the “epidemic of narcissism” narrative. Almost too satisfying. Our intuitions are powerful guides, but they can be duped. It just feels correct to say that we’re getting more selfish as a culture and to pine away for a better time when people weren’t all about me me me. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re right. I’m reading On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not right now, and hoo boy!

A related point: Presbyterians and other Calvinists just looooove to talk about pride as the fundamental sin of humanity. Add a rise in narcissism to that long distinguished tradition and the sermons just write themselves. I’m not saying there isn’t truth to it, but I’m wary of the relish with which some of us approach this topic as well as the pat manner in which we talk about it.

2. Cries of narcissism are tailor-made for anecdotal evidence. Everyone knows a story of a sullen twentysomething sitting around in his parents’ basement, a parent who inflicts their unholy terror little darling on a poor defenseless group of restaurant patrons, or a boorish driver on the highway. These seem to bolster the claims of the study. But for narcissism to be epidemic, or even widely prevalent, you’d have to know a great many people who exhibit this behavior. Maybe my sampling is off, but I just don’t know that many. Carol Merritt has a nice post on this, and she hits other points as well.

3. The fact that Twenge first published her findings in a book called Generation Me, frankly, makes me trust her less. Children learn what they live, and if they’ve been taught by us to be narcissistic, you’d think a responsible discussion of this matter would focus on where WE have gone wrong and how to change things for the better, rather than on how freakishly entitled “kids today” are. The fact that she decided to point fingers at an entire generation, with lots of juicy and outrageous anecdotes, causes me to doubt whether this is anything more than the “get off my lawn” carping that has been directed at the younger generation forever.

4. As far as I can tell, there’s no study of how these college students change as they mature. Many young adults are self-centered. It may even be developmentally normal. I can remember doing some things as a college student that make me cringe now. What we need more than continued studies of college students is to study people as they develop into adults. Are they still narcissistic as they get out into the world? Or are we seeing a larger swing toward narcissism in recent years, but one that will later equalize? (It’s also possible that people of all ages are edging toward narcissism, but again, let’s see the study and not just anecdata.)

5. Some suggest that the NPI is not a great tool. Check out the quiz yourself. I have no expertise in designing these intruments, and must defer to those who do, but I see a lot of false binaries in these questions, as well as questions that show shifts in cultural norms. The stuff on “showing off” one’s body, for example, may not be about narcissism but about a comfort level with one’s body that is actually healthy. Many girls in my high school wore big shirts and slouched because they were embarrassed by their developing breasts, and I’m hard pressed to see how that’s somehow better than the stylish, confident way that many young women I know carry themselves today. (That said, have the pants with writing across the butt gone out of style yet? Because No. Just No.)

6. Finally, I am certainly not alone in raising questions about Twenge’s research. Here are a couple of articles that provide a balanced approach.

Why does all this matter? I started out wanting to comment on an article I read in Relevant magazine about Facebook and its impact on our spiritual lives. In the article, the author talks about narcissism in the same broad terms I have critiqued here. Which is a shame. If we rely too easily on the narcissism trope, then it impacts our ability to talk about technology and social media in any useful or nuanced way. There’s nowhere to go from there that’s helpful. I hope to inject something useful into the technology discussion later in the week.

Thank you, by the way, to those of you who read my ruminations and hang with me as I play armchair sociologist.

Are We More Narcissistic? Part 1

Narcissus by Michelangelo

I read an article the other day about the implications of Facebook for our spiritual lives. I’ll blog about that specifically later this week, but in the meantime I wanted to talk about the so-called “epidemic of narcissism,” because the author of the Facebook article cited that in his article.

People talk about a rise in narcissism as if it’s a foregone conclusion. I’m not completely convinced, for reasons that I’ll talk about in part 2 of this post, but here are some preliminary thoughts:

Several of us got into a discussion on FB recently about manners. One good friend speaks for many of us when he wrote, “What concerns me is a purely anecdotal perception of a rise in… rudeness and anti-social behavior. Among adults and young people today, more and more, I encounter a complete lack of, well, basic manners. [What concerns me] is a sort of ‘nobody matters but me’ narcissism.”

I often think the same thing when I encounter people with bad manners and boorish behavior—that they think the world revolves around them and that they’re too good for the rules of polite society. Google “narcissism epidemic” to see how pervasive this story is.

I find myself wondering whether this is the right story, however. I hit upon an intellectual exercise: just for fun, to see how many different theories I could come up with to explain the rise in bad manners that didn’t involve narcissism. What if the party line that so many of us parrot these days isn’t true? Or maybe the party line has some truth to it, but is way too simplistic.

Here we go:

Assuming the premise that bad manners are on the rise (which I also think you could argue against), here are some possible explanations that do not include the narcissism meme:

1. We no longer live in the “children should be seen and not heard” society. Children are now empowered to speak and interact a lot more than they used to. I think most of us would see that as a good thing. At the same time, however, they’re still learning what is and is not appropriate behavior. So yes, we will see them slip up. And we’ll see that more because we see them more.

2. Children (and adults) mirror what they see on TV, which is full of wisecracking characters that say things that are designed to make us laugh, but are often not appropriate for polite society. And children are watching TV unsupervised more than they used to so they don’t get the countermessage that “we don’t do things that way.” I’m not saying this is a good thing, mind you. But it’s not really narcissistic either.

3. We are much more culturally diverse than we used to be, with a lot more mixing, so what looks like boorish behavior to us may simply be a different way of being.

4. There are just a lot more people in the world, so we’re bumping up against each other more, which increases the likelihood that we’ll see people not at their best. A related idea: people eat out a lot more than they used to, which means that ill-behaved kids [and adults, actually] are going to be more visible now. Breaches of manners that would have taken place in the privacy of the home now occur in public.

5. The pace of life feels overwhelming to us. We go too fast and demand too much of ourselves and others, and so we have no mental buffer in place when things get stressful. We find ourselves lashing out, giving the finger on the freeway, saying things we never would have said if we’d been in our right minds. Maybe people lack training in emotional intelligence rather than in good manners, but again, that’s not narcissism, but a lack of self-awareness.

6. People who are self-centered and demanding are actually NOT always  narcissists. They are people who feel invisible, like they are not being acknowledged. This is why family systems folk will tell you that people who lash out at clergy are actually seeking connection with them. Ignoring them or cutting them off is actually the worst thing you can do—the behavior will only increase in frequency and severity. (Of course we need to help people express their needs in appropriate ways. But that’s another post.)

7. There’s no question that manners relax over time. I don’t find it rude for children to call me by my first name, for example, assuming they are basically respectful when they do it. But to people who were brought up in a time when you NEVER did that, it seems like an incredible breach of respect, or at very least, jarring to the ears. And then when you see outlier behavior beyond even that, forget it.

In other words, if people did X when you were a kid, and Y was the extreme, it’s going to seem like the sky is falling now that everyone does Y, especially if you see someone doing Z.

Next up: “narcissism and Facebook.”

To Err is Human, To Fail Divine

Happy: The Patron Saint of

I can’t remember who turned me on to Happy News, but what a great addition to my Google Reader. If you find yourself getting depressed about the state of the world, check it out. It’s real news—no treacly chicken-soup stuff—but with a positive spin.

One recent story talked about a study which shows that failure is a better teacher than success. Now that’s something a lot of us already know, but to recap:

While success is surely sweeter than failure, it seems failure is a far better teacher, and organizations that fail spectacularly often flourish more in the long run, according to a new study by Vinit Desai, assistant professor of management at the University of Colorado Denver Business School.

Desai’s research, published in the Academy of Management Journal, focused on companies and organizations that launch satellites, rockets and shuttles into space – an arena where failures are high profile and hard to conceal.

Working with Peter Madsen, assistant professor at BYU School of Management, Desai found that organizations not only learned more from failure than success, they retained that knowledge longer.

“We found that the knowledge gained from success was often fleeting, while knowledge from failure stuck around for years,” he said. “But there is a tendency in organizations to ignore failure or try not to focus on it. Managers may fire people or turn over the entire workforce while they should be treating the failure as a learning opportunity.” [emphasis mine]

Good stuff, but I sat up and took extra notice at this bit:

“Despite crowded skies, airlines are incredibly reliable. The number of failures is miniscule,” [Desai] said. “And past research has shown that older airlines, those with more experience in failure, have a lower number of accidents.”

I started thinking about our little church, almost 100 years old. They’ve had their share of failures over the years. Yet through it all they have survived. That longevity gives us a tremendous leg up; if we were to take a great risk and fail—even fail spectacularly—I’d like to think we have enough history to know that there is much more “to us” than one particular failure. Of course, there is an unfortunate paradox at work as well—the older an institution is, the more set in its ways it can be. It seems one of the tasks of leadership is to help an organization live into the gift of longevity as a foundation for risk, rather than a plateau on which to become complacent.

There might be some middle ground with this failure business. A few summers ago I was speaking with a man about his trip to Boy Scout camp with his son’s troop. “Well, how was it?” I asked. “Great,” he replied, and told me about the guiding principle for the week’s activities, a concept called “managed failure.”

The idea is to set the bar high for the boys, exposing them to tremendous challenges, giving them the training and equipment and support they need, and then letting them succeed, or fail, knowing that big successes are that much more gratifying, and in failure comes great learning. The father told me that his son had been doing a metal-working project when a piece of metal had chipped off and flew into his face. I gasped, but the man said quickly, “No no no, but you see? He was fine. He was wearing protective gear. That’s why it’s managed failure!”

I’ve been looking for references to this idea elsewhere and haven’t come up with much—but it seems like something for organizations to pay some heed. Most sessions (church councils) I know, given their druthers, would like to know ahead of time whether an idea will work. Failure is “not an option,” to use the cliche. The problem is, some ideas look great on paper but bomb in reality. Other ideas seem kooky but turn out to be transformative. A culture of experimentation, of “managed failure,” might make room for the kooky-yet-God-inspired options.

Have you failed spectacularly lately?

Ghosts in the House, Performed by the Dana Children

A few weeks ago, Margaret “read” the book Ghosts in the House to me. You can see it below. Sorry the sound is so quiet—you can turn up the volume after 20 seconds in, which is when I shut up. Transcript appears below the video.

There was a girl who lived at the edge of the town.
In a cozy cottage.
But there was one problem.
The house was HAUNTED!
But the girl wasn’t just a girl. She was a witch!
She knew how to catch ghosts.
She continued to catch the ghosts in the house.
~~dramatic pause from technical difficulties~~
How lovely, she said. I hope there are some more!
And there were.
She continued to catch all the ghosts in the house.
She brung them to the kitchen and put them all in the washing machine.
Then she hung them out to dry. It was a fine day for drying.
Some became nice curtains. Another became a nice tablecloth.
The girl was tired after her hard work. She knew what to do with the last two ghosts.
And they all lived happily (non-ghostly*!) ever after.

*original midrash by Meg

Fast forward a few weeks: James decided to read me the book today. I think you should be able to figure out what he’s saying without subtitles.

Facts, Schmacts

“Facts are meaningless. You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true. Facts, schmacts.” -Homer Simpson

Oh Homer, even though you said that almost 13 years ago your words are so prescient. (Prescient, Homer. It means foreshadowing.)

This morning Newsweek magazine, in response to polls indicating that as many as one in five people think President Obama is a Muslim—he’s not—published a slide show of other “Dumb Things Americans Believe.” Their examples:  witchcraft (21%), death panels (40%) and that the sun revolves around the earth (amazingly, 20%). Just 39% of people believe in evolution, despite widespread scientific consensus. Newsweek’s title is perhaps unhelpful, but the point is sound. And I found the piece refreshing in a journalistic culture in which the press, in the name of objectivity, reports both “sides” of an issue, even in cases where one of the sides is wrong on the facts and/or fringe in its belief.

I have to say, this is something that I think about a lot. I suppose that misinformation is nothing new, but the Internet is like a Wild West free-for-all when it comes to rumors and misinformation. If you want to believe something, you can and will find support for it. But it makes it very difficult to communicate. It makes it difficult to preach when literally everything we know is up for grabs.

I can’t find it now, but did you catch the study a few months ago about attitudes among scientists about global warming? Many layfolks who are climate-change skeptics say that the scientific community is not united in its beliefs about the human causes of global warming—that there are a lot of scientists who doubt it.  That’s true, but among scientists who study it most closely and have published peer-reviewed research, the sense that humans are to blame is much clearer. Not everyone who calls him or herself an expert actually is an expert, in other words… but that’s not welcome news in a culture that disdains elitism, a culture in which people want to “decide for themselves.”

Earlier this month I attended portions of the Faithful Politics conference at Montreat. I was technically on vacation so I didn’t attend it all, but in one of the sessions I did attend, the speaker talked about the need for empathy as we seek to understand people with whom we disagree. I think that’s very true and as Christians, how we engage the questions of the day is as important as (more important than?) the answers themselves, which is really the message of my sermon on Sunday. Bickering and in-fighting is a pretty poor witness. As Tony Jones has said, “Two generations from now we will no longer be arguing about gay marriage, but we will be arguing about whether cloned humans are entitled to receive communion. So we’d better develop some norms for working through our differences rather than continuing the tired win-lose way we go about it now.” (I’m paraphrasing.)

But empathy and norms only get us so far, when we can’t even agree on what the facts are.

Lately we’ve been talking to Caroline about the difference between fact and opinion. She will ask a question like, “What’s the most beautiful thing in the world?” and after giving our thoughts we’ll usually say, “That’s an opinion question though, which means there isn’t one right answer. Different people will answer it differently.” Then she will ask “What’s the largest thing in the world?” which, once we clarify what “largest” and “thing” mean, is obviously a question of fact. (What is the largest thing in the world?)

This lesson we’re trying to teach Caroline seems very quaint, in a way. One of our cultural challenges is that, because we can find anything out there to support our own views and biases, we have forgotten that there are in fact differences between fact and opinion.

It doesn’t matter how many websites argue the contrary: whether the President is an American citizen is not up for debate. It’s not a matter of opinion; it’s a matter of fact. He’s a citizen or he isn’t, and even if 80% of the public thought he was born in Kenya, it wouldn’t make him born in Kenya. (Incidentally, why are we polling on matters of fact anyway?)

I’m very willing to listen to people who disagree with me on matters of opinion—I’ve heard from some church members after Sunday’s sermon who explained their thoughts, and some differed from mine, but we heard each other. But it’s much harder—impossible, even?—to engage with someone who doesn’t even subscribe to the same facts you do. I’m not sure how useful it is to try, actually.

We’ve always had disagreements in our nation. When people say we are more polarized now than ever before, I want to say, hello, Civil War? But it does feel very intense and unsettling to me, and I think this Internet free-for-all doesn’t help.

Finally, I have to turn all of this back to myself, too: are there things that I take as bedrock that are not actually factual? Are there things that I hold so rigidly that others cannot engage me?

Image is from the Newsweek feature mentioned above.