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  • Writer's pictureDennis Shen

Narcissism's Role in America's Political and Economic Challenges

Over the past several decades, the United States has experienced a notable increase in narcissistic traits among the population. While some consequences of this cultural shift have been discussed, the potential connection between rising narcissism and America's political and economic challenges warrants deeper exploration. This article delves into the increasing prevalence of narcissism, its potential effects on economic conditions, and the wider repercussions. Furthermore highlighted are similar trends emerging across other regions of the world such as in China.


 
Observations on Narcissism in the United States

In 2009, psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell published The Narcissism Epidemic”, a careful examination of America's growing self-admiration. While higher self-esteem can have positive aspects, this cultural shift was portrayed as on the aggregate detrimental, eroding the mutual support that bonds families and communities and fostering short-term, divisive behaviors over long-term, collective decision-making.


Subsequent research has corroborated the rise of narcissistic tendencies. As an example, a nation-wide study revealed that twice as many American college students scored high on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) in 2009 compared with in 1982. Additionally, in 2014, 59% of first-year college students rated themselves above average as regards intellectual self-confidence, up from 39% in 1966. Earlier studies by the National Institutes of Health also pointed to generational increases of symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).


At an extreme, narcissism can undermine societal institutions, resulting in shallow values, decreased intellectual curiosity, reduced emphasis on hard work, increased aggression, and relationship difficulties. Coupled with a lack of empathy, such issues on the macro level could significantly affect social cohesion and the economy.


At an extreme, narcissism can undermine societal institutions, resulting in shallow values, decreased intellectual curiosity, reduced emphasis on hard work, increased aggression, and relationship difficulties.

Generational Shifts and Cultural Evolution

Post-World War II, America experienced a rare consensus born of existential crises. The "Greatest Generation" emphasized conformity and downplayed individuality, supported by shared struggles during the Great Depression and the war. This era of unity fostered economic stability and trust in the government, resulting in global cooperation exemplified by the design of the United Nations, Bretton Woods institutions, and the Marshall Plan.


Bridging out from this era, Twenge and Campbell trace original roots of contemporary narcissism to the 1950s. The Baby Boomers, growing up in a post-war era of prosperity, were the first generation to embrace greater individualism. By the 1970s, this trend was prominent enough for author Tom Wolfe to label it "The 'Me' Decade”. Generations X and Y continued this path, with studies displaying a dramatic rise in the number of teenagers who viewed themselves as being “important”. This trend only accelerated with the advancement of the internet and social media, influencing the Millennials as well as Generation Z.



The Cultural Underpinnings of Modern Crises

Many of America's current crises can be traced to cultural factors and behaviors exemplifying entitlement. Racial and ideological tensions, along with increased partisanship in Washington, have been exacerbated by self-centered behaviors of varying societal and political groups, lacking the empathy needed to understand differing perspectives. The financial crisis, as an example, could partly be attributed to the selfish behaviors of both bankers and consumers, prioritizing short-term gains over long-run responsibility and stability. America's trade deficit has been worsened by debt-fueled conspicuous consumption, and the declining trust in government derives from a philosophical retreat into self-sufficiency rather than mutual reliance.


Addressing the Issue

Cultural norms are not static. Instead, they can evolve as a society's experiences and collective personality change. The America of today differs significantly from that of the immediate post-war era, and it will continue to evolve with future generations. Addressing narcissism is complex, as economic growth and stability often promote narcissistic traits influenced by prosperity, changes of parenting norms, urbanization, and smaller family sizes. Conversely, economic hardships tend to foster group-minded, more modest behaviors. Thus, there is a cyclical relationship between economic conditions and narcissism, with excessive societal hubris only corrected by existential economic and/or national crises.


Thus, there is a cyclical relationship between economic conditions and narcissism, with excessive societal hubris only corrected by existential economic and/or national crises.

A Global Phenomenon

However, the rise of narcissism is certainly not unique to the United States. China, as an example, has undergone a rapid economic transformation, lifting millions out from poverty and modernizing living standards. However, this economic miracle has disrupted former collectivist norms, resulting in an emergence of narcissistic traits among the younger generations. Research indicates that socio-demographic factors play a role in this rise. Absent intervention, China could face significant societal, political, and economic challenges over the coming decades.


Future Outlook

Recognizing the problematic associations with narcissism is crucial for addressing domestic and international issues influenced by this cultural shift. Policymakers must focus on fostering economic and political development while preserving the characteristics of a cohesive and self-critical community.

 
About the author


Dennis Shen is an American economist based in Berlin, Germany.

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