Narcissism – a virus of contemporary society


On Monday, 21st of May, in Zagreb the festival Book fest was opened by an interesting panel discussion called “Narcissism – a virus of the modern”, which sought to answer the question of increased narcissism in contemporary society and link of this phenomenon with modern technologies. Insights can be read here.

In this debate, the participants were Željka Matijašević,  Professor at the Department of General History of Literature, Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb, famous for her books on the theory of psychoanalysis, Finnish journalist and writer Ari Turunen and molecular biologist with an international reputation, Igor Rudan. During the one-hour discussion, many interesting topics emerged, only scratching this interesting and very actual phenomenon on the surface, due to the time-limit of the panel discussion.

Narcissism has in contemporary society become a norm, established the participants. Signals that we get from mainstream culture, so Matijašević, tell us that we well have it good in life if we exhibit narcissistic behaviors. We are thus basically within a problematic area already, unwillingly, she said. Matijašević emphasized that it was Christopher Lasch who wrote about this phenomenon as early as the 1970s. However, she emphasized that her take on narcissism is not the clinical one, but that she looks at it in terms of the ways of the structuring of personality.

Contemporary self is in constant search for approval on social network and is thus extremely fragile, to begin with, warned Matijašević.

A bit of cultural context should be added to what Matijašević was saying, in order to understand better how this happened. It was psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut who in the 1960s also started to notice a different kind of patients in his clinical practice. In opposition to the self of Freudian age, characterized by pervasive feelings of guilt, this new self was characterized by feelings of emptiness, isolation, alienation and not- belonging. It can be assumed that this kind of self can be linked to social structures which, in contemporary society, differ in comparison with the ones from Freud’s age. These can be linked to different phenomena in Kohut’s time: industrialization and rise of individualism. It is not hard to notice that in today’s world things are complicated further by the phenomena of globalization and omnipresent digital environments.

Narcissism – how it develops in contemporary social context

The focus is increasingly put on the individual self, said Matijašević and warned about the hidden part of this phenomenon: increased dependence upon the external structures for its structuration. Hence the grandiosity, she said, which is in the function of creation of personality. This is what makes new kind of self increasingly fragile.

The question that arises is  – is this new increasingly narcissistic self becoming a norm? What will the self of the 21st century look like? Sociologist Sherry Turkle examines this phenomenon, considering contemporary selves to be “tethered” through technology. Contemporary technology thus redefines ways in we are being intimate, but also alone. Today’s lunch is no longer being eaten alone, it is being eaten with our friends stored within our digital mobile phones, constantly present, on Facebook, on Instagram. This way of existence within constant connectedness is slowly becoming our everyday life. This can be linked to narcissism, since this kind of culture puts an emphasis on traits which are narcissistic in their nature, such as an exaggerated sense of self-importance on social networks and an excessive need for admiration.

Namely, one has to wonder if constantly connected self asking for constant validation is pathology or simply a new self?  A similar point was made during the panel discussion, when someone from the audience, supposedly a psychiatrist, commented how modern technologies strengthen certain part of the brain – the ones we need to stay always connected. The connection between social context and neurobiology goes both ways. So the increased use of technology is teaching our brains new ways of existing – constantly connected, constantly visible, constantly interacting.

Molecular biologist Igor Rudan emphasized how he can see ways which make it useful for us to be narcissistic as a species – since we humans are the only species which made it to this level of development. Looking at the intelligence gradient on the planet, we are the most intelligent on that gradient. The question, he argued, is whether narcissism develops in parallel with the development of intelligence. Narcissism gives unrealistic positivism, which is possibly needed for survival. At this point, the moderator asked the participants if narcissism is something being expected from us by liberal capitalism. Maybe not in order to survive, but in order to make us stand out, said Matijašević.

But, in the age of digital media, isn’t standing out equal to survival? Not being on Facebook often means being out of social events, while not being present on LinkedIn can transfer to lack of job options. In today’s age not being included in digital media often means not being socially included – and this transfers to a tangible problem in terms of social status or economic opportunities. This kind of normalization of digital media usage certainly has some implications for contemporary self, since within it the demand for self-promotion becomes a norm. In this kind of social context, what is there to be done?

This takes us back to Christopher Lasch, who established a pretty obvious link between narcissism and liberal capitalism, said Matijašević. Before Lasch, the only pathology of fascism was approached critically, while Lasch showed us the other side of the pretty faces of western societies and individual liberalism. A narcissist is always only a social Darwinist, she noticed, excluding his starting position from the perception of his own success and emphasizing his own attainment.  Further, the market economy of capitalism demands constant self-promotion from individuals, in this way always perpetuating a narcissistic state of mind. Ari Turunen noted lower tolerance of Scandinavian countries to “heroes”, due to the mentality linked to social democracy. He also expressed his extreme concern for Europe, as he said, since American high-school culture penetrated in it through social media. Before social networks, he added humoristically, life in Europe was relatively easy – today one constantly has to worry how many Likes one gets. We live in a totally lunatic society, he concluded, based on the American idea of constantly being popular. His suggestion against this is withdrawal from the digital world.

Igor Rudan expectedly returned onto evolutionary theories of how narcissism is justified – in order to survive, human species had to be most aggressive, the strongest, the fastest. But now that we have reached an evolutionary level where there are enough resources for everyone, are we still in need of greed and aggression, he asked. A valid question for me would also be if this kind of reasoning points to shortcomings of explanation of social phenomena when it comes to evolutionary theory. The idea that aggression and greed assist survival is based on the premises of evolutionary theories in social science, and is not value-neutral, as it may seem at first. And even if it is true that we have reached the level where there are enough resources for all, it can be asked if these resources are adequately distributed so that there really is enough for everyone. In terms of the precarious economy due to globalization, this should be discussed further. And how is this linked with social media phenomenon?

Is narcissism needed to be in a position of power?

The panel discussion also touched upon the subject of narcissists on the positions of power in society. Although not mentioned in the discussion, it seems to me worth mentioning the so-called “dark triad of personality”, in psychology a personality trait often held by persons in positions of power: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. While the narcissist seeks constant admiration, has a sense of grandiosity, and is sensitive to criticism, people with high levels of Machiavellianism use others as a means of achieving their goals, are pervasive, and feel that they are not subject to the rules that apply to the rest of society and have the right to overtake them in their endeavors, to achieve their goal. People with a psychopathic personality are the farthest on this spectrum, exhibiting a high level of anti-social behavior, high level of need for sensation, cruelty and lack of regard for others. They are also incapable of remorse.

Rudan argued that narcissism brings an above-average amount of motivation and willingness to reach certain social positions. Narcissists are willing to pay a high price for success, he said, citing the example of the most powerful man in the world who has to watch what he eats so that no one poisons him. Other people do not have such an interest in such positions, that is, the willingness to pay such a high price, such motivation can be brought about by the pathological desire for power. Therefore, we are doomed to have such individuals in such positions, he believes. After the panel discussion, the question arose whether it was necessary to be narcissistic (or have the other qualities of the Dark Triad above) to be in a position of power? Should one really pay a high price for success, and do only people with characteristics on this spectrum really have the motivation to lead?

Rudan also touched upon the subject of singles and the fact that more and more people in contemporary society choose to be alone. People choose to be alone today if they are not well entertained, he stated – they have tablets, newspaper, Facebook and football, so living alone does not present such a problem anymore.  Matijašević made an interesting point that part of the cause of this phenomenon lies in the fact that family communities such as those that prevailed in the 20th century clearly did not prove too successful. She concluded, however, that narcissistic symptomatology of contemporary society represents a collapse of individual liberalism claiming that everyone had equal rights and opportunities to succeed. However, she said, she was still hopeful of a new social reaction as a response to this situation.

We are joining her in this hope.