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Friday, October 22, 2021

Column: Narcissism 2.0

Greek mythology supplies us with the story of Narcissus. When he was born, his mother was warned that Narcissus would only live a full life so long as he never saw his own reflection. Narcissus grew up to be tremendously attractive (a quality he wasn’t aware of) and extremely proud. When he rejected the nymph Echo, he drew upon himself divine punishment. As he trekked through a forest, he stumbled upon a pool in which he could see his own reflection. Entranced by his own beauty, Narcissus stayed there, staring at himself, until he died.

Our modern understanding of narcissism, a grandiose sense of self-worth, is rooted in this myth. But that’s not to say the myth is no longer useful as a narrative. Today, we can point to a modern form of the pool which enchanted Narcissus: Facebook.

The social networking website of 500 million users supplies us a platform for appreciating a public image we construct of ourselves. To label those who take this function to another level, we have developed a technical term – Facebook whores.

Some might take the myth further still, and claim a parallel between the warning given to Narcissus’ mother and the advent of Facebook. Is Facebook responsible for a massive outpouring of narcissism?

The relationship between Facebook and narcissism is complicated.

On the one hand, there’s a strong link between Facebook use and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). A study conducted by Soraya Mehdizadeh of Toronto’s York University drew upon the use of Facebook among a group of individuals with various degrees of NPD.

She found that those with NPD were more likely to spend more time on Facebook, post self-centric photos (think: poses, professional or doctored images as opposed to memories with friends), and “showcase” their activity through wall updates. Their “About Me” pages tend to focus on their intelligence (not explicitly, but rather through witty and profound statements). What distinguishes the narcissistic user from the average user is the frequency of self-promotional material.

No surprise there.

Academic psychologists have identified “image-management” as a key component of narcissism. Because those with NPD are consumed with themselves, they want to control the way in which others perceive them. Facebook is the granddaddy of controlling your image.

But before you start analyzing your own Facebook activity or the Facebook activity of friends, know psychologists estimate that only one percent of the population has NPD. This is why the relationship between Facebook and narcissism is tricky – the criteria defined above could accurately describe way more than 1 percent.

One temptation is to label Facebook responsible for creating more narcissists. The argument here is that Facebook artificially creates in us the most common symptom of narcissism – image control. For the first time in history, you have the ability to control your image for your entire social network. No longer is your ability to exhibit NPD stymied by your natural tendencies. Facebook accommodates, and appears to encourage, narcissism. Features of the site encourage us to tag ourselves in posts and photos, organize our friends, write elaborate self-descriptions on the ‘Info’ page, comprehensively list our activities, interests and media tastes, and update our status remotely through phones. Then it collects all this data, so we can scroll back through albums and wall posts to appreciate our image.

This argument makes sense, but it fails to accurately account for the way people become narcissists. Image-control is not the cause of narcissism, but a bi-product. The literature on NPD identifies the root cause of the disorder in childhood, when either extreme praise or criticism is directed toward a child. In either case, the child is alienated from reality. (After all, no one is worthy of extreme praise or criticism at that young an age.) Because the child is dislocated from reality, he or she matures into an adult with an extreme tendency to promote an illusion of a self-image.

In other words, so long as Facebook doesn’t ruin your childhood, it’s unlikely to authentically induce NPD. If you or your friends are Facebook Whores, it’s probably not the result of an undiagnosed personality order. That’s possible, but unlikely. More likely, Facebook use is the function of its convenience and a decline in older forms of recreation. Where you might have once come home to watch TV or go outside, you’re now more likely to watch something on Hulu and update your status because your web browser is already open. Lucky for us, Facebook is not a modern-day incarnation of divine punishment.

You can tell RAJIV NARAYAN how amazing he is by e-mailing him at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu.

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