Here is a recap of Dr. Karyl McBride's interview with Keith Campbell, co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic on Facebook, Monday, November 18th.
Dr. Karyl McBride: Here’s the ole standard question: Why did you and Dr. Twenge decide to write this book? What was your inspiration for it?
Dr. Keith Campbell: Well, Jean and I got to know each other when we were postdocs. We shared a basement office in the Psychology Department at Case Western. Jean’s interests were in generational and cultural change, and mine were in narcissism. We did research together of various topics – the role of narcissism in group aggression (this was spurred by the Columbine shootings), generational changes in self-esteem – and once there were enough data out there we turned to the question of cultural and generational change in narcissism. That work really hit a cultural nerve, so we explored the topic more deeply in our research and in the book.
Dr. Karyl McBride: Your book and research indicates that our culture is becoming more and more narcissistic in nature. Do you think talking about cultural narcissism and people with NPD are a bit different? For example, many of my readers had parents with this disorder from generations ago?
Dr. Keith Campbell: We think of change occurring in a couple ways. At a cultural level, we see a trend towards narcissism related concepts. So, we have increasingly more unique names for our children, a greater emphasis on fame in television shows, higher levels of cosmetic procedures and surgeries, more individualistic language in our books and popular music, etc.
At the individual level, we see increasing levels of traits related to narcissism. So, we have increasing scores of narcissism on personality tests, increasing self-esteem, increasing extrinsic values like money and fame, etc. In terms of NPD, we do not have data over time because the definition of NPD changes with different editions of the DSM (except the last one – a long story!). But, we have one very large national study that looked at the lifetime rates of NPD in people across the age spectrum and found the rates were about three times as high in young people.
All this said; just because narcissism is seen to be increasing does not at all mean it didn’t exist 30, 50 or 500 years ago (even before it was defined as a clinical disorder). As an aside, I was just part of a study looking at narcissism in US presidents using historians to gather the data (US presidential narcissism also seems to be increasing). With the right tools, we will eventually be able to get a larger historical account of narcissism.
Dr. Karyl McBride: I think the issue of over praising children is an interesting one and controversial too. I see so many adult children of narcissistic parents who got no nurturing or praise, so it is hard to see the praising issue as a problem in the populations I treat. I like teaching children self-compassion and helping them tune into their feelings. What do you think of this?
Dr. Keith Campbell: I think it is a complex issue. With personality disorders, all the data I have seen show that they are predicted by cold, controlling or abusive parenting. This includes NPD. However, we also see that with trait narcissism, being overindulged or raised with too much permissiveness seems to predict it.
I think part of what is going on is that more abusive parenting is predicting more vulnerable aspects of narcissism (like depression) and the overindulgence is predicting the more grandiose elements (like attention seeking). This is a very long discussion about the nature of narcissism that the field has not resolved. Your readers can see a hint of this in the DSM-5’s new “Alternative DSM-5 Model for Personality Disorders” discussion of NPD where a vulnerable form is mentioned. However, the description is still somewhat of a mess.
As for self-compassion, I have been a big fan of Kristen Neff and her self-compassion work for a long time. I think when it works, self-compassion allows us to see our faults and improve without getting depressed or down on ourselves. It also brings people together by encouraging a sense of common humanity.
Dr. Karyl McBride: When looking at developmental psychology, it seems adolescents and young adults are still a bit self-focused by nature and in their development, do you think the young college students are still in this group and still developing their sense of self? Therefore, harder to decipher if we are looking at narcissism or not?
Dr. Keith Campbell: Even in young people we see that those who are judged more narcissistic by self-report scales or reports from people who know them, or by clinical interviews, do the narcissistic things as you would expect. They have relationship problems, are overconfident in their decision making, entitled, etc. So narcissism as a description seems meaningful.
However, to your point I suspect that the average young person today will become less narcissism as he or she takes on more adult roles and responsibilities, just like happened in past generations. The difference now is that adult roles (starting a family, having a career, etc.) are being put off. This isn’t to point the finger at young people – I think in many ways they are victims of some really terrible cultural and economic decisions by the rest of us.
Dr. Karyl McBride: I believe that empathy is the antithesis to narcissism and you talk in your book about empathy programs for children. Love this. Any thoughts on this from your experience?
Dr. Keith Campbell: We and others have some basic data showing that connection to others is a buffer against narcissism. This can be as simple as feeling similar to others, or a more powerful experience like empathy or compassion. As a scientist, I would love to see people doing some more lasting interventions to increase empathy and compassion and see how this changes narcissism. I am sure the work will happen – it just takes time and resources.
Dr. Karyl McBride: What did you learn for yourself while doing this research and book that was helpful and therapeutic for you? I think writing has a strong therapeutic nature to it.
Dr. Keith Campbell: I think a couple things. The first is somewhat trivial. I think narcissism is important and can have some really negative effects on the world. With my writing, research, talking to people, etc., I have done my best to get those ideas out there. As a result, I don’t find myself yelling at the TV or Internet, which helps me stay calm and be a better spouse and parent.
Second, I have tried to practice being a little less narcissistic or self-centered. I try to focus outside myself a little more – nothing formal, but it is something I am aware of doing. For example, I try to remember that experiences are more important that things, that those deep relationships are more important than shallow ones, and I try to keep a sense of humor about myself.
Dr. Karyl McBride: You also wrote a book titled: When You Love a Man Who Loves Himself. If you were to give one major piece of advice for how to avoid dating or marrying a narcissist, what would it be?
Dr. Keith Campbell: It is tough, because narcissists don’t announce themselves directly. I would say that if you start seeing signs of narcissism – your friends are telling you, the person is becoming controlling or materialistic or self-centered, there is little empathy in the relationship or maybe abuse – get out as soon as you can.
Of course, the best thing to do is avoid it in the first place by taking things slowly, getting a little objective “relationship history” on the person, and not being overwhelmed by your initial excitement in the relationship. Of course, that is easier said than done.
Dr. Karyl McBride: In your continued research, what have you found is most important for parents to avoid so they do not raise entitled or narcissistic children?
Dr. Keith Campbell: I would say: being a good role model; rewarding your children for kindness and for trying hard rather than telling them how great they are; loving your children, of course, but also respecting them enough to let them learn from their mistakes. I am big fan of natural consequences.
Dr. Karyl McBride: I could ask you a million questions, but our time is limited, so will quit here, but thank you so much for doing this. I know our readers will love it!
Dr. Keith Campbell: Thanks, Karyl! My pleasure.