Lori Anderson: The age of Narcissus is upon us

Narcissistic tendencies can be very useful in the fight to survive and reach the top, writes Lori Anderson

We tend to view narcissists as more confident, intelligent and even more attractive than everyone else, though Donald Trump may buck this trend in some ways. Picture: AP
We tend to view narcissists as more confident, intelligent and even more attractive than everyone else, though Donald Trump may buck this trend in some ways. Picture: AP

He was the original toxic boyfriend. In Greek mythology Narcissus spurned the mountain nymph Echo and left her so love-struck that she faded away to a diaphanous, faint whisper. The once virile hunter would receive his just deserts when the goddess Nemesis, disturbed by Narcissus’s self-centred vanity, led him to a pool where he fell so madly in love with his reflection that he put his days of hunting behind him and turned to long hours spent perfecting his best ‘Blue Steel’ look into a lily pad-dotted pond. Talk about being born before your time.

Had Narcissus been born today, he would #selfie #fitfam #beauty #adonis #gym #buff #Iloveme #tightiewhities. His beauty would be endlessly reflected for all the world to appreciate in today’s modern hall of mirrors: Instagram, blogs, YouTube and Twitter.

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Truly, this is the dawning of the age of Narcissus and surprisingly it seems that’s actually not such a bad thing.

Just as well, as our self-obsession shows no signs of diluting. It is just over 100 years since Sigmund Freud firmly filed the concept into the annals of psychoanalytic theory when he published his famous essay ‘On Narcissism’ in 1914. In recent years our sense of self has only increased with the advent of new technology. An analysis of popular American songs, written between 1987 and 2007, found a rapid rise in the use of “me, myself and I’ and a subsequent drop in words that focused on other people and social interaction. If we are all dipping our toes into Lake Me, there are those who have dived straight in and show no signs of surfacing, and, most interestingly, we appear to respect them for it.

For studies on narcissists show that while they may be deluded, they do benefit from their constant insistence that people recognise their superiority. Research shows that in general, we tend to view narcissists as more confident, intelligent and even more attractive, than other people. Artists with narcissistic tendencies have been found to sell more work and at a higher price than their humbler colleagues at the easel.

The academic study of narcissism has increased in recent years and the findings make for an interesting read. Academics at Emory University in Atlanta peered into the biographical lives of 43 presidents up to and including George W Bush and discovered that those who fell into the category of ‘grandiose narcissists’ were judged to be the more successful presidents, not only benefiting from higher rankings, but driving through more legislation and setting the agenda. However the selfish, exploitative and entitled behaviour that accompanies grandiose narcissists does lead to failings and so despite their successes such presidents were also found to be more likely to be bullies or to be impeached.

The current candidacy of Donald Trump offers the prospect of a narcissistic presidency reaching the zenith: a man so wrapped up in self-adoration as to be blind to any personal failings. Research by psychologists usually divide everyday narcissists into ‘vulnerable’ and ‘grandiose’, with vulnerable ones afflicted by a fluctuating self-esteem and liable to outbursts of potentially violent aggression if their carefully crafted self-image is threatened. Although there is little else about Trump that fits the vulnerable mould, the outbursts seem to fit quite well; instead Trump more comfortably fits the grandiose mould with an unshakeable sense of his own superiority, a pompous show-off and blow-hard who can, on occasion, be charming. Granted these occasions have been few and far between over the past 12 months.

Yet there are benefits to a ‘moderate’ level of grandiose narcissism, according to research carried out by Emily Grijalva at the University of Buffalo. The confidence that acts as a suit of armour around a narcissist can help one rise to a leadership role and if used wisely can help them stay there and lead a team effectively. This, however, can be a big ‘if’, as Grijalva explained in the New Scientist: “To be an effective leader, you need to be self-confident enough that people will want to follow you, but not so confident that you come across as a self-absorbed jerk.”

Narcissists are also largely immune from the corrosive effects of criticism. Narcissists are quite aware that many people fail to appreciate their true brilliance, but this does not make them doubt their ability, instead it serves to confirm their own attitude to such critics as people too stupid to appreciate what is in front of them: a genius.

This means they can easily dismiss criticism and focus instead on praise: a benefit if the criticism is unwarranted and spiteful but less so when the criticism is constructive. Envy is also a dry log thrown on the fire of a narcissist’s ambition, it merely adds fuel to their inherent drive and researchers believe this too is a point worth considering and harnessing for the ordinary person.

If one wants to briefly inhabit the intoxicating realm of the narcissist, for example, to assist at a job interview, then Amy Cuddy, an academic at Harvard University suggests we stand with our hands on our hips and our shoulders back, Superman style, with a cheesy wide grin on our face. A ‘power pose’ such as this can, apparently, result in people acting with greater confidence, it’s just hard to imagine doing it forever.

Then again, even the original narcissist, staring into his reflective pool, would never have claimed that such self-love was ever going to be easy. Unless, of course, you’re Donald Trump.