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Education Reporter

Book Review
The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, Free Press, 2009, 339 pp., $26.00

What do uncommitted sexual relationships, celebrity obsession, attention-seeking school shootings, the rise of incivility, skyrocketing consumer debt, and people making a public spectacle of themselves on YouTube have in common? According to psychiatrists Twenge and Campbell, each of these cultural phenomena is caused at least in part by a rise in narcissism that has reached the level of an epidemic.

Narcissists tend to believe that they are more important than others and are entitled to special privileges. They focus excessively on appearance, social status, and acquiring possessions. They are unlikely to have close relationships, but instead relate on a shallow level with many acquaintances. Modern social networking sites, which tend to encourage shallow interactions and nominal "friendships," are perfectly compatible with this narcissistic relationship style.

Twenge and Campbell show that reality TV, YouTube, advertising, and other aspects of modern culture promote the further spread of narcissism. Because narcissists enjoy the spotlight, they are overrepresented in reality TV and other media, and this promotes a shift in cultural values toward general acceptance of narcissism.

The epidemic is not just a media-inspired trend. The authors report on preschool classrooms where children sing "I am special, I am special, look at me." In elementary school, these children go on to experience "character" curricula that focus on loving oneself instead of loving others.

Increasingly permissive parenting styles mean that many children never learn humility or self-discipline. Grade inflation means that almost everyone is an A-student. Rising generations of young adults, who have always received trophies just for showing up, are changing the American workplace and debilitating the American work ethic. Some employers now hire "praise consultants" to help them learn to praise their young employees when they arrive on time, rather than criticizing them for the days they are late or don't show up. "One praise consultant throws several pounds of confetti a week," the authors report.

The book contains several offensive passages in which the authors report, with more detail than was necessary, on the crassness of a degraded culture. These passages aside, The Narcissism Epidemic is a fascinating cultural study. Any parent or educator who reads it will be motivated to understand narcissism better, and to fight against this epidemic and its many ill effects.

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