Does Facebook Really Make Us Narcissistic? (NEW BOOK)

As a culture changes, so do the kinds of entertainment it demands. It’s always tempting to try to determine where the cause and effect begins here, and it’s usually impossible to say. Did the forced sobriety and the resulting speakeasy culture of the Prohibition era give rise to the musical rule-breaking of jazz, or did jazz encourage flouting the no-drinking laws? Did the sexual and political anarchy of the 1960s spark the guitar-smashing rock of that age, or did the onstage frenzy stir up the kids in the streets? It's likely, surely, that it’s a two-way process, a back-and-forth sloshing in which art and culture influence each other. That’s no less true in the narcissism era.

In 2011, Jean M. Twenge, along with psychologists C. Nathan DeWall and Richard Pond of the University of Kentucky, and Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia, published a study of Billboard magazine’s Top 10 songs for every year from 1980 to 2007 -- a total of 280 songs. The researchers were not terribly interested in the music -- indeed, they weren’t interested in it at all -- but they cared mightily about the lyrics.

Using a nifty piece of software called the Linguistic Inquiry Word Count Program, which scans text for specific types of words, the investigators went searching first for all first-person, second-person and third-person pronouns -- both singular and plural -- in the songs. In addition to those occurrences of I, me, you, us, my, mine, ours and the like, they looked for the frequency of words indicating social connectedness (mate, talk, child, love, nice, sweet) and anger or social alienation (hate, kill, damn).

Together, the 280 songs included 88,621 words -- or about 315 each. That seems like an awful lot for a genre that’s known for the simplicity of its lyrics, but the key is that these were not necessarily 315 different words. Repetition counts for a lot in determining the message of a song, and it matters a great deal if the word "love" appears once or 21 times. Ditto telltale words of self-absorption like "want," "me," or "money."

"Books and music are one thing, but if there was ever something that was going to collect the nation’s self-absorption and spin it down into true weapons-grade narcissism, it was the rise of social media sites."

Algorithms like this aren’t perfect, especially since they can’t code for irony or social commentary. “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” is a cold ode to acquisitiveness and greed -- at least if all you know of it are the words. But watch it performed, and you realize it’s meant to be sold with a wink -- literally, when Marilyn Monroe did it. The Beatles’ song "I, Me, Mine," which includes the refrain "I, me, me, mine" over and over and over again, would have practically broken the needle in any first-person word-counting program, but the software could not know that the song was intended as a critical commentary on avarice and narcissism, not a celebration of it.

Still, most songs say what they mean, and the results of the 2011 study were revealing: Over the course of nearly thirty years, the Billboard hits showed a 30 percent increase in the use of the first-person singular, while the more collective first-person plural -- most notably the shared possessive our and ours -- plummeted 40 percent. There was a 21 percent decline in themes that spoke of social connectedness and a 75 percent increase in words suggesting alienation and solitariness.

"Popular song lyrics are a window into understanding U.S. cultural changes,” Twenge and her colleagues wrote. The songs “serve as cultural artifacts of shifts toward self-focus, social disconnection, anger, antisocial behavior, and misery."

The same sour turning inward is evident in the language in books on the bestseller lists, a category that goes well beyond just the self-esteem books. In 2012, Twenge, Campbell and University of Georgia psychologist Brittany Gentile conducted another, even larger survey (software-aided, of course) of 766,513 American books published from 1960 to 2008, looking for a similar rise in the language of selfishness and individualism, and they found it -- in a very big way.

The use of words suggesting individualism and, significantly, excellence (self, standout, unique, independence, individual) increased 20 percent, as did individualistic phrases like "all about me," :I can do it myself" and "I get what I want." It was the pronouns, however, that once again told the real tale. Use of the first-person singular increased 20 percent, while use of the second-person singular and plural (you, your, yours, yourself, yourselves) exploded by 300 percent. This was not a reflection of readers’ looking outward, focusing on the perspective of others, but of writers speaking directly to readers, addressing their concerns and needs -- how you can lose weight, how you can make more money, how you can find a new job. Even novels, like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and Tom Robbins's Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, employed the unusual device of writing in the second person. Individualistic phrases and terms rose as well, by 42 percent, easily outdistancing communal terms like "it takes a village" and "community spirit."

Finally, ultimately, the me-first culture -- like everything else -- went online. Books and music are one thing, but if there was ever something that was going to collect the nation’s self-absorption and spin it down into true weapons-grade narcissism, it was the rise of social media sites -- particularly Facebook and Twitter. Once social exhibitionism no longer actually had to be social -- once you could sit at your laptop and post any stray thought you had or any flattering picture someone had just taken of you -- even the innately modest would become self-absorbed. Or at least that's always been the thinking.

Campbell and University of Georgia colleague Laura Buffardi were among the first serious researchers to consider the narcissism-fueling effect of social media when they explored the then-new virtual community in 2009. It’s a measure of the fast-forward speed at which the online world moves that even those few years ago, Facebook was still terra incognita -- at least in the social sciences world -- and it was still in competition with sites like MySpace and Friendster, once- thriving online communities that are now ghost towns. Buffardi and her colleagues volunteered to explore those strange lands and then file dispatches back to the psychologists left behind in base camp.

"Narcissists may be more attracted to Facebook than non-narcissists, but that doesn’t mean that Facebook actually made anyone more narcissistic."

“Social networking Web sites are built on the base of superficial 'friendships' with many individuals and 'sound-byte' [sic] driven com- munication between friends (i.e., wallposts)," the authors patiently ex- plained. "A Facebook page utilizes a fill-in-the-blank system of personalization. All pages share common social characteristics, such as links to friends’ pages.... and an electronic bulletin board, called the wall.... Many users have hundreds or even thousands of 'friends.'"

OK, so the wide-eyed language seems comically outdated, but the narcissistic science remains sound. Campbell and Buffardi recruited 1,567 college students -- all with Facebook pages -- and administered the forty-question, forced-choice Narcissistic Personality Inventory to them. They then surveyed all of the subjects’ profile pages and analyzed them on four different scales: number of friends, number of posts, number of groups joined and, critically, number of lines of text in the “About Me” section.

To those objective measures, the researchers added subjective analysis. They rated the overall tone of the "About Me" section as self-absorbed, self-important, self-promoting or -- the opposite of all three -- self-conscious. The profile picture the subject chose to post was rated on how much or how little clothing was worn, and whether the image seemed vain, sexy, modest or exhibitionistic. The overall attractiveness of the picture was also rated, though here Campbell and Buffardi had to apply a somewhat complex standard. They could not consider simply the qualities that make up a pretty or less pretty face, since these are hardly within the subject’s control. Instead they looked at how studied the pose, lighting and composition of the picture were. The subject who posts a random picture snapped at a picnic or an amusement park simply because she looks happy in it is likely a different sort of person from the one who posts a studio portrait or a glamour shot.

Last, the researchers looked at the "Favorite Quotes" section of the page. Here the analysis was something of a bank shot, since the quotes are not ones of the person’s own composition but rather sound bites plucked from history or literature. But there’s a lot to be learned by whether someone chooses Eleanor Roosevelt’s celebrated observation about how much better it is to light a single candle than to curse the darkness or Muhammad Ali's declaration that "'impossible' is just a big word thrown around by small men."

Up and down the line, the page analyses revealed a powerful link between narcissism and online exhibitionism. Subjects who scored higher on the NPI tended to write longer and more self-promotional profiles, to post sexier and more affected pictures, and to talk more about themselves in their posts. The quotes chosen also tended to be less clever and entertaining and more cocky and self-promoting.

So the study was solid, the methods were sound and the results were clear -- and yet the ultimate conclusions? Ambiguous. Narcissists may be more attracted to Facebook than non-narcissists, but that doesn’t mean that Facebook actually made anyone more narcissistic. Rather, the site may have simply been what tequila is to the drunk or cheese- cake is to the glutton -- a high-density form of the indulgence they’d be seeking out anyway.

"Individualism and narcissism started long before the Internet arrived,” Twenge told me. "In some ways, Facebook’s influence has been overstated. Narcissists do have more friends on Facebook, but being on Facebook can also lead to political participation. The data reveals both extreme individualism and collectivism -- to becoming more absorbed in yourself or getting outside of yourself."

Facebook, agrees research psychologist Joanna Fanos of Dartmouth Medical School, doesn’t necessarily foster people’s narcissism, but "it reveals their narcissism. In a face-to-face conversation you can disguise the narcissistic intent more, but on Facebook it’s more evident."

Reprinted from THE NARCISSIST NEXT DOOR: Understanding The Monster In Your Family, In Your Office, In Your Bed—In Your World by Jeffrey Kluger by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Random House Inc., Copyright (c) 2014 by Jeffrey Kluger.



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