A study was recently published reporting that vanity and narcissism are on the rise among American teenagers. This should really be no surprise, I think that most people have figured this out on their own, but what was most interesting was the analysis, at least what was reported of it. I have not been able to access the entire study yet, so this commentary is based on what has been reported in the news.
Interestingly, this study was done by the marketing department of San Diego University, but from what has been reported there seems to be very little self-reflection in the study. The study, somewhat correctly, attributes much of the rise in narcissism to school programs that have intentionally sought to increase children's "self-esteem". This is certainly a legitimate issue and one that needs to be addressed, but there is much more going on here than that.
Indeed marketing and a consumer driven capitalist culture are equally at the core of this "problem". As discussed in my article Understanding Capitalism Part IV: Capitalism, Culture and Society, capitalism promotes a self-centered narcissistic culture, as marketing itself encourages this behavior. Anyone who watches television knows that marketing is all about telling people what they want to hear, and also encouraging self-indulgence.
The study did point to one aspect of this, which is the use of the terms "my" and "you" in so many marketing tools. Pretty much every company now uses "my" in some kind of personalized marketing strategy. The study pointed out "MySpace", but you can also find MyFord, MyCoke, MyRewards, and just about every other "My" attached to a company brand. But what is all this "My" about? Well, it does feed into the narcissism, but it also creates a false sense of ownership. It's a form of pseudo-capitalism, where the companies, like Wal-Mart with their "associates", tell people that they are enfranchised, tell people that they are empowered, tell people that they have ownership, but in reality they aren't and don't. It's all just hype and propaganda.
This study was done by a marketing department, and the irony is, that even though they have concluded that increasing narcissism is a problem, what are the effects of this study going to be? Marketing agencies and corporation are going to see this information (not really, since they have their own private studies and know this already) and conclude that in order to be effective they need to develop increasingly narcissistic marketing campaigns, feeding the problem and making it even worse.
This is the type of problem that arises in a completely unregulated market economy where industry is not held accountable to society. Market forces will always tend towards narcissism and self-centered behavior, because market forces are always going to cater to "giving people what they want" and, all things being equal, people will always acts in their "self-interest" - that's what capitalism is all about after all.
A self-interested economy is going to yield a self-interested society, that should be pretty easy to figure out. Whereas our school systems and other social institutions should be countering the socially degrading effects of capitalism, they have instead been appropriated into the system and are actually feeding the situation.
There are many reasons that our schools have subscribed to the "increase self-esteem" mantra, but one of the most interesting, perhaps, was the idea in the 1980s, that there was a need to decrease sexual promiscuity among teenagers. The people who were pushing this program were conservatives and they viewed teen sex as bad, and in their moralistic world view they believed that people do bad things for bad reasons. Taking a totally unnatural view of sex and human behavior, these people thought that young people had sex because they had low self-esteem and used sex as a way to try and make themselves feel better or to be popular.
In reality, as reported in Scientific American MIND last year, the effects of this program have been to increase teen sexual behavior because the reality is that people with a low self-image shy away from sex or do not get into sexual situations, whereas people with high self-esteem and an inflated ego are highly sexually aggressive. So, in fact, this anti-sex program developed by moralistic conservatives had the total opposite effect of its intention, because these people have no clue about human behavior.
Sex, of course, is perfectly natural, it's not "bad" per-se, and people don't always do bad things for bad reasons anyway. High self-esteem leads to increased sexual promiscuity, not the other way around. This should be perfectly obvious, unless you are a moralistic conservative who thinks that sex is evil and only bad people who have emotional problems engage in such dirty acts.
New Age liberals no doubt added to this problem as well. They seem to suffer from the same basic mentality and lack of fundamental behavioral understanding, thinking that you can simply smile all your problems away and that loving yourself is the greatest good.
It would be interesting to see a comparative study between America and Europe on the issue of teen narcissism. I would be willing to bet that narcissism is lower in Europe, and I think it would be due to both the more secular understanding of human behavior there and the smaller impact of marketing and capitalism there, though of course Europe still has plenty of marketing as well.
The effects of neo-liberal economics are being felt everywhere though, from America to India to China to Europe. For a variety of reasons, however, people in America simply don't understand the social effects of capitalism, though in most other countries these connections are made and understood and thus somewhat addressed. Any criticism of capitalism in this country is so taboo, however, that these problems cannot be properly addressed. And, ironically, the conservative defenders of so-called "free market" capitalism continue to get more and more unhappy with society, yet they still feed they very root-cause of their unhappiness.
For more on this study see:
Study: Vanity on the rise among college students