"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Vanity: the dilemma

I just came across this article suggesting that today's college students are more "narcissistic" than those of the past, perhaps as a result of the emphasis on "self-esteem" in education during the 1980s and 90s.


"We need to stop endlessly repeating 'You're special' and having children repeat that back," said the study's lead author, Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. "Kids are self-centered enough already."

Twenge and her colleagues, in findings to be presented at a workshop Tuesday in San Diego on the generation gap, examined the responses of 16,475 college students nationwide who completed an evaluation called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory between 1982 and 2006.

The standardized inventory, known as the NPI, asks for responses to such statements as "If I ruled the world, it would be a better place," "I think I am a special person" and "I can live my life any way I want to."

I believe that such silly questions were asked, but I'm afraid I don't believe the conclusions drawn from what were presumably the answers.

Take the three statements quoted as having been offered on the "inventory" for a yes-or-no response. As for the first, it's one that most people would answer in the affirmative—at least if my experience is any guide. But that doesn't mean narcissism is on the rise. It's always been true that most people think things would be better if they were in charge. Next, the statement "I can live my life any way I want to" is true, but only trivially so. One "can" indeed live one's life exactly as one pleases—but only for a time, and only at a cost. When the cost becomes too great to bear, the time runs out. The question, then, should not have been whether one "can" live as one pleases. Beyond a certain age, one clearly can. The question should have been qualified: how long, and at what cost? Answers to that would have been interesting indeed.

Finally, the offering of "I am a special person" as a question is almost pricelessly idle. The article closes with a student's observation: "Besides, some of the responses on the narcissism test might not be worrisome," Dalane said. "It would be more depressing if people answered, 'No, I'm not special."' She is quite right. The students have been presented with a dilemma: if they think themselves special, that is taken as a sign of narcissism; but if they don't, that could with as much or as little justice be taken as evidence of a lack of healthy self-regard. Which is worse, I cannot say. That's the sort of thing that's depressing about the study.

Indeed, the idea that each person is special is just that double-edged. In one sense, everybody is special, for everybody has some God-given role and charism that nobody else has been given. That holds even for the "disabled." Perhaps that's all some students meant when affirming, on the inventory, that they are special. But of course, if everybody is special in that particular way, then nobody is special simpliciter. Nobody stands out just for having a role different from everybody else's. If not all college students realize that while they are of standard college age, they will learn it quite quickly when they fully enter the world of work. So saying one is special in the present sense isn't any cause to worry about proliferating narcissism.

What is more usually meant by saying that somebody is "special" is that they are special to somebody else. But most of us are special to somebody else—if only our mothers. So that doesn't get us very far either.

Of course, by affirming one is special, one might mean that one's individual role and charism really do make one stand out. Sometimes that is true; more often, it is not. But the inventory makes no such distinctions as I have been making. Largely for that reason, it is useless.

This is why I've always had a lot of difficulty with soft psychology masquerading as science. The standard methodologies do not capture the relevant subtleties. I doubt they could. Mind you, I don't doubt the value of a good psychotherapist for some people. But good therapy is more of an art than a science. And as for spiritual growth—well, how many reliable surveys have you seen of that?

Still, vanity or narcissism—the least dangerous form of pride—is just as much a dilemma in the spiritual life. Of certain things, it is sometimes said that "believing makes it so." Here, there's a sense in which believing makes it not so: if one believes oneself special in God's eyes, in the sense of being holier or more important than others, then one isn't. On the other hand, if one believes oneself to be the chief of sinners, that too can be vain posturing and thus threatens to become self-verifying. I know quite well that I am a sinner; but I also know it would be the height of pride for me to imagine myself the chief of sinners. I just don't have that kind of juice. Sometimes, to be sure, regarding oneself as the chief of sinners is mere overgeneralizing from one's narrow experience. But that too can lead to narcissism: in this case, that of regarding one's own experience as definitive.

I realize there is such a thing as "narcissistic personality disorder." But there aren't that many NPDers walking around, torturing those around them. Aside from them, I suggest we stop worrying. Reality has a way of curing garden-variety narcissism. We need to be more worried about how terrible so many people really feel about themselves.
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