Tracy Alloway and her research team recently asked more than 400 individuals a question many of us probably ask ourselves every time we check us Facebook profile: Does this make me more narcissistic? Using a survey of questions ranging from how many hours per day they spent on Facebook, the number of times they updated their status, and the look of their profile picture – as physically attractive, cool, glamorous and fashionable – researchers assessed just how participants acted on Facebook. And then to assess how narcissistic they were, participants were given a standard narcissism questionnaire, where they chose between statements that best described them – such as, “I like to be the center of attention” or “I prefer to blend in with the crowd.”
What Alloway and her team found was something we know intuitively about narcissism – it makes us want to be admired. In Alloway’s study, the more narcissistic a person was, the more frequently they updated their profile picture. While males focused more on the ratings of their profile picture, females tended to both their profile picture ratings and their status updates to gain admiration.
As Alloway explains, “Every narcissist needs a reflecting pool. Just as Narcissus gazed into the pool to admire his beauty, social networking sites, like Facebook, have become our modern-day pool,” (Alloway,2014).
The problem is that this reflecting pool is now getting much larger – and much more accessible. Facebook itself says the average American now spends 40 minutes a day checking a Facebook feed – which is more time than most people spend with their pets (39 minutes on average). While we used to seek companionship in the form of a furry friend, we are now seeking admiration in the form of Facebook friends. And unlike the good feelings that can come from the company of a furry companion, an abundance of likes on Facebook isn’t likely to make us feel much better.
Focusing on ourselves, after all, is a zero sum game. When the idea is to gain admiration, there is not a lot of interaction going on. Instead of focusing on others’ interests, we are updating our profiles, and wondering why they don’t measure up. One study showed that Facebook use often leads to envy – particularly when we feel tend to be self-focused. Assessing the link between Facebook use and depression among college students, researcher Margaret Duffy concluded, “We found that if Facebook users experience envy of the activities and lifestyles of their friends on Facebook, they are much more likely to report feelings of depression,” (Duffy, 2015).
While Facebook can be a very positive resource for many people – Duffy and her team expressed this as well – in many ways it is the perfect vehicle for self-absorption. Facebook not only allows us to craft the perfect image to be admired – filtering out any undesirable images – but compare that image to those of our friends.
And this may be the slippery slope of self-absorption: spending more time thinking about how we feel (and updating our profiles to make ourselves feel better), actually makes us feel worse.
While it may be easy to point the finger at Facebook for what Psychology Professor and narcissism expert, Jean Twenge calls the “Narcissism Epidemic” (which is also the title of her book), the data cannot be ignored: rates of self-absorption have risen in accordance with Facebook’s popularity.
And while self-absorption shows up in our Facebook habits, it also affects how we spend money. Several studies have already indicated that when we feel bad, we are prone to spend more, presumably as a way to make ourselves feel better. If you have ever found yourself browsing online late at night only to realize in the morning that you just bought that new pair of shoes (insert watch, shirt, antique, furniture – the list is endless) that you don’t really need, then you have fallen victim to this effect. But a new study done by a team of researchers collaborating from Carnegie Mellon University, Stanford University, Harvard University and University of Pittsburg have uncovered just what drives the impact of emotions on consumer behavior. Dividing participants into two groups – those high in self-focus and those low in self-focus – researchers then asked participants to view either a sad video clip or a neutral one (which was devoid on human emotion). Next participants could purchase an ordinary commodity, such as a water bottle, at different prices. Among participants primed to feel bad, those high in self-focus paid more than those low in self-focus – by as much as 300%.
In an interesting side effect, those in the sadness condition, when asked what influenced their willingness to pay more, denied that the emotional content of the film affected their spending.
Yet sadness and self-focus on go hand in hand. Feeling bad often makes us focus on feeling bad, and when we do, we devalue our sense of self, and our possessions. Under these conditions, it’s not hard to imagine that we will pay more for the same bottle of water, we would otherwise demand a fair price for – even if we deny that our emotional state leads to our irrational spending.
Interestingly, self-absorbed people also view price increases as “less fair” than their non-self-absorbed counterparts – especially when the brand is seen as non-humanized (Kwan, 2015). Seeing things as “non-humanized” is a facet of self-absorption. When you spend most of your time thinking about yourself – even if in the service of making yourself feel better – you don’t consider the perspectives of others much. And failing to think about how others feel, is a recipe not just for making them seem less human, but a host of negative behaviors.
In his brilliant book, The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, Dan Ariely explains just how feeling less connected to those around us – and failing to understand their perspectives – makes it easier for us to lie (or cheat). Because we don’t feel as if our behavior impacts others much, we convince ourselves that what we are doing doesn’t really hurt them. The evidence Ariely points to – the mortgage banking crisis – underscores something that we all recognize: while we wouldn’t steal from our grandmothers, we might steal from the supermarket.
And if you add envy to the mix, we might also lash out in anger. One study surveyed nearly 200 undergraduate students and more than 150 adults to identify how often and how strongly they felt envy, and found that those with higher envy scores were not only more depressed, anxious and distraught, but also more prone to unexpected outbursts of aggression. As lead researcher Zlatan Krizan explains, “These individuals still think they’re special, entitled, and they want to be great, but they just can’t do it. As a result they’re vulnerable, their self-esteem fluctuates a lot, they tend to be self-conscious and not very proactive, but passive, shy, and introverted. It’s these vulnerable individuals who are in some sense more worrisome because they are quiet, sort of festering in anger out there in a corner. And it’s just a matter of time before they get frustrated and lash out and verbally assault somebody, maybe even an innocent party, because of some provocation that they felt,” (Krizan, 2012).
Krizan further points to the Columbine school shooting in 1999 as an example of just how the combination of self-absorption and envy can lead to violence: “If you look at evidence that is often left over, in Columbine for example you had those videos, these shooting escapades seem to be a kind of power grab by these individuals. The tapes are also narratives, in which they are the person taking control, they’re the one in charge and they will determine how things will go,” (Krizan, 2012).
While Columbine is a drastic example of narcissism gone awry, it makes a powerful point – that the more we focus on ourselves, and consider the perspectives of others less – the more prone we are to act against them. But perhaps the more important point is just what self-absorption does to our feelings of happiness. As Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, and recognized as the father of “logotherapy” (literally translated as “meaning therapy”), explains, “Human existence – at least as long as it has not been neurotically distorted – is always directed to something, or someone, other than itself, be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter lovingly,” (Frankl, 2006).
The point that Frankl makes is that when our meaning comes only from satisfying our own needs (and achieving no greater purpose), we are prone to neurotic distortions – such as anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Further, when we derive our sense of self from the admiration of others, not only do we invariably compare ourselves to them, but we also feel significant amounts of envy should we not measure up. And while depression and narcissism seem like to opposites, they share the same root cause of too much looking in and not enough looking out. Whether we are spending time trying to prove to others that we are better, or focusing on the ways our life is worse than those around us, the result is the same – we are focused on our weaknesses. To transcend them, we must transcend ourselves.
Alloway, T., Runac, R., Qureshi, M., Kemp, G. (2014) Is Facebook Linked to Selfishness? Investigating the Relationships among Social Media Use, Empathy, and Narcissism. Social Networking, 2014; 03 (03): 150
Tandoc, E., Ferrucci, P., Duffy, M. (2015). Facebook use, envy, and depression among college students: Is facebooking depressing? Computers in Human Behavior, 2015; 43: 139
Twenge, J. (2009). The Narcissism Epidemic: Living In The Age of Entitlement. Atira, 2009.
Association for Psychological Science. Misery Is Not Miserly: Why Even Momentary Sadness Increases Spending. ScienceDaily, 8 February 2008.
Kwan, H., Puzakova, M., Rocereto, J. (2015). Better Not Smile at the Price: The Differential Role of Brand Anthropomorphization on Perceived Price Fairness. Journal of Marketing, 2015; 79 (4): 56
Krizan, Z., Johar, O. (2012). Envy Divides the Two Faces of Narcissism. Journal of Personality, 2012; 80 (5): 1415
Ariely,D. (2013). The Honest Truth About Dishonest: How We Lie To Everyone — Especially Ourselves. Harper Collins, 2013.
Johnstonea, B., Bodlinga, A., Cohenb, D., Christc, S., Wegrzync, A. (2012) Right Parietal Lobe-Related “Selflessness” as the Neuropsychological Basis of Spiritual Transcendence. International Journal of the Psychology of Religion, 2012
Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s Search For Meaning. Random House, 2006.
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