Researchers say we have a 'narcissism epidemic'. So what's causing it?

Are you an important person? The answer you give may indicate to psychologists how narcissistic you are. Similarly, the culture you are born into plays an important role.

 

Are you an important person?


The answer you give may indicate to psychologists how narcissistic you are. And on a societal level, the answer people give is changing. In 1963, when adolescents were asked if they considered themselves important, only 12 percent answered affirmatively. 30 years later, that percentage had risen to 80.

Narcissism is on the rise in modern Western societies and scientists are trying to figure out why. Some hypothesize that individual narcissism follows from the culture someone lives in: the more individualistic the culture, the more narcissistic people tend to be.

Now a new study leverages a unique historical event—the division of Germany into east and west in the aftermath of World War II—to look at how cultural change affects individual personality. After Germany was partitioned among Allied powers following its surrender, Soviet control of the country's eastern regions affected a cultural shift toward Soviet-style communism.

The forty years of separation of former East and West Germany has provided researchers with a “natural experiment" to gauge how culture affects personality. In a recent study, the scientists administered an online survey amongst 1,025 German individuals who had to complete tests that measured their levels of narcissism and self-esteem. 343 of the participants had grown up in the territory of East Germany and 682 in the territory of West Germany before 1990.

German actress Nana Osten (left) as Rita, the girlfriend of a would be East German defector, in a scene from 'Oggi a Berlino' (aka 'East Zone, West Zone'), directed by Piero Vivarelli, 1962. On the right are actors playing West Berlin policemen and East German Volkspolizei facing each other across the border in Berlin. (Jung/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The results showed that the participants from former West Germany scored higher on narcissistic grandiosity compared with the participants from former East Germany, even after controlling for gender and age. Interestingly, however, individuals from former East Germany had higher self-esteem than those from West Germany. This demonstrates that narcissism and self-esteem are not the same thing.

The researchers point out that:

Self-esteem, defined as global evaluation of the self, is related to narcissism. However, recent data provide evidence that narcissism differs from self-esteem in various domains. Narcissism and high self-esteem both include positive self-evaluations, but the entitlement, exploitation, sense of superiority, and negative evaluation of others that are associated with narcissism are not necessarily observed in individuals with high self-esteem.

In the United States, researchers have found symptoms of the “narcissism epidemic" in various places. Recently published books, for example, feature a more self-centered language. In comparison to earlier publications, the pronouns I and me tend to be used more frequently than we and us.

The use of narcissistic phrases such as “I am the greatest" has also increased between 1960 and 2008. At the same time, our popular culture seems mainly built on liberal conceptions of the self that give credibility to fame and self-focused memes like blogs, song lyrics, tweets, Instagram and so on.


NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 04: The new Eva Mendes Calvin Klein Secret Obsession billboard is on display at the unveiling of the Eva Mendes' billboard for Calvin Klein Secret Obsession in Times Square on September 4, 2008 in New York City. (Brad Barket/Getty Images)

The cultural environment—whether it is individualistic or collectivistic—affects the development of personality traits, including narcissism. Because individualistic cultures encourage a stronger focus on the self, their members may be more narcissistic than those of collectivistic cultures, which emphasize the importance of social values.

Ultimately, while you can't escape your culture, there are certain things you can do to decrease your narcissism and improve your self-esteem. Developing mindfulness, honoring your promises, respecting other people's space, needs and desires, as well as facilitating the process of self-acceptance and forgiveness are all good practices to start with.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.