by Denissa Goh
“Oh my God, Lisa, this is like our 20th selfie! You look fine, just stop deleting them or I’ll stop taking pictures with you!”
“No! We’re not leaving until I get a good one for Instagram. It’s been three days since I’ve posted a photo!” she cried.
That same conversation would be carried out every time we planned to go somewhere fancy, and my short operation to coerce her has never once succeeded because her reputation on Instagram takes precedence.
I always ended up giving in to her clamours by desultorily striking a pose and complementing it with a perfunctory smile. Yes, she is the annoying diva that hogs the only full-length mirror in the public toilet, shamelessly firing five loud snaps every three seconds with her uniquely bedazzled iPhone.
It seems like taking selfies are a sine qua non for individuals like her now, which Psychology Today classifies as narcissists; individuals with a self-obsessed personality disorder.
Psychology professors, Keith W. Campbell and Joshua D. Miller, defined narcissism in their book as “one’s capacity to maintain a relatively positive self-image through a variety of self-regulation, and interpersonal processes, and it underlies individuals’ needs for validation and admiration, as well as the motivation to overtly and covertly seek out self-enhancement experiences from the social environment”.
Doesn’t that sound all too familiar with the trends of today? The fact that we follow an unwritten set of rules of how we are to present ourselves in order to be accepted by our own society. We have freely handed society the power to judge our personalities through our physical appearance; and one of the ways are through the portrayal of our visual self by uploading selfies to social media platforms.
The younger generation of today - supposedly our leaders of tomorrow – have become so embroiled in the selfie culture, which scientists consider as one of the most prominent forms of narcissism today. And the reason why millennials are receiving innumerable amounts of criticism for this seemingly harmless trend is because studies – conducted by well-known narcissist whisperer, psychologist and professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University – revealed they scored much higher in the Narcissistic Personality Inventory as compared to teens of the previous generation.
One of her study, Egos Inflating Over Time in the Journal of Personality, reported a systematic increase in scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. It concluded that the generational factor is a better predictor of narcissism scores than gender.
How did we even start getting so self-absorbed?
The advancement of technology, I strongly believe, has played a part in this.
This year itself Huawei launched the Ascend P7, making it the world’s first ever mobile phone with a panoramic function for the front camera. This ‘panoramic selfie’ smartphone enables users to easily take group selfies – one of the latest craze after famous American television host Ellen DeGeneres posted one featuring more than ten celebrities at the Oscars.
Subsequent to that, monopods, better known as ‘selfie on a stick’, were invented to aid in this group selfie hype. It started as a mere extension for the mobile phone, now these affordable devices even have a function to focus on the subject before capturing it.
Casio added the “Selfie Genie” to their Exilim series, which is a range of cameras that has a unique twist on the screen, providing users the flexibility to take self-portraits without the help of others. It also has a built-in “Make-up Mode”, which tech experts from SUPERADRIANME reviewed to have the “power to produce flawless, pink and glowing skin”.
And without a doubt, there exists an endless battle between large tech giants, trying to prove whose range of products are better. With every new product launch, we see an inclusion of improvised features that can make usability much easier. In this case, enabling users to take selfies without breaking a sweat.
It seems that we are no longer capturing and documenting things we observe, but ourselves, for the world to see. Are we that narcissistic to make our faces the subject of every photograph?
Richard Boyd, an experienced Body Mind Psychotherapist and Director of the Energetics Institute in WA agreed to advanced technology’s role as a catalyst to narcissism levels today.
“Because they are enablers of the narcissistic image to be created in different ways, and then uploaded onto the social platforms for everyone to see. So in any sense, any technology that enables something to be done easier and better is always going to produce more of whatever that produces,” he said.
He also stated that these technologies are very adaptive and attractive to people who are overly narcissistic and vain in helping them to achieve the idealised image of themselves.
“… They are walking around and looking for the opportunity to get yet another selfie or another portrayal of some aspect of themselves, or environment, which tends to lend itself to interpretation through perception that they are somehow beautiful, wanted, adorable, or special,” he added.
And for that reason, cameras with ‘Make-up Mode’ and ‘beauty camera’ mobile phone applications – which can be obtained for free – gives narcissists an ease of use to build the ‘perfect self’ of what is more accepted in society. And Boyd said this “contrived outcome” constantly tries to crop up a proposition that is all about wealth, image, success, power and status.
Author of iDisorder and past chair of the psychology department at California State University, Dr Larry Rosen, pointed out the link between narcissism and use of technology has been recognised in several studies.
“There are data by some researchers showing that narcissism has been increasing among university students over the past 30 to 40 years, and those researchers always attempted to link that increase to the concomitant increase in technology usage,” he stated.
However, besides new technology, social media is also proven to be a facilitator to this rise in self-obsession today, according to another study conducted by Campbell with Laura Buffardi of University of Georgia. I however believe it’s not very surprising to many since the media has always been the first to have fingers pointed at when it comes to the hiccups in society.
Their study found a direct link between levels of narcissism and usage of social media. In other words, if a person has high social activity levels in the online community, chances are, they are narcissists. The professors also defended their conclusion does not rule out the notion that all narcissists are active on social networks, or all active users are narcissists.
Twenge, who also shares the same ground, said in an interview with Lynne Malcolm of ABC’s All in the Mind program, “What that means is the average person you’re connected with on Facebook is probably a little more narcissistic than the average person you’re connected with in real life because narcissists are skilled at those online connections.”
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a business psychology professor at University College London, agreed with this linkage and suggested that the number of status updates, selfies, check-ins, followers and friends are proven to be “positively correlated” with narcissism.
“The reason for these correlations is that narcissistic individuals are much more likely to use social media to portray a desirable, albeit unrealistic, self-image, accumulate virtual friends and broadcast their life to an audience,” he reasoned in his published article in The Guardian.
Boyd further substantiated this and argued that the “classic narcissistic personality” adopts social media technology because it is perfect for promoting the whole intention to create their idealised persona to convey to hopefully an adoring audience.
However, the issue with this now is that the age groups embracing this culture are getting younger. Michelle Lau, a mental health social worker in a primary school said students as young as grade 4 and 5 already had emails, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
“Social media is a platform for people to self-express, except that the self-expression is a bit skewered. How many times have you seen someone post a selfie – a lot! It’s very prevalent with the young generation,” Lau added.
With social media, users are given the opportunity to browse through other people’s lives, especially the popular celebrities they idolise and long to emulate. Furthermore, these public figures are more likely to have accounts on popular social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in order to interact with their fans – also not forgetting to generate awareness, which equates to financial profit. But having a peek into the lives of these popular individuals through personal pictures – more accurately, selfies - and videos are able to influence fans in different ways.
“Selfies are popular with celebrities who cultivate their fans because in their casual rawness, selfies feel more immediate, intimate and personal, enhancing the celebrity’s connection to their fans,” Pamela Rutledge, a writer in the Psychology Today blog said.
Through these photos, each accompanied by over a million likes, fans try to emulate the lifestyle they can identify in the mere visual – hoping to be able to be as popular, and receive as many likes as the photos of these celebrities did.
Melanie Kell, an experienced Australian journalist and editor, argued in an articlethat with the power of the media and technology, the distance between fans and celebrities have been narrowed, which allows them to emulate many aspects of their lives.
She also believes the levels of narcissism and celebrity worship are parallel to each other.
“People high in narcissism tend to embrace celebrity even more. A narcissist believes they are entitled to a certain way of treatment and a certain lifestyle, and who emulates that lifestyle more than a celebrity?” she quoted Cooper Lawrence, a celebrity culture expert and author of The Cult of Celebrity.
But how harmful can loving yourself too much be?
Anne Manne, author of The Life of I: The New Culture of Narcissism, said this trend of self-obsession is getting worse because people are getting “hypercompetitive” to be on top.
“A condition that has a greater sense of entitlement, are more willing to exploit others and have lack of empathy for others,” she said during an interview with Steve Cannane in ABC’s The Drum.
These traits were also present in Twenge’s findings, which she concluded to have been consistently increasing together with narcissism. Examples of the traits she stated were “extrinsic values, unrealistic expectations, materialism, low empathy, self-views, self-esteem, self-focus, less concern for others, and less interest in helping environment”.
Initially, I found it difficult to digest the fact that a person who takes a profusion of selfies are more likely to end up being somewhat heartless. But it made more sense when I started to see these traits in my narcissistic friend, Lisa.
The twist is, after pressuring me to spend a great deal of time taking selfies with her, she never uploads them at the end of the day. And my verdict is because we come from different worlds – and have different kinds of Instagram photos.
While my Instagram is filled with food and occasional selfies, hers scream wealth and a whole lot of “LOOK AT ME”. Here is what her page looks like: A selfie with her friends draped in Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Givenchy; a selfie while fine-dining at a three-starred Michelin French cuisine; and more selfies with her other wealthy-looking friends.
“It shows traits of narcissism,” Boyd said in this case.
“There is a point where having a balanced sense of self starts to become a distortion and an obsession, and we start to overly focus on ourselves and only use others around us to make us look good, or to be the audience which we want to be projecting our image and stories into so that they esteem us. And we’re actually not that interested in them,” he said.
He stated that they are more insecure and anxious about whether they are being seen, followed or adored.
“So they need to then adopt the extrinsic or external symbols and representations that the society and their peer groups say represent success; image beauty; and being number one through the best brands, lovely perfumes, dresses, appearing at A-listed events, or being seen with the right people,” he substantiated.
And those small insecurities eventually form the traits Twenge mentioned in her findings.
In addition, Rosen pointed out that the use of technology is able to foster qualities like self-focus.
“Technology has made it easy to pay attention to your own needs behind a glass screen rather than attending to anyone else, particularly those in your real world,” he argued.
In other words, because they are so focused on themselves, there is a tendency to disregard and numb out other people’s feelings.
“Unless you have feelings, you’re not really in proper contact with the external world, because the feedback mechanism of other people’s feelings which we take in and process within ourselves creates empathy if we offended or injured someone. If we have disabled that sense, then we become cut off, cold, unempathetic and aloof,” Boyd adds.
Having dealt with similar cases in the Acute Psychiatric Ward previously, Lau described how tiring it can be being around people with extremely narcissistic people.
“They can actually create a lot of havoc. There’s always drama, there’s always something happening, and it’s always about themselves,” she said.
So, at this present time where younger children are embracing this obsession with social media and technologies, and developing higher narcissism levels – will the breeding of narcissists be multiplied ten folds in the coming years?
If things were to go down that path, Boyd said, we would become a very predatory and manipulative society, and relationships or connecting with another would revolve around exploiting them towards some agenda for ‘myself’.
“What you’ll see is that people will be very cut off from each other; that relationships of a genuine sense will no longer exist, because people will be all about ‘me’ not and about ‘we’,” he described.
“The society will have low levels of trust; high levels of indulgence in materialism and consumption around the things that make me look good; and desperate need and craving for others to be looking at me versus looking at themselves.”
But does that mean we ought to have a lower self-esteem to avoid turning into vain pots?
He disagrees with that and believes everyone needs a dose of narcissism to be risk takers, leaders and adventurers in the world, otherwise we would collapse from not having a valued sense of self.
“If you didn’t have a healthy sense of self, you wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning and say, ‘I see a challenge, opportunity or a risk, and I’m going to go for that goal regardless of those things because I believe in myself’,” he reasoned.
In addition, Campbell acknowledged the notion that narcissism may be a functional and healthy strategy for dealing with the modern world.
“We all need a tincture of it, but some people unfortunately become addicted to it,” Boyd said.
In this present day, Lisa and I are no longer in contact, but are still following each other on Instagram. Her page is now overflowing with photo representations of wealth and class, and her following list had a tremendous increase. I guess back then, she only used me as a mere spectator and photographer to complete her celebrity-paparazzi role-play fantasy, because her ego needed to be fed.