Narcissistic America (Book Review)

“An organization suffering under the whip of an abusive or egomaniacal leader,” Jeffrey Kluger writes, “is hardly an organization functioning at its best.” Keeping the near-boiling caldron (of the leader) from bubbling over means minimizing experiences of shame and maximizing displays of pride and hubris and attacking those who upset the balance. Sound familiar? The book The Narcissist Next Door begins on page 1 with Donald Trump. It was published in 2014! We are living out this book today in the form of the Narcissist in the White House.

It was crystal-clear prior to his election that Trump was an exemplary narcissist. He had an overinflated ego regularly on display. As Kluger notes about narcissists, their confidence level exceeds their performances; and they don’t learn from experiences. Ego protection is of the utmost importance. If they didn’t think of the latest good idea, they will steal the credit for it.

“Contented people, well-grounded people, people at ease inside their skin, just don’t behave the way Trump does”. His “public persona has become…unbearable.” And this was BEFORE he got elected. Why did he win? Well, Kluger has a section all about politicians, and particularly presidents, as a special group who must have some degree of narcissism to posit they are suitable for the job (even if they really are not). Along with corporate leaders and showbiz people, politicians who have a combination of greed, ambition, lack of empathy, and large ego tend to be influential, persuasive and end up “winning” at least for a while. But, be forewarned, I was frequently saying “hmm” while reading this book and I don’t think that’s a good thing. But I didn’t put it down. It was interesting.

From Hollywood to academia, Kluger also reminds us that many top scientists display these undesirable qualities. It does make sense: you can’t deal with regular rejection and criticism unless you truly think you are doing excellent work and that everyone else is too dim to notice it yet. So, you persevere and gain more research money and put on a show of your results. Tangentially, I have noticed the number of men (and not just one or two women) in the “skeptic/atheist” community who are guilty of being outrageously arrogant, dismissive, and/or sexist. Perhaps because this community skews high in IQ, ego, and narcissistic tendencies, they feel entitled to behave boorishly and put down those holding opposite views.

The worst situation, Kluger points out, is when a person has high power and low perceived competence and when there is an increased demand to keep showing people how good you are. Insecure leaders can be aggressive if they feel threatened. We have seen Trump pull the classic narcissistic response – roughly belittle other people to make yourself sound good in comparison. He does it on the podium and on Twitter where he will be less subject to responses.

Kluger reminded me that Charlie Sheen did the “winning” before Trump and Sarah Palin blamed the bad ol’ media before him too. Some of the many name-drops in this book include the following: Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Bernie Madoff, Ralph Nader, LeBron James, Lance Armstrong, and Carly Fiorina.

True narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is diagnosed only in about 1% of the population. But there are lesser degrees. You can take the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) yourself at the end of the book to see how you rank in terms of average. But by then, you sort of know what answers will get you a point in the self-loved direction. Kluger thinks the tendency towards indulging in narcissistic behavior is on the rise and more people are falling into the trap. He attributes a few causes – lack of unsupervised play where children learn that being selfish does not get you long-term rewards, the self-esteem trend of too many rewards and fewer negative consequences of not achieving the top spot (think of awards for participation instead of just the highest ranks). He points out that this erupted onto the scene in 2006 when everything in the culture became about YOU. Then came social media which allowed people to put their best view online for all their casual “friends” to see and admire. Selfies were required for social interaction. People enjoyed seeing themselves having a good time, even if they really weren’t, but they looked cool. They stared at their pictures on their devices, just like Narcissus stared. Creepy, eh?

Children are born narcissistic and, eventually, most develop a theory of mind and gain impulse control that is influenced by parental teaching and social learning. If you have a narcissistic parent, or one that leaves you emotionally needy, or if you miss out on the social learning cues, you may end up exhibiting these self-centered traits.

The most disturbing examples in the book are those of violent criminals and mass murderers. With a school massacre back in the news, it was difficult to read about the Columbine killers and their behaviors. Kluger outright calls OJ Simpson a “killer” and noted how a good indicator of repeat abusers is to see how they score on the NPI because abusers share traits with narcissists. Simpson was clearly in both categories. From minor offenses to murder, narcissists feel no remorse unless they get caught and then they react as if they are the victims of some injustice. Again, this sounds so horribly familiar.

It is problematic to diagnose NPD from an outsider’s position but, in today’s world, people put so much out there. For celebrities and politicians, much of what they do and say is displayed in real time and in public so it is not a stretch to conclude some psychological generalizations.

I was floored at points in this book of how it seems to foreshadow the daily news feed of 2017-8. The use of study results and statistics, aiming to show there are well-studied conclusions to be drawn, tended to break the flow of the book.

In conclusion, it was a good book but with several loose ends, such as when the author admits to being grateful his previous boss fired him because he felt himself falling into the selfish mindset, which did not really make sense. The book was slightly rambling in parts. It could have been improved with a stronger focus. I would like to have read more about how to deal with such self-absorbed people because we all need to know THAT. Perhaps that is for another book to tackle. There was a hint that narcissists can tap their hidden empathy. And then we are left dangling…

This was a book about understanding the concept. I learned a lot about how narcissists can sabotage situations, and I’m more afraid than before.

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