Greek myth has it that the nymph Echo, smitten by Narcissus' good looks, wants a hookup with the gorgeous young man. But Narcissus rejects Echo, dooming her to a disembodied eternity repeating herself. As revenge for spurning Echo, the goddess Nemesis leads Narcissus to a lake where he sees a reflection of himself and falls in love with it. In love with his image, loath to disturb his reflection in the water, Narcissus prefers to die of thirst. A flower appears there as the only evidence he ever existed.
And thus we have the word "narcissism." There’s no record of how many "likes" or "followers" Narcissus got, but in this social and political era narcissism is having its moment.
The modern psychological description of narcissism arose in 1898 when Havelock Ellis—who had his own issues with sex—used the term when describing excessive masturbation, where a person becomes his or her own sex object.
Narcissism has a variety and spectrum of conditions including: voracious need for attention coupled with fear of abandonment, lack of empathy, obsessed self-promotion, demand for entitlement, obsession with how they appear to others, exploitation of others, lack of self-awareness, projecting personal setbacks and mistakes onto others. Psychologists who study narcissism define two personality types: "grandiose narcissists" who chest beat their superiority, and "vulnerable narcissists" who fish for attention with passive-aggressive victimization.
What used to be an annoying personality trait or paralyzing aberrant behavior has now been supercharged inside the infinity room of the Internet.
Selfies, for instance, are an endless global portrait gallery of narcissistic self-regard. Over 100 million selfies are posted every day. In the Internet Age, the Greek Narcissus would be posting selfies on Facebook, Instagram, WeChat, TenCent, or VKontakte, or OdnoKlassniki.
"Research has shown that more narcissistic individuals post images of themselves on social media more often than others do, and that frequent selfie posting may, in turn, increase posters' narcissism over time," Alex Jordan, a psychologist at Boston's McLean psychiatric hospital and a Harvard Medical School teacher, wrote in an e-mail interview.
"Moreover, the results of one recent experiment suggest that selfies can help the narcissist rebound... after experiencing social exclusion. Narcissistic individuals found emotional relief when they simply posted a selfie online and received 'likes' from others,"
Jordan observes. "Making a conversation all about you, and showing off one's beauty, are nothing new in the playbook of the grandiose narcissist, but the Internet (trolling, selfies) has arguably made these tactics more accessible than ever before."
With the need for attention escalating from the clamorous crowd, selfies have to be more extreme to get likes and followers. Underwater selfies with sharks, selfies at the edge of erupting volcanoes, selfies with live hand grenades.
Extreme selfies have led to "selficides," which are accidental deaths of people as they attempt to get the perfect postable self-portrait. Accidental death-by-selfie has swept the globe as posters are in a race to bring attention to themselves.
A couple who traveled the world to post photos of themselves on their "Holidays and Happily Everafters" Instagram account died after falling 800 feet in Yosemite. Their now dormant account can be viewed here.
In Taiwan, social media personality Gigi Wu—known as the "Bikini Hiker" specializing in climbing mountains to selfie in her bikini—fell 100 feet, tried to summon help on her phone, and froze to death. On Mt. Everest, a long single file line of tourists waiting to step on the summit resulted in the death of 11 selfie takers as they ran out of oxygen at 29,000 feet. In Arizona, social media popularity has created a stampede of two million selfie snapping tourists to the remote Glen Canyon Recreation Area where five people have fallen to their deaths while attempting selfies at the Horseshoe Bend 1000-foot drop.
Three laughing teenage girls in a small Utah community died taking a group selfie as a train arrived, not noticing another train approaching from the opposite direction. They were crushed to death between them. Moments before their death, one of the girls posted: "standing right by a train ah haha this is awesome" on her Facebook page.
Whether eaten by bears or drowned by a 3000 pound-walrus, selficide even has a running Wiki tabulation of slapstick tragedy.
"Worryingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, research suggests the more time someone spends taking selfies may be associated with a subsequent growth in narcissistic traits," psychologist Ava Valashjardi, of Edinburgh Napier University, wrote in an interview. "Social media platforms may therefore create a space for narcissistic individuals to validate their self-concept through the approval of others."
A selfie sub-genre are social media videos of "gender reveal" stunts announcing the sex of an impending birth. Elaborately planned performances of the surprise reveal include a crowd of onlooking relatives. In one incident, a staged explosion in Arizona meant to release blue smoke to announce a boy went awry and started the Sawmill Fire battled by 600 firefighters, forcing over 100 people to evacuate and causing $8 million in damage.
In Iowa, a gender reveal explosion meant to release colored powder killed a woman bystander when shrapnel smashed into her head.
Internet narcissism isn't just billions of selfies crying out "look at me." Like status monkeys frolicking in a playland of conspicuous consumption, handbags, shoes, pets, cars, houses and their interiors, sculpted food on dinner plates—you name it—are offered up to the public to admire.
"Narcissists are preoccupied with how others perceive them. Thus, showing off purchases, especially when these goods are luxury and expensive, may be an easy way to attract attention and admiration. It may be also a way to compensate for narcissistic inferiority," according to Marta Marchlewska, of the Political Cognition Lab at the Polish Academy of Sciences' Institute of Psychology.
"Narcissism is an addiction to boosts in self-esteem. To achieve these boosts narcissists may encourage others to compliment them or simply show that they are much better than the rest. That is why narcissists usually brag about themselves in a grandiose way—they emphasize their outstanding skills, high status associations, exciting lifestyle, social popularity, material possessions or physical attractiveness," Marchlewska writes.
Narcissism meets marketing in the tsunami of "unboxing" YouTube videos where people lovingly unwrap, present, and explain their new purchases. Like fetish offerings on the altar of consumerism, an estimated 100,000 unbox videos are uploaded every week. Combining the infantilism of elementary school "show and tell" with the erotic thrill of peeling cellophane off a new purchase, the unbox phenomenon has become a tool for corporate marketing. Particularly popular among children, the unbox videos are known as "toddler crack." The comparison with crack is apt, as the thrill is gone after the object is unwrapped. It's useless and tossed aside. When narcissistic individuals don't receive the feedback they believe they're entitled to, they’re likely to feel depressed, sad, and vulnerable. To get another jolt the presenter has to move on to the next unopened box.
There’s a mitigating factor in adolescent selfie narcissism, and that is age. Psychologists say the casual narcissism of youth—showing off faces in makeup table bedroom selfies—fades away as people get older. Old age doesn't get many "likes" or "followers."
Age is no impediment when narcissism is expressed as Internet trolling, where a person intentionally infuriates others by posting offensive comments. Being hateful and cruel is a surefire way to get attention and validation. Outraged reactions to their malevolent postings are the trolls' reward.
"Large survey studies have demonstrated that people who score higher on scales of narcissism are more likely to endorse trolling as a preferred online activity. Grandiose narcissists seek attention and dominance, and posting incendiary comments on social media is an easy way to quickly achieve a feeling of importance—you might have hundreds of other people responding to you within minutes," Jordan observes.
"Other harmful characteristics of narcissism, such as exploitation and lack of empathy towards others may be linked to obsessive trolling. Such narcissistic tendencies have been linked to aggression and manipulation. This is one of the many paradoxes of narcissistic people; they exploit and demean people as they simultaneously yearn for their attention and adulation," notes Valashjardi.
Hateful trolling can spiral into conditions of psychopathy and sadism, the final stop for vicious narcissism. Psychologists use the discomforting phrase "Dark Triad" for this condition.
"The Dark Triad is a constellation of three personality traits of which narcissism is one, besides Machiavellianism and Psychopathy. It’s an umbrella term for malevolent qualities and these qualities have been linked to, for instance, antisocial behaviors," explains Sara Pabian who studies cyberbullying at the University of Antwerp. She explains that the Dark Triad personality develops during childhood and adolescence at a time when environmental influences are important.
The individual narcissism of a teenager obsessively posting filtered selfies or a lonely hater troll venting spleen in the glow of a laptop are one thing, but narcissism takes wider, more sinister effects when it becomes crowd behavior. Termed "collective narcissism," social psychologists have tied narcissism to cultural and political groups. Like individual passive-aggressive "vulnerable" narcissists, group narcissism is defined by hostility, exaggerated reactions to criticism, lack of empathy, and playing the victim.
"It has been argued that whole societies can become narcissistic because of the relentless spread of narcissistic characteristics and behaviors among individuals," reports Agnieszka Golec de Zavala who established the PrejudiceLab at Goldsmiths, University of London. The team of psychologists study collective narcissism, prejudice, hostility, and political radicalization.
Collective narcissism is "a belief that one's own group (the ingroup) is exceptional and entitled to privileged treatment but it is not sufficiently recognized by others... any reason can be used to claim that the ingroup is exceptional: incomparable morality, cultural sophistication, competence, economic or military might, protection of democratic values, God's love, even exceptional suffering and martyrdom," according to a paper published by the team in the journal Advances in Political Psychology.
Collective narcissists display negative attitudes, low self-esteem, and lack of life satisfaction. Studies have also linked collective narcissism to authoritarianism: submission to authority figures, denying external reality in favor of an ingroup's beliefs, and aggression towards those who threaten the social order.
Times of economic crisis and social and cultural stress cause a rise in collective narcissism. People suffer a loss of confidence and are uncertain about their self-worth. To regain it they’re susceptible to collective narcissism, such as movements in Germany in the 1930s and the United States in the 2010s, the report points out.
Collective narcissists' identity is tied to specific, divisive topics. For instance, research has shown collective narcissism in Poland reflects religious fundamentalism, misogyny, and homophobia, while being "truly Polish" means being "male, Catholic, and heterosexual." Non-traditional women and other outgroups are blamed for the loss of "national grandeur," Golec writes.
Collective narcissism groups need an enemy because they need to be victims. That keeps the group together. And they keep together on the Internet, which becomes a black hole of social media outrage, constantly sucking narcissists into the accretion ring. Subscribing to the reality of their ingroup boosts narcissists' self-esteem. Nothing will bend group narcissim's gravity pull, even if it means having to rewrite history.
And it’s difficult, if not impossible, to introduce collective narcissists to reality. "Narcissist belief is likely to be rigid... a preference for certain, and definite, knowledge and avoidance of uncertainty," according to Golec. "In order to uphold the belief in their ingroup’s exceptionality, collective narcissists see what is not there and sometimes they do not see what is."
Narcissistic groups' need to be victims is a petri dish for conspiracy theories, no matter how convoluted or outlandish. It's obsessive click bait.
Research conducted by Marchlewska and her colleagues indicates "narcissism is positively related to the endorsement of conspiracy beliefs. We showed that this link is driven by narcissistic paranoid tendencies. In fact, narcissists are obsessed with being in the center of other’s attention and they often perceive other’s behavior as intentionally targeted against them. This may lead to perceptions that some situations are intentionally caused by secret actions performed by a group of malevolent people. Moreover, as narcissists constantly deny to themselves that they did something wrong, conspiracy explanations may serve as a kind of excuse (e.g., 'It’s not my fault. The world is against me')."
Rigid beliefs in conspiracy are also held by individual narcissists who relish the pleasure of feeling they’re superior. "There's a narcissistic satisfaction in believing oneself to understand things that the vast majority of people—'sheeple'—do not," Jordan notes.
In a phenomenon of narcissistic monkey-see-monkey-do, the Internet spreads the new reality of conspiracy theories and misinformation through "behavioral contagion." Studies have shown that echo chamber social media nodes of like-minded narcissists are the kindling to spreading fires on the Internet.
"A polarized digital space where users tend to promote their favorite narratives, form polarized groups and resist information that does not conform to their beliefs may be the fertilizer that makes the Internet so fertile for the growth of misinformation," Petter Tornberg, a sociologist at the University of Amsterdam writes in an article about viral misinformation.
"A single user in your network claiming that vaccines cause autism or that Russia is an important ally to the US may easily be disregarded as a nutjob. But if a large fraction of your social network argues for the same thing, it not only makes the argument seem more authoritative, but you may also feel the need to conform to your social group," Tornberg notes in his description of "echo chambers."
The same elements of group identity among collective narcissists is present in the Internet echo chamber nodes. Cozy feelings of self-worth and belonging to something is even more important to narcissists than the misinformation narcissists spread.
Jonathan Swift's 1710 adage "falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it" has been turbocharged on the Internet. Tornberg points out that "the digital world seems to provide fertile soil for the growth of misinformation, as studies show that false news diffuse faster, farther and deeper than true news in social networks."
Curated, mediated, old school, slow read media that gave time for thought and reflection and analysis is distrusted and in collapse in the face of mimicry and swarm logic. "Armies of supporters for products, brands or presidents are quickly rallied, spreading their views in an environment where trust in traditional knowledge authorities is increasingly frail," Tornberg writes.
"This changing online climate is relevant not merely within the realm of social media, but may influence opinions and behavior also in other areas of human life. This rapid cultural shift has quickly become an onerous threat, with viral misinformation now being seen as a major risk to human society," Tornberg summarizes ominously.
Narcissists posting daredevil selfies, narcissists crowing about their fabulous vacations and shoes, narcissists trolling hateful screeds, narcissists raving about convoluted conspiracy theories—psychologists say they all lack a sense of self-deprecating humor. It turns out narcissists can't take a joke.
Perhaps the only solution for Internet narcissists is for them to go jump in Narcissus' lake—leaving behind an early blooming, short-lived flower as the only evidence they ever existed.