Is your life as awesome as you pretend it is on Facebook?

Before I start, a plea: don’t shoot the messenger. A study* reported in the journal Personality and Individual Differences last month has suggested that there’s a direct link between the number of friends you have on Facebook and the degree to which you qualify as a “socially disruptive” narcissist. Just for the record, in a previous 2010 study on college students, narcissism was explained as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and an exaggerated sense of self-importance.”

Study participants who scored highly on something called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory questionnaire apparently had more friends on Facebook, tagged themselves more often, and updated their status and profile pictures more frequently. The research comes amid “increasing evidence that self-absorbed young people are becoming increasingly obsessed with self-image and shallow friendships.”  I’m just saying . . .  

A number of previous studies have linked narcissism with Facebook use, but, as reported in The Guardian:

“This study shows some of the first evidence of a direct relationship between Facebook friends and the most toxic elements of narcissistic personality disorder.”

Please note, before you start sputtering off defensive responses: remember that this research doesn’t mean that all Facebookers are narcissists, but merely that those with narcissistic tendencies really, really love Facebook. So do people who need to tell the world what they just ordered at Starbucks.

This is increasingly true for college-aged Starbucks customers, apparently, according to research published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. A nationwide 27-year meta-analysis of college students’ scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory demonstrated significant increases in narcissism. (Birth Cohort Increases in Narcissistic Personality Traits Among American College Students, 1982–2009).

Researchers at Western Illinois University have studied Facebook habits of users aged between 18 and 65 to measure two “socially disruptive” elements of narcissism – grandiose exhibitionism (GE) and entitlement/exploitativeness (EE).

GE includes ‘‘self-absorption, vanity, superiority, and exhibitionistic tendencies”; people who score high on this aspect of narcissism apparently need to be constantly at the centre of attention. They may say shocking things and inappropriately self-disclose because they cannot stand to be ignored or waste a chance of self-promotion. This WIU research revealed that the higher someone scored on aspects of GE, the greater the number of friends they had on Facebook.

The EE aspect includes “a sense of deserving respect and a willingness to manipulate and take advantage of others”.

Those scoring highly on both EE and GE were also more likely to accept friend requests from strangers and to seek social support, but were less likely to provide it, according to researchers.

U.K. neuroscientist Dr. Susan Greenfield at Oxford University recently testified to the British House of Lords during their internet regulatory debates:

“My fear is that Facebook is infantilizing the brain into the state of small children. Social networking sites can provide a constant reassurance – that you are listened to, recognized, and important.”

Social scientist Dr. Carol Craig – also in the U.K. – bluntly blames American influences as she observes that young people in Britain are becoming increasingly narcissistic, and Facebook is providing a platform for self-promotion:

“The way that children are being educated is focusing more and more on the importance of self-esteem and on how you are seen in the eyes of others.

“This method of teaching has been imported from the Unites States. It is ‘all about me’.”

For the average narcissist, researchers have found that Facebook “offers a gateway for hundreds of shallow relationships and emotionally detached communication.” More importantly for this study, social networking in general allows the user a great deal of control over how he or she is presented to and perceived by peers and other users.

And in another earlier study, Dr. Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychology professor and co-author of the book, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, collaborated on a national Youth Pulse survey of over 1,000 people. They were asked about their social media usage, generational attitudes, whether or not sites like Twitter and Facebook were used for self-promotion, and if social media attention-seeking is helpful for success.

Dr. Twenge’s research found that 40% of respondents agreed that “being self-promoting, narcissistic, overconfident, and attention-seeking is helpful for succeeding in a competitive world.”

If you can’t quite buy that, you likely are unaware of Elle or Blair Fowler, two attractive 20-something Tennessee sisters who have gone way beyond Facebook by turning YouTube videos about their makeup, their hair, their clothes, and what they’re shopping for at the mall into a virtual brand.  Blair’s 17th birthday haul video” on YouTube, for example, attracted over 1.5 million viewers.  “Hauling”, by the way, is when young people (mostly female) film themselves holding up all the new stuff that they’ve acquired recently. NPR called these ‘haul videos’ “the ultimate in materialistic PG porn.”

Really awesome, kids. Don’t get me started.

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© 2012  Carolyn Thomas – The Ethical Nag: Marketing Ethics for the Easily Swayed

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* Christopher J. Carpenter. Narcissism on Facebook: Self-promotional and anti-social behavior. Personality and Individual Differences, 2012; 52 (4): 482 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2011.11.011.

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12 thoughts on “Is your life as awesome as you pretend it is on Facebook?

  1. I’m not a fan of FaceBook (ya think?— grin) and I know what you’re saying is too, too true.

    Do you think Elizabeth Barrett Browning would have used FB?

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  2. I think this generation has been “It’s all about me” right from the start and is just more visible with Facebook. Maybe Facebook just gives people a large population of this generation which is available to look at and study.

    And did I misread the studies? How did they compare those found to be narcissistic on Facebook to those people in that generation who aren’t on FB? Did they see how many of that generation who didn’t join it could be considered narcissistic? Maybe they and I, too, am wrong. Maybe a study of the population at large would show they aren’t narcissistic and that those joining FB are perhaps more likely to be the people who are insecure?

    Maybe I’m way off base here. Just some questions that come to mind.

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    • Good question. If you believe the shrink’s bible (the DMS-IV) 0.5-1% of the general population have Narcissistic Personality Disorder (50-75% of those are men). But over 60% of North American adults under age 30 regularly use social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn, etc. Among the older Boomer-aged segment of internet users ages 50-64, about 30% of us are on social media – still far more than the rates of narcissism in the general population. Again, as I mentioned here, not all Facebookers are narcissists, but those with narcissistic tendencies really, really love Facebook.

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  3. I don’t think anyone has as many friends as he/she boasts on FB. I know quite a few people who embellish their lives a bit. They are family members…so I know this to be true.

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    • Really? I thought the test was remarkable. It’s apparently widely used and its results validated here: Raskin, R. & Terry, H. (1988). “A Principal-Components Analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory and Further Evidence of Its Construct Validity”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(5)

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      • I am not a psychological expert, and I do no know much about how a test is ‘validated.’ I just simply found the questions to be personally rather impossible to answer and rarely descriptive of my character (I have neither grandiose nor self-deprecating personality traits), and in the article I posted, it seems that other people had similar problems with its dichotomous nature.

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  4. ‘40% of respondents agreed that “being self-promoting, narcissistic, overconfident, and attention-seeking is helpful for succeeding in a competitive world.”

    Are you implying that one can be successful today without self-promotion? I find that hard to believe. Those that do not have faith in their own abilities may find it difficult to bring others to trust them to do a job.

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    • I’m not implying anything – merely sharing Dr. Twenge’s survey findings, which included not only self-promotion (agreed – a must for successful entrepreneurs), but also “being narcissistic, overconfident, and attention-seeking”.

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