The New Trinity: Me, Myself and I?

According to the Times’ John Tierney, some researchers are concluding that narcissism — which they apparently define as self-centeredness and a tendency to self-promote — is on the rise:

Two of Dr. DeWall’s co-authors, W. Keith Campbell and Jean M. Twenge, published a book in 2009 titled “The Narcissism Epidemic,” which argued that narcissism is increasingly prevalent among young people — and possibly middle-aged people, too, although it’s hard for anyone to know because most of the available data comes from college students.

For several decades, students have filled out a questionnaire called the Narcissism Personality Inventory, in which they’ve had to choose between two statements like “I try not to be a show-off” and “I will usually show off if I get the chance.” The level of narcissism measured by these questionnaires has been rising since the early 1980s, according to an analysis of campus data by Dr. Twenge and Dr. Campbell.

That trend has been questioned by other researchers who published fresh data from additional students. But in the latest round of the debate, the critics’ data has been reanalyzed by Dr. Twenge, who says that it actually supports her argument. In a meta-analysis published last year in Social Psychological and Personality Science, Dr. Twenge and Joshua D. Foster looked at data from nearly 50,000 students — including the new data from critics — and concluded that narcissism has increased significantly in the past three decades.

During this period, there have also been reports of higher levels of loneliness and depression — which may be no coincidence, according to the authors of the song-lyrics study. These researchers, who include Richard S. Pond of the University of Kentucky, note that narcissism has been linked to heightened anger and problems maintaining relationships. Their song-lyrics analysis shows a decline in words related to social connections and positive emotions (like “love” or “sweet”) and an increase in words related to anger and antisocial behavior (like “hate” or “kill”).

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I have no idea what to make of this. It did strike me, though, that one metric cited in other studies was the frequency with which various pronouns appear in popular songs:

Now, after a computer analysis of three decades of hit songs, Dr. DeWall and other psychologists report finding what they were looking for: a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music. As they hypothesized, the words “I” and “me” appear more frequently along with anger-related words, while there’s been a corresponding decline in “we” and “us” and the expression of positive emotions.

Granted, the idea of a whole generation walking around in a blood-drinking mood is a little scary. But speaking as both a reader and a writer, I have to say that a certain amount of self-consciousness — if not self-centeredness — has its value. Many spiritual writers, or so I’ve noticed, tend to default to the first-person plural: “We should do X”; “We know well that Y.” Personally, I’ve always found that very off-putting; I have a bad case of “we-ennui.” At best, it sounds too normative and prescriptive — in a nutshell, preachy. If the writer slips, switching from objective truths to subjective experience, it sounds presumptuous. Who’s ‘We,” lady?

Phillip Lopate has written that a good personal essay involves an interrogation and dissection of self. The writer should question himself constantly, digging for the real reasons he believes this or does that. To be sure, that sort of writing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s mine. I find it very comforting to know that someone so much cleverer than I is no less a confused clod.

C.S. Lewis does a splendid job of this in A Grief Observed, the book-length essay he wrote about coping after the death of his wife, Joy Gresham. On every page, Lewis shares in agonizing detail what HE’s going through, not what the rest of the world ought to be going through. Coming from a professional moralist, who normally dealt in teh abstract, it was jarring, and better, convincing..

Maureen Dowd once wrote that George H.W. Bush mangled his sentences so badly because his WASP upbringing forbade him to rely overmuch on “the almighty ‘I'” — kind of a noblesse oblige thing. Loath to use the readiest pronoun, he used none at all…and sounded like he was suffering some kind of neurological impairment. When it comes to writing, I at least — get it? I? — shall try to avoid making that mistake.

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