The guy right in front of you on the plane just stood up before the plane finished taxiing. He’s taking out his luggage, forcing a flight attendant to intervene. He keeps saying he has a very important meeting to go to—did he just use the phrase “C-suite”?—and he has to get off the plane first. Ugh! Where do people like this come from? Now science has an answer.
In a new study, a team of child development and psychology researchers from Europe and the United States sought the seeds of narcissism by tracking 565 middle-class children and their parents over a year and a half. Parents who “over-value” their kids—who say they agree with statements such as “My child is more special than other children”—are more likely to have kids that score highly on narcissism tests six months later, the study found. Although what causes narcissism in adults is still under research, this experiment suggests it could start sometime in elementary school or junior high. And it’s over-wrought parental beliefs about their kids that’s the problem.
That’s not to say that parents shouldn’t be nice to their kids. In their surveys, the researchers also asked kids whether they thought their parents treated them with kindness, and expressed their love. When kids said their parents were kind and loving during one meeting with the researchers, they were more likely than average to score highly on self-esteem tests during the next meeting. At the same time, they weren’t more likely than other kids to score highly on narcissism tests.
Kids with narcissism agree with statements such as “I like to think about how incredibly nice I am” and “Kids like me deserve something extra.”
While it can seem subtle, there’s a difference between self-esteem and narcissism. One pair of psychologists described it this way: "High self-esteem means thinking well of oneself, whereas narcissism involves passionately wanting to think well of oneself." Narcissists aren't even always satisfied with themselves, as the study scientists wrote in their paper, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They do, however, "feel superior to others and feel entitled to privileges."
Here’s another way to think about it. On surveys, kids with high self-esteem agree with statements like “I am happy with myself as a person” and “I like the kind of person I am.” Kids with narcissism agree with “I like to think about how incredibly nice I am” and “Kids like me deserve something extra.” It’s important to build self-esteem in kids. It’s healthy, and, unlike narcissism, it's associated with less anxiety and depression.
So where do people like Plane Guy come from? Not from love, kindness, and strong self-esteem, but from an over-inflated sense of privilege, perhaps instilled when they were young.
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