America has entered an age of excess, according to Jay Slosar. Driven by a maddening quest for perfection, technology, deregulation, and a superficial and often inaccurate mass media, America’s national psychology has become increasingly narcissistic. This is leading to a culture of cheating, lying, and reckless behaviour which has crashed the economy and continues to wreck lives in the national fabric. The emerging nation of narcissists has more consequences should the spiral continue, making a world that accepts cheating and lying as a way of life. Maria Armoudin discusses whether we are living in an age of excess with Slosar.
Jay Slosar is a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of The Culture of Excess: How America Lost Self-Control and Why We Need to Redefine Success.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Maria Armoudian: Why don’t we start with a definition of narcissism and what the characteristics of this are?
Jay Slosar: In a formal sense – in our Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – it has features for a full-blown diagnosis. I present a continuum in my book and the features include a sense of entitlement, grandiosity, high expectations, and a sense of immediacy. With that comes some undesirable features also such as having less empathy for others and being less forgiving. And while that could lead to a lot of drive – and possibly in the workplace many of our successful people, our CEOs, have high narcissistic features – of course, there is a downside to it in that it’s increasing across the culture and we have more of these narcissistic features without being fully aware of it.
MA: Let us start with the evidence that we’re seeing an increase of this kind of person in society, what are we seeing?
JS: The forces that I talk a lot about are the impacts of technology, and technology meaning extreme capitalism. We see excess everywhere. Now there is a technical debate on measuring these narcissistic traits over generations because it is a difficult research endeavour. One researcher has put forth [Generation Me] that the scores on the narcissistic personality inventory have increased by a good twenty to thirty percent in today’s college students from previous generations. So the features that we’re seeing… from the excess in purchasing material things, even the lack of self-control, obesity, budgets – whether it’s state, federal, or individual budgets – the stuff everyone is accumulating, we use a lot of medications, there is tremendous waste everywhere, and we put more people in prison than any other nation does. We just have excess everywhere from declining self-control fuelled by these higher narcissistic features that make us more impulsive and more entitled.
MA: Do you really do think that a lot of what is underlying societal ills are really a result of a growing narcissism?
JS: Yes, but it’s a cultural phenomenon. What I talk about is that not everybody has a Narcissistic Personality Disorder, it’s more a reaction and a response to powerful cultural forces. At one point I even say [that] culture trumps personality – that these powerful cultural forces are pushing us in this direction. The quick speed of technology where everything is just so immediate, combined with media and that twenty-four-seven cycle, and the extreme capitalism that has gone on with so much risk. And I put forward that those forces are cumulative and interactive in how they’re influencing our personalities.
MA: How do these issues like deregulation, technology, and the high-speed interact with human beings in order to make them more impulsive and more narcissistic? And some other things that you talked about in the book, the anxiety, the expectations of immediacy, losing of patience, the overweightness, and the addictions, how does it feed in? What is the process?
JS: The basic point is that it doesn’t apply limits or boundaries. For example, the deregulation: it throws it wide open and anything goes until our behaviour rages out of control. In other words, on a continuum, you may be healthy but then these pressures and lack of boundaries and regulations cause you to go over the top and even possibly commit an illegal activity. A lot of the people arrested for some of these activities were not bad people, they hadn’t been criminals before, but they got caught up in the cultural forces where the top is kind of lifted off and then eventually we take more risk with less self-control, overdo it in many areas, and get into difficulties or health problems.
MA: One of the things that struck me is the bit about cheating and how much young people – students – are cheating and admitting to it, and lying, and believing that they have to cheat and lie in order to succeed in society. I wonder if that is the phenomenon more than anything else?
JS: It certainly is. As I put it where it’s at in the psychological conflict, in the chapter where I cite a lot of the data on surveys of teens and young people who have to admit that to get ahead, to do well, to be successful they’ve got to be manipulative and lie at times. Yet when asked about their own character they rated [it] very, very highly; in other words, my character is terrific and great, but on a day-to-day basis I do have to manipulate, lie, cheat, steal, to survive and to make it. That seems like such an obvious conflict, but that is the way culture in the world is. Now it has probably always been that way to some extent, what I’m saying is that it’s getting worse, to the point where it really does affect your sense of self. If I’m walking around and saying that I am great and terrific… yet my behaviour doesn’t match that, that’s quite a conflict.
MA: I think the question that really is raised, and you played with it in your book deals with how does a person maintain ethics and character and is still successful in today’s business environment or in today’s political environment?
JS: It gets down to real strength of character and leadership skills, to stand out, and the ability to withstand the big waves going and to stand up and go again.
MA: But as you said, culture trumps personality.
JS: Yeah, it’s very, very hard at this point and it really does take a fuller awareness of it and some kind of hitting the bottom point where you say, “Wait a minute, enough already”, and you start to take a more direct position and realise the big wave that is sweeping over you and pull yourself out of it. Of course, some people are jilted out of that after they get into trouble or after they are exposed, so to speak, and then they pull themselves out of that. We’ve had so much of that, and I’m hoping that we’ll hit that point and people will turn around in the same way that when we had the Great Recession it forced people to start saving money. Our savings rate for people was like one or two percent, far less than other nations, and in 2007 it actually went below zero; it was negative, in other words. People were spending more than they were making. After the recession hit the savings rate has now gone up to four or five percent and, of course, that’s good – in other words simply a reaction to the big crash.
MA: You talked a bit about issues related to super-capitalism, issues related to perfectionism, and then something you call a false society. How are these related?
JS: They are different tracks. In the sense of the super-capitalism we see – like the hedge funds, for example, they haven’t been regulated and we did away with certain rules that contributed to the Wall Street crash – again that out of control aspect that finally crashes and gets us into trouble. What happens is I think we get caught in such an intense way, we get very perfectionistic and driven; we’ve got to make this go. You have some success or big money that is more and more in push and this then dry-filters down even to our younger people. So we’re seeing more of an aspect of a real driven sense of perfectionism and I mention that statement that we sometimes hear in politics, I just cringe when I hear it: “Failure is not an option”.
MA: But is it perfectionism or is it something else? Because if it was really perfectionism wouldn’t the cheating issue not be so prevalent?
JS: No, the perfectionism becomes so driven that you cheat and can’t admit to it. The perfectionisms are a very rigid position where you also become unaware of the cover-ups, and then the bad part of it is that when you do get caught, you are so exposed and so vulnerable it can even lead to an abrupt act of self-destruction and a failure. I presented a paper to some law enforcement personnel, because they have always had a high rate of suicide, and I made the connection that these are perfectionistic people, thinking often, very driven, and in a right-wrong kind of manner. And when they make a mistake, they can’t handle it; it’s kind of like the bigger you are the harder you fall. So the very successful driven person [experiences] success after success, then encounters a failure, and it’s like falling off a big cliff, and they can even at that point commit an abrupt act of self-harm.
MA: You talk a bit about the media. What do you think the role of media is in creating this false society?
JS: Well, the problem is [that] if it bleeds it leads. We know from research that bad is stronger than good as the researchers put it; that negative talk about someone is remembered and incorporated far more readily than nice things or good things. And just in general, overall the proliferation of the media there is this intensity for really negative things, in your face things…We call attention to things like kidnappings and school shootings and we have a red-alert on kidnapping – well this sounds really good, but… it induces such an anxiety and fear-level across societies that people change their lifestyles. They don’t want their kid to go play in the park or they’re going to drive them to school, even though in the actual logic and data of it all is that kidnappings and school shootings have not increased; they are not more of a problem than they were before, we’re just heightened in anxiety about them. So I think the idea that bad is stronger than good… is really impacting us.
MA: Let’s wrap this into where you think we should go. Part of your subtitle is why we need to redefine success, and in your book you talk about changing from a generation me to a generation we. How do we get there from here?
JS: Not easily, and it’s not going to happen quickly. These are powerful forces and it’s really going to take a good bit of change and time. It’s first, as I mentioned before, the boundaries and regulation. I think we really have to get back to that, both with dealing with young children growing up, but also our culture and environment, too. There is an old saying in family systems therapy that a child cannot develop and grow without limits and boundaries, and, of course, if those boundaries are too tight and rigid, that is not good, if they’re too loose, that is not good, so the difficult part is finding that proper middle region. But the same is true of our economy and rapidly developing capitalism, what I call “out of control capitalism”: there need to be boundaries and regulations in order for it to grow. And we’re still resisting that at the cultural and political level, but that would really be essential for coming just down the line and shaping our behaviour because we will respond well to adequate boundaries and regulations. And then the other part is certainly how we measure success, we’re always talking about GDP. I looked at that group, Redefining Progress, which has very similar measures for trying to measure success: not by quantity, but by quality. The [United Nations] has developed some indices for what is going on in the community, ranging from health care to resources of things. These types of indices should be talked about, presented, and discussed much more than simply the modest things that we buy which is all that the GDP reflects. And then the other thing, I think, is reducing screen media time; particularly for younger children.
MA: What do you mean by screen media?
JS: Anything on a screen. We use that broader term now to include not just TV and computers, but even phones and texting and all those things. Just reduce that, particularly with the younger kids and really emphasise what a lot of professionals have been putting forth lately, that younger [people], child, have time for free play, free unstructured play – that is so important for natural creativity, everything is kind of programmed and given to the child and they’re getting all sorts of things off the screen media rather than having their own free play – creative unstructured play.
This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guest and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.