Narcissistic? It could have to do with the social system that you grew up in

Growing up in a collectivist culture appears to decrease narcissism and increase self-esteem, reports a new study conducted in Germany.

“I am a god/Hurry up with my damn massage/Hurry up with my damn ménage/Get the Porsche out the damn garage/I am a god,” raps Kanye West.

The rap artist’s lyrics are the personification of the narcissism epidemic that plagues Western cultures. From songs to self-image and language, the focus is on “I”. The prevalence of this sentiment has increased exponentially in the past few decades. Not every culture is so individualistic and some countries have a more collective outlook. A large survey has been conducted in Germany with participants that grew up in West or East Germany both before and after reunification. The different social systems appear to have had a large effect on personal narcissism and self-esteem.

Narcissism involves a feeling of superiority and craving admiration from others. Image credits: Max Pixel.

Western culture focuses first and foremost on the individual. It seems to promote feelings of narcissism as well, which is the pursuit of gratification from the admiration of one’s characteristics. An example of narcissism is to depend on positive comments to a photo posted on social media to feel good about oneself. It’s gotten to the point where the prevalence of narcissism is being called an epidemic. The percentage of teenagers who agree with the statement “I am an important person” has increased from 12% in 1963 to 80% in 1992. Books have also shied away from using plural pronouns such as “we” and “us” and use “I” and “me” more often. Individualistic cultures focus more on the self while collectivist cultures place more importance on social values. Narcissism is also caused by a focus on the self, involving a need to be admired. Younger people usually have higher narcissism scores than older people and this trait is more common during economically prosperous times.

Between 1949 and 1989/90, Germany, a country with a shared culture, was separated into East and West with very different social systems. West Germany had an individualistic culture while East Germany had a collectivist culture. In 1989/90, the two halves reunified and together have an individualistic culture. People that grew up in the former DDR and Western Germany were asked to fill out an online survey to assess narcissism in 1,025 German citizens to see if the social system that they were raised in affected their view of self.

Germany was separated into East (red) and West (blue) for a long time time and it affected its citizens. Image credits: Disposable.Heroes.

Questions had to do with exploitativeness, entitlement, self-esteem, and other telling behaviour. There were questions that covered both grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. Grandiose narcissism involved traits such as aggression, dominance, and a feeling of superiority while vulnerable narcissism involves masking feelings of inadequacy.

Grandiose narcissism was higher and self-esteem was lower in people who grew up in West Germany. There were no differences between people that were 5 or younger in 1989. The largest differences were found between people that were between the ages of 6 and 18 at the time of reunification. Those older than 19 only showed minor differences in grandiose narcissism. This group might have avoided the development of narcissism because it decreases with age.

It is a bit unusual that this study found that self-esteem was higher in the more collectivist culture. Most previous studies have found the opposite to be true. The reason for this result could be that individualist values cause children to have lower self-esteem because they are constantly comparing Facebook profile and achievements with other people. In more collective societies, the focus is not so much about social comparisons as it is about maintaining social harmony. In any case, it seems that social systems have a larger impact on our personalities than we realize.

Journal reference: Vater A, Moritz S, Roepke S (2018) Does a narcissism epidemic exist in modern western societies? Comparing narcissism and self-esteem in East and West Germany. PLOS ONE 13(1): e0188287.

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