A Ku Indeed!

This Just In: Facebook Narcissism!

Posted in Fun, Life by Chris on September 26, 2008

This study apparently shows that Facebook profiles can reveal narcissism. Really? Narcissism? On Facebook? Hard to believe, isn’t it? Sometimes when I see this kind of study I think that there should be a journal for these things, something like JPHO, or “Journal for the Proof of the Hopelessly Obvious” or something like that. It amazes me the money people get to run certain studies (This just in! Stop the Presses! Studies prove that breathing extends life!).

In any event, it was my own realization of this sort of thing (the narcissism that Facebook facilitates) that led me to seriously begin disliking it sometime ago (after a short period of interest). I have no interest in reading anyone’s profile anymore, because I’m afraid of learning just how deep the psychological insecurities of particular people extend. So I just strive to remain ignorant (although it’s amazing how easily a person’s narcissism can be revealed through never-ending “status updates”).

This is not a “back in the day” musing — I’m not claiming that there’s “more” narcissism now than there was years ago (typical old curmudgeon claim — “back when I was young“). That amount is, I suspect, the same. But Facebook not only creates more and more ways for people to over-indulge in self-absorption, it also is dangerous in that it is like a megaphone that now allows a person to communicate his or her narcissism or various other neuroses to an ever larger audience of people. I suppose there was a time when you embarassed yourself in front of your freinds only (the ones you physically met on a day to day basis); then it was possible to embarass yourself in front of a larger group of people you don’t see through the phone, and now you can do it in front of hundreds or thousands through Facebook.

And yes, I’m aware of the fact that blogging can serve as a platform for the same thing, but social networking has some unique features, I think, that can really facilitate narcissism and and allow its presence to really become public phenomena in a very new way.

6 Responses

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  1. Adam said, on September 26, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    I’m shocked, shocked to find there is gambling going on here!

    I’m on record as being more pro-facebook than you, but mostly because I look at facebook behavior and think “Yeah, but what else is new?” I figure most facebook users follow a similar pattern to my own: initial intrigue with above average interest in other people’s profiles followed by gradual leveling off and using it primarily as a way to communicate (and play chess!). The people who don’t follow this pattern are the Narcissists.

    And really, I’ll bet the same psychological study could have been done on phone usage back in the 70s and 80s with the same results. Narcissists probably made lots more phone calls (remember the “party line” phenomenon?) and had much bigger “little black books”.

    Narcissism will find its way to the megaphone. In fact, that’s kind of the point, right?

  2. Alexus McLeod said, on September 26, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    Hi Chris,
    Like Adam, I’m generally pro-Facebook too. I hav some problems with it, but my biggest problems with it are problems I have with our society in general anyway (mainly surrounding consumerism and marketing).
    I agree there is much narcissism on Facebook, because (as you say) there’s much narcissism out in the world. I don’t think Facebook enhances that narcissism, though–it just makes one (and one’s narcissism) more visible to others. All in all, though, I think this is a good thing, for a few reasons.

    First, it’s therapeutic. Narcissistic people often suffer from a belief that they’re not being listened to. Everyone is listening to them on Facebook, because it can’t be helped. This outlet will help many more people than it will hurt, I think. Psychologists who have looked at the cases of people like the Virginia Tech and Columbine shooters (and other similar cases) note a shared lack of attention from people around them in these narcissistic characters. Facebook has the potential to help such people feel less isolated and ignored.

    Second, Facebook draws these people (and everyone else) into communities they never had before. Low responsibility communities, maybe, but communities nonetheless, with their own unique attendant responsibilities. I haven’t seen anything remotely like this in my lifetime. For example, using my own case–on Facebook I’ve found and manage to occasionally communicate with people I knew long ago and haven’t seen in years, current friends from DC, family members I don’t often get to see in person, and many others. The connection I’ve made to these people through Facebook would not have been possible without it. In addition, having such a large and diverse group of people as Facebook friends teaches us to be able to operate in close communities, a “small town” type skill which most of us young, urban types (including myself) never really had to learn. You’re responsible for what you say and do on Facebook, because what you do everyone is going to know about, including your best friend, your grade school acquaintances, your students, and probably even your parents, aunts, and uncles. This is a kind of social connectedness most of us (again, other than small town people) have never had. There are a number of benefits to “small town” type communities, including that neurotic people (probably including myself) must learn how to control themselves and act with reserve in society, because they will be exposed to the whole group, from which they cannot escape (barring “Facebook suicide”, and even then one’s close friends and family will still have access–and there is also a great loss from that, all of the attention gained from having attention payed to one by friends, family, acquaintances, etc.). This is a skill many of us lack, and which makes it hard for us to communicate with each other. We always, in our non-Facebook lives, have the option of cutting our ties, leaving that job, changing that school, etc., and simply opting out of the community and jumping into a new one. This is hard to do when we’re “friended” to almost everyone we’ve ever known. It’s hard to cut EVERYONE off. Facebook allows us to break down some of the barriers between our various communities, which requires us to become more accountable for our actions and thus fosters learning responsibility, carefulness, and compromise, among other things.

    Third, and probably most importantly, especially for the narcissistic, Facebook allows people an avenue for expressing themselves to those around them in which they are likely to be appreciated and enjoyed. Part of the problem of narcissism is that the attention that many people seek is misplaced. Not getting enough attention from a parent or friend, one attempts to get attention from everyone else by being funny, or crude, or daring, or a sports star, or whatever else. But the kind of attention one gets on Facebook seems to me a good kind–one is only going to be seen by those people one has friended, so the people reading one’s status, etc. will at least be aquaintances, and probably friends, family, etc. It can be a good thing to share one’s likes, hopes, etc. with such people. I know I’ve learned much about my family, friends, and acquaintances from reading statuses, quizzes, lists, and other things on Facebook. And I’m glad it’s there, because it’s helped me to better know who they are, and in the process gain a closer relationship, even without talking face to face. In addition, the small talk exchanged between people one doesn’t regularly see face to face seems to me part of that shared sense of community we’ve lost in the “high-tech modern world.” In my own case, I’ve moved around quite a bit, and my “community”, defined by people I’ve known from the places I’ve lived, consists of friends and family from DC, Maryland, Oklahoma, Connecticut, and even India. This kind of moving around is pretty typical of contemporary American life. Living here in CT, there’s no way I’d get to see all those people on a regular basis. Some of them I’d probably never see again. But now, through Facebook, I get to talk to them occasionally, see what’s going on in their lives, and tell them what’s going on in mine. And I get birthday greetings from some family and friends I haven’t seen in a long time. I just recently met on Facebook, and have been conversing with, some members of my family from California I’d never even met before! Some of this seems to me a kind of “good” narcissism, and one that has the potential to (in some sense) recreate the kind of community that keeps people sane and content, that we’ve lost. How many of us have had to say “goodbye” to friends when we’re moving to a new place for one of the multitude of reasons we do such things in modern society, knowing that we’ll probably never see that person again, and feeling a kind of sadness and existential dread about modern life because of it? Facebook can help battle this. We never really have to say “goodbye” while thinking “have a nice life”, because we know the other person will always be in the neighborhood, until one of us is dead and gone. This is the kind of thing that, at least for me, gives life its significance.

    Of course, Facebook is not a panacea, by any means, and it does have it’s problems, but these benefits seem, for me, to vastly outweigh the negatives. This seems to me part of the reason Facebook is so successful, among an enormously diverse group of people. We’re finding ways to create that community we always wished was possible when moving to new lands and leaving old friends behind.

  3. Chris said, on September 27, 2008 at 3:05 pm


    I agree with you — I don’t doubt that the level of narcissism is the same across time. And I don’t doubt that a very similar study could have been done with the phone (yep, I remember the party line, too). So we’re not in disagreement there, I don’t think.

    Still, I hesitate to think “what else is new?” Something seems different to me; perhaps it is the new ability of people to humiliate themselves on scales previously impossible to do (without a whole lot of effort). Perhaps it is the general decay of “privacy” — that we are now subjected more and more to the encroaching neuroses of others. I’m not sure. I’m still thinking this over. It’s surely not “the tool” itself — I use it too. Though mostly to play chess.


    You make a lot of excellent points here. Most of which I actually agree with. I think Facebook has a lot of positives. And many of them I too benefit from. I too keep in touch with people I would have, in the past, simply lost contact with. Moreover, for people who are young today, the whole phenomenon of “losing touch” may simply cease to exist (or at least would be transformed into “haven’t seen a wall postings by you in a long time!”).

    I think your point about Facebook meeting a need that narcissists have is an interesting one — that it may well be therapeutic. I don’t see any reason here to think that you aren’t correct, actually. Your point makes a lot of sense.

    Still, something bothers me. It may be the case, say, that a person who is driven to conform to the crowd may well feel better after doing so. They may have a desire to feel accepted, and conformist behavior allows them a route to get what they are looking for. But this doesn’t mean that it’s good for such people to do it, or that we shouldn’t wince when we see people who are overly attracted to this way of behaving. I’m leaving out here your implied claim that some forms of violence could be reduced because such individuals would feel less threatened by the world, but overall you get my point.

    Your “small town” point is intriguing. I need to think more about it, but I sense that part of my problem is here exactly. I don’t like small towns. I grew up in NYC, and I like being anonymous, and I like it when I am not perpetually bombarded by all of the particular neuroses of those around me. For me, a healthy community relationship requires not knowing everything there is to know about everyone else, and also requires some degree of privacy and individual space.

    It could be that part of the problem here is that I learn things about people that I have no desire to learn more about, or feel as if I learn thing inadvertently about them at a clip that would not happen in the “real” world. What this reveals is, perhaps, the need for people to be more selective about who their “friends” are. Perhaps we (or I) have been too flippant about such things (there are people with thousands of friends). Maybe we (or I) need to start pruning. At that point, I only learn more about those I am in close relationships with. Those others should be set at a further distance.

    I also have no doubt that part of it stems from my belief that Facebook relationships are “leveled” relationships for many. Quantity matters. For some, it’s important to have thousands of friends; I think it’s weird to have more than a hundred. There are people who could meet personally who seem to enjoy being locked up in a room interacting via Facebook instead. That’s strange. Talk about “thinning the soup” of friendship!

    Besides, just as much as it is a great thing to be able to stay “in touch” with every single person I’ve ever known, at the same time losing touch with people, sometimes forever, makes me think much more seriously about the ways that I interact with those people I am in active friendships with right now. In a way, losing friends forever reminds me that the ones I am with right now could suffer a similar fate, so I am careful.

    Of course, as communities spread out more and more over greater distances, social networking will become more and more valuable, just as you note at the end. I agree, and to be honest I don’t bemoan the creation of such devices. After all, I too use them. I’m certainly not a Luddite.

    That said, I think we need to be careful about the possibility that such platforms and devices could turn around and start to transform us, as opposed to just being tools that we control and use. Much as they are reflections of our world, we may in time become reflections of the world that they make possible.

    And, in the end, I still find myself bothered by all those narcissists…

  4. Emily Oettinger said, on September 29, 2008 at 11:02 am

    I enjoyed reading your post about the recent study correlating Facebook friends, profile pictures, and wall posts with narcissism. I understand that people may perceive a multitude of Facebook friends as narcissistic (wanting to appear popular, and conversely, wanting to positively convey one’s self to the largest audience possible), but number of friends has other purposes as well. But do you believe true narcissism is so obvious? Not everyone uses Facebook as a constant reminder of his or her own perfection, as Caravaggio’s Narcissus uses this pond to do below. For example, as humans, we are nosy. We want to anonymously gain access to others’ lives, and what better way to do this than to become Facebook friends? It allows entry into another’s pictures, information (hometown, subjects studied, relationship status), and interests, among others. Also, a major way to find out about social events is through Facebook; the more friends one has, the more potential social gatherings one may find and attend.

    While I agree with your observation that “Facebook…creates more and more ways for people to over-indulge in self-absorption,” I do not believe that the majority of people with a Facebook account have it for this reason. Beyond narcissism, I think it is most obvious that as humans, we want to portray ourselves well. Just like if I were to go for a job interview, I would dress nicely to look my best and bring a resume outlining my most proud accomplishments, on Facebook I want to do the same. I know my peers can see me, so why would I choose an unflattering picture?

    I understand that you do not look upon Facebook favorably, but to say that Facebook so obviously breeds narcissism insinuates a greater abundance of this trait than I believe exists. This study even says that narcissism is detectable in only some cases, not to mention the small sample size of 130 for which drawing conclusions seems questionable. I believe that part of the problem with Facebook research is that the generation doing the research (comprised of individuals who probably do not have Facebook pages) projects so many negative ideas onto Facebook users. For example, you say that you “have no interest in reading anyone’s profile anymore, because [you are] afraid of learning just how deep the psychological insecurities of particular people extend.” What if Facebook researchers employ this same attitude? Although you seem surprised at “the money people get to run certain studies,” I believe studies like this one are important, if they can remain unbiased.

  5. Chris said, on September 29, 2008 at 11:19 am


    Hi — thanks for commenting.

    I sh0uld point out that I’m definitely _not_ saying that all Facebook users are narcissists. I don’t think that’s true (would be odd if it were!). Instead, I was just suggesting that to claim that narcissism _exists_ in the community of Facebook users would be entirely unsurprising, if only for the fact that Facebook users are, after all, asked to describe themselves (profile) for others to view. A narcissist’s playground, for sure!

    It _would_ be interesting, I think, to study whether narcissism or narcisstic behaviors are greater in Facebook users than in the general population, control groups, users of other media, and so on. If the answer was “yes” that would be evidence of another hypothesis I suspect is true as well (but I have no proof) — that the medium encourages and facilitates narcissism by getting people to engage their own identities in ways that foster those sorts of behaviors (interaction becomes more and more predicated on “personal ad” sorts of things). But this is a hunch that would require a good study to support, and a good use of study dollars too.

    Also, I should note that (as I mentioned above in some replies, I think) I think there are also many positives to media like Facebook. I certainly don’t think they are all negative at all. After all, I do use it myself!

  6. Emily Oettinger said, on October 5, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    Hi Chris,

    I understand what you are are saying. I did not think you thought everyone on Facebook is a narcissist! But I just do not think it is necessarily so easy to distinguish a narcissistic personality on Facebook especially because number of friends, number of wall posts and type of user picture are “correlated” with a narcissistic personality. That really does not say much. In the article I read online, it did not say how correlated the two were, so I just remain skeptical of the study.

    I agree that it would be very interesting to see whether or not narcissistic behaviors are greater on Facebook than in the population as a whole, but I think that would be extremely difficult to prove. Almost every college student has a Facebook, though, so that seems like the population itself. Your hypothesis that “the medium encourages and facilitates narcissism by getting people to engage their own identities in ways that foster those sorts of behaviors” is a very interesting one. I think there is a certain social social pressure and expectation to have a Facebook in college, so I would be interested to see the effects that the site has on individuals once they become absorbed in the online social world.

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