Celebrities are 16% more narcissistic than everyone else

Doing psychological research on celebrities isn’t easy. They’re surrounded by phalanxes of PRbots whose job is to protect them, with Dalek-like effiency, from any unscripted contact with the outside world.

One of the few people who enjoys (if that’s the word) regular contact with celebs is Drew Pinsky, cohost of the show Loveline. Since celebrities frequently appear as guests on the show, Pinsky — who is actually a physician and, in theory, a researcher — realized he had a golden opportunity to collect data on them. So he decided to measure their narcissism levels, by asking them to fill out the Narcissism Personality Inventory, the defining test of this personality trait. The NPI asks people to make a forced choice between pairs of statements like “I can read people like a book” or “People are sometimes hard to understand.” The result is a score out of 40, with higher scores meaning “more narcissistic”. Over a 20-month period, Pinsky got 200 actors, comedians, musicians and reality-TV stars to complete the survey.

The results? Celebrities averaged a score of 17.8 out of 40. That’s 16% higher than the score of the average American, which is 15.3. Interestingly, though women in the general population measure as less narcissistic than men, female celebrities were more narcissistic than male ones, 19.26 versus 17.27.

Perhaps more interestingly, the more work and discipline your particular brand of famousness requires, the less narcissistic you tend to be. Musicians — who have to actually possess, nuture and deploy a technical skill — were the least narcissistic of all celebrities. In contrast, reality-TV stars, who possess — almost by definition — no skill at anything, were the most narcissistic. “Female reality show contestants,” Pinsky told the LA Times, “are off the chart.”

Another narcissism researcher, the University of Georgia’s Keith Campbell, has apparently been finding that college students are getting more narcissistic too. He argues that reality TV is one of the big cultural drivers:

“By definition, it’s supposed to be reality, and you have a sample of people who are more self-absorbed, more entitled, more vain than the normal population, that is going to pull the population in the direction of narcissism. If the self-absorption you see on ‘Laguna Beach’ or ‘The Real World’ is viewed as normal, the culture will be pushed in that direction. Our levels of self-esteem and narcissism are already pretty high. I don’t know if we need more of it.”

I dunno — I think the college-aged audience for reality TV is a wee bit more sophisticated that that, and probably understands that the people you see on reality-TV shows are more hysterically conceited than everyday folk. But Campbell is certainly also right that endless exposure to TV shows where the goal is merely to become famous for “keepin’ it real” — by which I mean, “being a sociopathically self-absorbed asshole” — is bound to corrode one’s soul. Is this really the stuff we ought to be feeding impressionable youth? Why there oughta be a law.

I’m kidding, sort of, but this stuff tends to express my latent David Brooks gene. I genuinely worry that pop culture has so thoroughly oriented itself around the romantic equation of self-expression=good that the idea of being skillful and disciplined at anything is falling by the wayside. Then again, I’m a puritan work-ethic freak — and a musician, heh — who far prefers to talk to scientists than celebrities, so I would think that.

I’m coming late to this one; everybody blogged about this a month ago. But I’m looking forward to reading Pinksy’s paper on this when it comes out!

(Thanks to Arts and Letters Daily for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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