Narcissism has long gotten a bad rap. Its unseemly reputation dates back at least to ancient Greek mythology, in which the handsome hunter Narcissus (who undoubtedly would be gloating over his present-day fame) discovered his own reflection in a pool of water and fell in love with it. Narcissus was so transfixed by his image that he died staring at it. In 1914 Sigmund Freud likened narcissism to a sexual perversion in which romantic attraction is directed exclusively to the self. Contemporary views are hardly more flattering. Enter the words “narcissists are” into Google, and the four most popular words completing the phrase are “stupid, “evil,” “bullies” and “selfish.”
In 2008 psychologist Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University and her colleagues found that narcissism scores have been climbing among American college students in the U.S. for the past few decades. Although the data are controversial, these scholars argue that we are living in an increasingly narcissistic culture.
Some of the opprobrium heaped on narcissists is surely deserved. Yet research paints a more nuanced picture. Although narcissists can be difficult and at times insufferable, they can also make effective leaders and performers. Moreover, because virtually all of us share at least a few narcissistic traits, we may be able to learn something about ourselves from understanding them.