Spot the Narcissist!

narcissus-caravaggio-300x363Social media sites such as Facebook have made it much easier for us to keep up with the latest news of our friends – wherever they may be – and all the latest gossip. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have revolutionised not only the way we communicate but also the way we see each other and ourselves… or more accurately how we wish ourselves to be seen by others. (My Facebook page is at www.facebook.com/newtonhypnosis)

There is however another and less attractive facet to this revolution in social media, and it’s given us an opportunity to play a new kind of game. It’s a game for psychologists everywhere, professional and amateur, and it’s called ‘Spot the Narcissist.’

Just to give you the background on this, Narcissus, an ancient character of Greek mythology, loved himself so much that resting by a pool one day, he fell in love with his own reflection and was unable to tear himself away – as a consequence, he starved to death. [The picture above is of Caravaggio’s Narcissus.]

So now you have read these first few lines, your mind is going over all the people you know who use Facebook to post lots and lots of selfies!

But people who post lots of selfies, and I mean the people who consistently post flattering pictures of themselves, may be displaying psychopathic traits. People (particularly men) who regularly post selfies are more likely to be not only narcissistic, but also more likely to be impulsive and have other characteristics linked to psychopathology, including lack of empathy for others.

This kind of self-objectification may be a bigger problem for men than previously thought, although it’s also a problem for lots of women too, with many taking the time to use artificial means (for example spending an inordinate amount of time on makeup, composition and even Photoshop) to improve their portraits before posting them.

It is important not to become confused here… It would be disingenuous to say

the advent of photographic social media has caused more people to become narcissistic, but rather that social media has accidentally exposed people who are narcissistic. Who would have guessed that Facebook would be used as a research tool by psychologists? This unexpected consequence of the extensive use of social media has set alarm bells ringing.

Research psychologists at Ohio State University found that men who post-doctored selfies regularly scored higher than average for tell tale levels of anti-social traits such as narcissism and self-objectification. These findings have just been published in the specialist science journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Of course, narcissism is usually associated with vanity, something we can all be prone to from time to time, especially in the entertainment industry, but if carried too far it can be classed as a psychological flaw or even in extreme cases, mental illness. If left unchecked, it can lead to feelings of being more intelligent, attractive, better than everyone else and the perception that one is on a higher plane than the rest of humanity.

The researchers in Ohio also believe that those who indulge in self-objectification, in particular the habit of posting the selfie as soon as possible, are more likely to show signs of psychopathy, which is defined as having a lack of empathy or regard for others, together with impulsiveness. Psychopathy is characterised by impulsivity and impulsive selfie addicts need to see themselves online as soon as possible. In addition, selfie addicts also display other symptoms of psychopathy, such as selfishness and self-absorption.

The researchers, (led by Professor Fox) did not come to their conclusions lightly. They carried out a survey of 800 men aged between 18 and 40 and asked them a series of questions related to their social media habits. The volunteers filled out questionnaires to establish both general and specific personality traits. The survey included questions such as ‘how often do you post pictures on sites like Instagram and Twitter and ‘do you Photoshop your selfies first?’ 

It comes as no big surprise that men who post a lot of selfies and spend time editing them are more narcissistic and more prone to self-objectification. More interesting is the finding that they also score higher on the other test, designed to spot anti-social personality traits and psychopathy. Self-objectification can lead to more serious psychological issues, amongst them depression, eating disorders (especially in young women) self-harm and even suicide as, and again women are more at risk here than men, people are becoming increasingly obsessed with their own image. It would be fair to say that this obsession is fuelled by today’s ‘skinny-thin’ culture.

One should note here that it is unlikely that this self-image problem is exclusive to physical appearance. There are countless Facebook pages whose owners boast about and over inflate their importance, achievements and earnings even to the point of telling out and out lies. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that obsessive of posting selfies is linked to mental illness, if not a separate category of mental illness in it’s own right. Psychologists are beginning to understand that people who spend inordinate amounts of time taking photograph after photograph in an effort to get the perfect most flattering image with which to portray themselves could actually be ill. Sure, fashion photographers can take literally hours over a shoot for a glossy fashion magazine, but that’s rather different. Selfie addicts can spend hours trying to take pictures that do not show any defects or flaws in their appearance – flaws which they are very aware of but which might be unnoticeable to others.

Perhaps the problem is of a more general nature – that there is too much pressure on individuals, especially young girls and young women to attain the perfect physiques of stick-thin supermodels. Psychiatrists who find themselves dealing more and more regularly with girls suffering from anorexia and Body Dysmorphic Disorder are beginning to realize that a disturbing majority of these patients take a lot of selfies.

Dr David Veale, a consultant psychiatrist at the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust and The Priory Hospital claims that two out of every three Body Dysmorphic Disorder patients have an underlying compulsion to repeatedly take and post selfies on social media sites. He further claims that taking selfies is not just an addiction but a symptom of Body Dysmorphic Disorder that involves constantly checking one’s appearance. At the very least it could be that obsessing over one’s image is a clear symptom of confidence related mental health issues.

Cognitive behavioural therapy is often used to help patients moderate their obsessive behaviour relating to their appearance. They might want to try hypnotherapy, but not even I am sure it would do any good because for hypnotherapy to be successful, the patient has to first recognise there is a problem. Most sufferers of anorexia for example are simply unable to see that their appearance is abnormal in other people’s eyes, let alone understand they are ill.

Is the problem really more serious for men than it is for women? In one extreme case, a British teenager, Danny Bowman, tried to commit suicide because he was dissatisfied with his appearance in the selfies he took. He was so desperate to attract girls, he spent 10 hours a day taking more than 200 selfies trying to find the perfect image, but his habit, which began at the age of 15, caused him to drop out of school and lose almost two stone in weight.

In an article for Psychology Today, Dr Pamela Rutledge, Director of the Media Psychology Research Centre in Boston Massachusetts, said Selfies frequently trigger perceptions of self-indulgence or attention seeking social dependence that raises the ‘damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-dont’ spectre of either narcissism or very low self-esteem.” 

Copyright Andrew Newton 2015. All rights reserved.