Research Spotlight: Societal Narcissism – History, Measurement, Implications

In short, what are our studies about?

When we think of the early beginnings of our country, we remember such vivid historical accounts, as the one written in 1835 by Alexis de Tocqueville, in which he praised the courage, industriousness and creativity of Americans as well as their concern for community and their country. If Tocqueville were to revisit the United States and meet the likes of Christopher Lasch, who wrote an influential book entitled, The Cultural of Narcissism (1978), he might be dismayed to learn that egotism and selfishness, which he considered to be vices, were rampant in society. He would be astonished to learn how the cultural values in the New World have changed over time as evidenced by a trove of cultural symbols and artefacts.

Known for his skills of observation, Tocqueville would no doubt be interested in a content analysis of song lyrics, that were popular between 1980-2007, completed by DeWall, Pond, Campbell, and Twenge (2011). The researchers found that the use of words related to self-focus and antisocial behavior increased while words related to other-focus, social interactions, and positive emotion decreased. Tocqueville might read about signs of destructive narcissism found in CEO letters to shareholders in corporate annual reports (Craig and Amernic, 2011). While Tocqueville would have trouble using a computer for the first time, he might be curious as to why social media websites were so widely used. He would need an explanation of what a “selfie” is (Oxford Dictionaries’ 2013 “word of the year”) and how to use a “selfie stick” (one of Time magazine’s 2014 best inventions). And why do people constantly update their profiles on Facebook?

Societal Narcissism is Increasing

The continual increase in societal narcissism is reflected in the topics of bestseller books

In our studies, we examined reading preferences in the United States as an unobtrusive indicator of societal narcissism. Mullins and Kopelman (1984, p. 720) defined societal narcissism as “self-absorption: e.g., concern for psychic self-improvement, mysticism, and an interest in health, physical fitness, diet, and sexuality.” If it is true that we have become an increasingly narcissistic society, as many social scientists have claimed, this phenomenon should be reflected in the types of books that are most widely read. Unobtrusive measures are important when other research methodologies, such as surveys and questionnaires, are not likely to yield accurate results because answers would be significantly influenced by social desirability bias. This research was subsequently updated to cover the period from 1980 to 2013.

What exactly did we measure and what were our main findings?

We collected the titles of top bestselling nonfiction books for the years 1950-2013 and used the Dewy Decimal Classification (DDC) system to divide the books into two groups: narcissistic and non-narcissistic. Bestsellers with such titles as Self Matters (starting with DDC number 158) and You: The Owner’s Manual (starting with a DDC number of 613) were categorized as having narcissistic content while bestsellers with such titles as The World is Flat (starting with DDC number 303), The Great Depression of 1990 (starting with DDC number 338) and James Herriot’s Dog Stories (starting with DDC number 636), were categorized as lacking narcissistic content. We ran several statistical analyses, including Chi-square tests and times series tests, on the data. Our results indicated that societal narcissism rose rapidly from the 1950’s to the 1970’s and subsequently rose more gradually from the 1980’s to 2000’s.

Why are our studies important?

Our findings of a continual increase in societal narcissism do not bode well for the future. Our society is legitimatizing narcissism and might be encouraging our political leaders and chief executive officers to act in self-serving and destructive ways. In her study of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein, Glad (2002, p. 1) concluded that the framework with the most power in explaining their behaviors was that of the “narcissist with severe superego deficiencies.” Chatterjee and Hambrick (2007) found that CEO levels of narcissism were positively related to strategic dynamism (i.e., the amount of change in strategies) and grandiose actions (i.e., bold strategies measured by acquisitions of other firms), resulting in increased variance in firm performance. If we aim to develop good leaders who will have a positive impact on society, then we need to start increasing awareness of narcissism (in all its shapes and forms), rethinking the ways in which we raise our children, and developing better screens for high level positions in government and business.

Along these lines, Hogan and Kaiser (2005) noted that narcissistic individuals can interview very successfully for CEO positions, because they possess what might be seen as charismatic and visionary traits. The researchers point out that, ironically, such individuals were often poor leaders—more concerned with impression management than results. What companies should seek in a leader is someone with a proven record of team development and achievement. Collins (2001), in Good to Great, identified the key traits of Level 5 Leadership. Such leaders were not the ones who were “charismatic egotists” who achieved celebrity status. Instead, Level 5 leaders were highly disciplined, driven, and humble.


Chatterjee, A, & Hambrick, DC (2007). It’s All About Me: Narcissistic Chief Executive Officers and their Effects on Company Strategy and Performance, Administrative Science Quarterly, 52: 351-386.
Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great. New York: HarperCollins.

Craig, R, & Amernic J (2011). Detecting Linguistic Traces of Destructive Narcissism At-A-Distance in a CEO’s Letter for Shareholders, Journal of Business Ethics, 101: 563-575.

DeWall, CN, Pond, RS, Campbell, WK, & Twenge, JM (2011). Tuning in to Psychological Change: Linguistic Markers of Psychological Traits and Emotions over Time in Popular US Song Lyrics, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 5 (3): 200-207.

Glad, B (2002). Why Tyrants Go Too Far: Malignant Narcissism and Absolute Power, Political Psychology, 23 (1): 1-37.

Hogan, R, & Kaiser, RB (2005). What We Know About Leadership, Review of General Psychology, 9 (2): 169-180.

Lasch, C (1979). The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. NY: WW Norton & Company.

Mullins, LS, & Kopelman, RE (1984). The Best Seller as an Indicator of Societal Narcissism: Is There a Trend? The Public Opinion Quarterly, 48: 720-730.

Links to articles

Mullins, L. S., & Kopelman, RE (1984). The Best Seller as an Indicator of Societal Narcissism: Is There a Trend? The Public Opinion Quarterly, 48: 720-730.

Rovenpor, JL, Kopelman, RE, Cohen Brandwein, A, Quach, P., & Waldman, M. (2016, August) The Best-Seller as an Indicator of Societal Narcissism, Society, 53 (4): 414-421.

Richard Kopelman

Richard Kopelman

Richard E. Kopelman is Professor of Management at the Zicklin School of Business of Baruch College, and Academic Co-Director of the Executive Master of Science in Industrial and Labor Relations (MSILR) Program. The author of more than 150 published journal articles and chapters, his research has focused on improving work motivation, productivity, and organizational performance. View Richard’s LinkedIn profile.

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Latest update: February 23, 2017
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