Last updated April 18, 2018 at 9:42 am
A focus on individualism makes us self-absorbed but it also lowers our self-esteem, say scientists.
If you listen to your parents, Facebook and Instagram are to blame, but German scientists says it might be Western culture itself which makes people narcissistic.
And they have their country’s unique history as their guide.
Thanks to the Cold War and the Berlin Wall, Germany is a unique place to study the differences between societies.
In an ingenious approach to comparing societies, researchers found that people who grew up in the former western states of Germany have higher levels of narcissism than those whose formative years were in the former eastern states.
From the separation of Germany into two separate states in 1949, until their reunification in 1989/1990 life in West Germany was characterised by a culture of individualism.
Across the border in East Germany, society was based on more collectivist principles.
Both types of societies had a major impact on citizens’ levels of self-esteem and narcissistic tendencies.
Modern western culture promotes narcissism
“Contemporary western societies promote narcissism. People who grew up on the western side of the former East-West border … had higher levels of narcissism than those who spent their childhood in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR),” explains Professor Stefan Röpke, who supervised the research.
“In our study, this was shown to primarily apply to ‘grandiose narcissism’, a type of narcissism that is characterized by an exaggerated sense of superiority.”
‘Narcissism’ is the excessive self-love and self-centeredness. While it’s annoying to have to deal with your mate who has tickets on himself, it can be a problem if the condition has a negative impact on the patient and if he or she develops a personality disorder.
Researchers dived through the data from an anonymous online survey of German citizens.
Of the more than 1,000 responses, approximately 350 were born in the former GDR (East), and approximately 650 in the former Federal Republic of Germany (West).
They then made a distinction between ‘subclinical’ (borderline) narcissism – a natural personality trait that is often referred to as healthy narcissism – and a pathological sense of superiority, which goes far beyond what might be considered healthy.
Self-esteem was assessed using an established rating scale widely used in research.
Interestingly, despite the higher narcissism in the West, they found that self-esteem was higher amongst people from the East.
Reunification of Germany changed the imbalance
However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of the country, a gradual balancing of the scores of these traits among the younger generation began.
This matches the combining of the two societies into a Western culture.
“No difference can be found within the younger generation – people who had either not been born at the time of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, or had not yet reached school-age, and who therefore grew up within the same Western society.
“In this group, the levels of narcissism and self-esteem recorded are the same for respondents from both the former East and West Germany,” said Dr Aline Vater, who lead the research.
“Overall, our results suggest that levels of narcissism and self-esteem are influenced by societal factors. Western societies appear to promote increased levels of narcissism among their citizens,” the researchers conclude.
The research was published in PLoS One.