Are We A Nation Of Narcissists?

I’m not quite ready to get hysterical about this study that shows that Americans value fame and other “individualistic” values more than they did in 1967, linking those values to popular television shows:

As predicted, fame, financial success, and other individualistic values, notably achievement, rose in importance across the decades. Fame, the main focus of the study, made the most dramatic shift. Table 4 shows that fame rose from the bottom of the value rankings in 1967 (number 15 out of 16) to the top value in 2007. Financial success also rose in importance, as predicted; it was ranked 12th in 1967, rising to fifth in 2007. Two other individualisitic values showed a major increase in relative importance: Achievement rose from tenth place to second place across the decades, while physical fitness moved from sixteenth place to ninth place. In contrast, communitarian values, as predicted, declined in relative importance over time. Three communitarian values — community feeling, tradition, and benevolence — showed sharp declines in relative importance from 1967 to 2007 (Table 4). Community feeling started out as the top-ranked value in 1967 and fell to number 11. Tradition was ranked fourth in 1967 and fell to 15th place in 2007. Benevolence went from second place to 12th place across the decades. Of all the values assessed, these three showed the largest decline in relative importance from 1967 to 2007.

First, I’m not going to declare the decline of Western civilization on the strength of 60 people’s responses to a questionnaire. But more importantly, there are a lot of alternate explanations for those shifts in values. If you don’t think Social Security’s going to be around, being financially successful so you can be secure later matters. Achievement is so broadly defined as to be nebulous, but pressure to say, go to a good college is obviously up substantially from factors other than entertainment. Standards of physical fitness and what counts as an ideal body have certainly changed, as has our understanding of health and exercise, something our popular culture reflects and magnifies but isn’t solely responsible for.

And finally, it makes sense that fame would be more desirable as it seems more accessible. American Idol’s popularity is part and parcel of a culture where you can become instantly extremely popular by hitting the fickle sweet spot of the viewing public (it’s also the result of a dramatically fragmented television viewership, so it’s worth looking at a bunch of other shows alongside it, the intensity of viewers’ attachment, etc.). I like the idea of having a luxury yacht, but that doesn’t mean that I aspire it.


Still, I do think there’s something interesting about the shift from television (and other popular culture) where viewers relate to the characters to television where viewers aspire to be like the characters. I remain hard-pressed to identify what caused the shift or what programming was the tipping point — the rise of celebrity reality TV shows seems like a possible, but not totally convincing moment — but there is a difference.