If movie stars don't suffer from narcissism when they show up to appear with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio, they'll probably develop this condition before climbing into the limo to go home. Lipton, the dullest interviewer on television, may also be the most dangerous, a health hazard who deserves study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Lipton shows such intense appreciation for the work of his subjects that he persuades them they must be among the planet's greatest humans. A sharp-eyed psychologist watching Lipton's show could probably recognize those moments when, sitting under a shower of his praise, the actors finally crumple and inwardly acknowledge that they are, in fact, godlike.
Early in the 20th century Havelock Ellis named intense self-love after Narcissus, the mythic Greek who adores his own reflection. Ellis turned a familiar human failing into a medical condition, which in 1980 was recognized (under the name "Narcissistic personality disorder") by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Ever since, narcissism has played a steadily larger part in discussions of psychology. It seems to be the dominant emotional malady of our time, spreading through the population like a 1918 influenza virus.
Dr. Michael Crow, a social psychologist in Dallas, knows where to place the blame: On parents, of course. (Who else?) To encourage self-esteem, parents may lie to children, telling them they can do anything they want, which of course has never been true of anyone in history. Nursery schools extend this fiction. One psychologist claims to have found a place where kids sing (to the tune of Frere Jacques), "I am special, I am special. Look at me." If that doesn't do it, YouTube and MySpace will soon finish the job. While checking on the number of visits to their Web sites, teenagers can listen by iPod to Whitney Houston singing "Learning to love yourself/It is the greatest love of all."
If we live in the golden age of narcissism, there's no reason to think we have yet reached its limits. Five American psychologists have applied the Narcissistic Personality Inventory to 16,475 college students, asking them whether they agree with statements such as, "If I ruled the world, it would be a better place." Added up, their answers indicate that youthful narcissism has been rising since 1982, when testing began.
Dr. Robert B. Millman, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, has worse news. He's decided you can catch narcissism, like a cold. That's where James Lipton comes in. He's a carrier, like almost everybody else in the ever-expanding and ever more sycophantic arena of celebrity journalism.
Millman calls his syndrome Acquired Situational Narcissism (ASN). It's an affliction of movie stars, rock performers, billionaires and other A-list people. In this case parents appear to be guiltless. The people responsible are, first, the army of journalists who lavish wildly excessive praise on any modest sign of talent; and, second, the celebrity's staff, with their fawning mendacity. Celebrities believe these lies, even while knowing at some level that they are lies. Millman thinks that if enough people praise you, eventually you will demonstrate self-involvement, grandiose fantasies, frantic need for approval and lack of empathy. When celebrities get in trouble (driving while drunk, for instance), Millman explains that it's because narcissism makes them so self-involved that they forget the existence of people who might get in their way, such as police officers.
All this is caused by fame, but fame's disappearance doesn't help much. The typical ASN-afflicted star, plunged back into near obscurity, turns morose and angry.
People with ASN rarely get treated because self-absorption keeps them from seeing their own behaviour as flawed. Still, Millman has had a few celebrity patients. Typically, they are baffled by their failure to handle ordinary human relationships even though they are hugely successful. Sometimes Millman tells them the truth: They're narcissists. Naturally, that diagnosis displeases them. Many don't come back for another treatment.
If narcissism sounds like a major problem, there's a solution available: Relax and enjoy it. This is the attitude of the Narcissist Design Co. in Vancouver. The folks at Narcissist, with their two boutiques and other outlets, play to women ("style-savvy women, 25 to 40") who aren't afraid to be thought narcissistic. "It's about you," says the Web site slogan. The rest of the world worries about narcissism, but one Canadian company has seen the way out. Their attitude could spread around the world. Those people are on the way to being a Heritage Minute.