The mythological figure Narcissus was a handsome, self-absorbed, and vain young man who passionately fell in love with his own reflection in the water. “I burn with love for—me!” Narcissus cried, “the spark I kindle is the torch I carry.” Narcissus was unable to stop looking at his own reflection, and he ultimately pined away by the waterside. Psychologists have come to know Narcissus’ personality as narcissism. Although well known in its extreme form as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, narcissism is a personality trait in which people in the general population differ from one another. Narcissists feel superior to others, fantasize about personal successes, and believe they deserve special treatment (1). When narcissists feel humiliated, they are prone to lash out aggressively (2, 3) or even violently (4). Narcissists are also at increased risk for mental health problems, including drug addiction, depression, and anxiety (5). Research shows that narcissism is higher in Western than non-Western countries (6), and suggests that narcissism levels have been steadily increasing among Western youth over the past few decades (7; see ref. 8 for an alternative view).
The origins of narcissism, however, are not well understood. Here, we report, to our knowledge, the first prospective longitudinal evidence on the origins of narcissism in children. We pitted two major theories against each other: social learning theory and psychoanalytic theory. Social learning theory holds that children are likely to grow up to be narcissistic when their parents overvalue them: when their parents see them as more special and more entitled than other children (9). When parents overvalue their child, they see their child as “God’s gift to man” (9) and “are under a compulsion to ascribe every perfection to the child—which sober observation would find no occasion to do” (10). Consequently, children might internalize the belief that they are special individuals who are entitled to privileges. In contrast, psychoanalytic theory holds that children are likely to grow up to be narcissistic when their parents lack warmth toward them (11, 12). When parents lack warmth, they express little affection, appreciation, and positive affect toward their child, and they show little enjoyment of their child (13). In such an upbringing, children might place themselves on a pedestal to try to obtain from others the approval they did not receive from their parents.