Narcissism, it’s fair to say, doesn’t get a great press. One only has to look at the amount of ridicule levelled at such public figures as Donald Trump and Kanye West to realise the commonly held view of it is an undesirable characteristic. The age of social media and the selfie do nothing to allay the idea people are becoming a little too into themselves. However, research has come up with two surprising suggestions: 1) we may all be a lot more narcissistic than we’d like to think, and 2) it’s very good for our mental health that we are.
Total Perspective Vortex
In the second Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy novel, Douglas Adams describes a fiendishly original torture device, so cruel and unusual that it’s almost guaranteed to drive anyone subjected to its effect mad. It’s called the Total Perspective Vortex, and it works like this:
‘When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it there’s a tiny little speck, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, “You are here.”’
The terrible power of the machine, Adams explains, lies in the fact that ‘In an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.’ The only person to emerge from the Total Perspective Vortex unscathed was the wonderfully named Zaphod Beeblebrox, and this was only because due to a plot twist, the vortex revealed to him what every Narcissist secretly suspects: namely, that he was in fact the most important person in the universe
Psychological Immune System
It turns out that Adams was onto something. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert proposes that most of have what he labels a psychological immune system. This functions to preserve our sense of self-worth in the face of contradictory evidence, meaning that we see ourselves possessing more good qualities than those around us, and fewer negative traits. If you doubt this, ask yourself when you last heard someone describe themselves as a worse-than-average driver (or lover).
So why is this important? A 1980 study asked a group of participants to rate themselves on various social attributes, such as friendliness, popularity, warmth, assertiveness. The participants included depressives, non-depressed psychiatric patients, and non-patients with no history of mental illness. A group of observers was also asked to rate the participants on the same traits. The results were fascinating.
It turns out that rather than rating themselves down on their various social traits, as one might think, the depressives actually scored themselves very similarly to how the observers rated them. It was in fact the non-depressives who gave themselves higher ratings than the objective observers, suggesting that it is this inflated opinion of ourselves that staves off depression. But too much perspective, as Adams reminds us, can be dangerous.
To Donald, or not to Donald?
So what can we conclude from this? Should we all turn ourselves into chest-beating braggarts, proudly proclaiming our superiority to the rest of the world? Of course not. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is defined as having ‘an inflated sense of [one’s] own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others’. For someone with NPD, it’s almost impossible to form meaningful relationships with anyone else, so bound up are they in their own narrative. But it’s possible to boost one’s own esteem without sacrificing empathy for others – in fact, a good amount of self-love can increase your capacity to love others.
If we are to learn anything from these findings, it would be this: we use whatever we can to get us through the many challenges that face us. Given the choice, it is healthier to make a generous assessment of oneself than a withering one. After all, the first step towards making positive change is believing it possible.
 Adams, D, Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Pan Books, London, 1980
 Gilbert, D., Stumbling on Happiness, Harper Perennial, London, 2007
 Lewinsohn et al, ‘Social Competence and Depression: the Role of Illusory Self-Perceptions’, Journal of Abnormal Psychology 89, no. 2 (1980)