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The Narcissist Next Door: Understanding the Monster in Your Family, in Your Office, in Your Bed-in Your World Hardcover – September 9, 2014

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  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books (September 9, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594486360
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594486364
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #386,869 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

Jeffrey Kluger is a senior editor and writer at Time. He is a coauthor of the bestseller Apollo 13 and the author of The Sibling Effect, Simplexity, Splendid SolutionMoon Hunters, and two novels for young adults. Kluger lives in New York City with his wife and daughters.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2014 Jeffrey Kluger


The Mighty I

It can’t be easy to wake up every day and discover that you’re still Donald Trump. You were Trump yesterday, you’re Trump today, and barring some extraordinary intervention, you’ll be Trump tomorrow.

There are, certainly, compensations to being Donald Trump. You’re fabulously wealthy; you have a lifetime pass to help yourself to younger and younger wives, even as you get older and older—a two-way Benjamin Button dynamic that is equal parts enviable and grotesque. You own homes in Manhattan; Palm Beach; upstate New York; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Rancho Palos Verdes, California; and you’re free to bunk down in the penthouse suite of any hotel, apartment building, or resort that flies the Trump flag, anywhere on the planet—and there are a lot of them.

But none of that changes the reality of waking up every morning, looking in the bathroom mirror, and seeing Donald Trump staring back at you. And no, it’s not the hair; that, after all, is a choice—one that may be hard for most people to understand, but a choice all the same, and there’s a certain go-to-hell confidence in continuing to make it. The problem with being Trump is the same thing that explains the enormous fame and success of Trump: a naked neediness, a certain shamelessness, an insatiable hunger to be the largest, loudest, most honkingly conspicuous presence in any room—the great, braying Trumpness of Trump—and that’s probably far less of a revel than it seems.

Contented people, well-grounded people, people at ease inside their skin, just don’t behave the way Trump does. They go easy on the superlatives—especially when they’re talking about their own accomplishments. Maybe what they’re building or selling really is the greatest, the grandest, the biggest, the most stupendous, but they let the product do the talking. If it can’t, maybe it ain’t so great. They use their own names sparingly, too—even when they’re businesspeople who have the opportunity to turn themselves from a person into a brand. There is no GatesWare software, no; it’s not Zuckerbook you log on to a dozen times a day, it’s Facebook. But the Trump name is everywhere in the Trump world—on his buildings, on his helicopters, on the side of every single plane in the fleet that was once known as the Eastern Air Shuttle until Trump bought it in1989 and renamed it the Trump Shuttle. It’s been on Trump Mortgage, Trump Financial, Trump Sales and Leasing, Trump Restaurants, Trump vodka, Trump chocolate, Donald Trump The Fragrance, Trump water, Trump home furnishings, Trump clothing, Trump Books, Trump Golf, Trump University and yes, Trump the Game.

There is presumption in the Trump persona, too—in his attempt to trademark “You’re fired,” after it became a catchphrase on The Apprentice, his top-rated reality show; in his offer to donate $5 million to a charity of President Obama’s choosing if Obama would release to him, Trump, his college transcripts. There is petulance—in his public feuds with Rosie O’Donnell (“A total loser”), Seth Meyers (“He’s a stutterer”), Robert De Niro (“We’re not dealing with Albert Einstein”) and Arianna Huffington, (“Unattractive both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man . . .”).

There is, too, an almost—almost—endearing cluelessness to the primal way he signals his pride in himself. He poses for pictures with his suit jacket flaring open, his hands on his hips, index and ring fingers pointing inevitably groinward—a great-ape fitness and genital display if ever there was one. After he bought the moribund Gulf+Western Building in New York City’s Columbus Circle, skinned it down, covered it in gold-colored glass, converted it into a luxury hotel and residence, and reinforced it with steel and concrete to make it less subject to swaying in the wind, Trump boasted to The New York Times that it was going to be “the stiffest building in the city.” If he was aware of his own psychic subtext, he gave no indication.

Donald Trump the person was not always Donald Trump the phenomenon. He began his career in his father’s company, building modestly priced rental properties in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, which is to the New York real estate world what Waffle House is to the high-end restaurant industry. He made his move into Manhattan in 1971, and while his interests and appetites were clearly, gaudily upscale, he was, in his own vainglorious way, something of a man of the people. When the city couldn’t manage to get Wollman Rink in Central Park renovated on time, Trump offered to take the project over, got it done within months and gave the city change back from its original budget. Yes, the name Trump would forever appear in conspicuous all-caps on the retaining walls surrounding the rink, but a civic good guy deserves a little recognition, doesn’t he? He was married to the same woman for fifteen years, they had three children together, and if the first of them was named, no surprise, Donald, well, what of it? We had two George Bushes and two John Adamses, didn’t we? He was socially and politically moderate: pro-choice, troubled by the unregulated flow of money into political campaigns, a champion of universal health care. “Our goal should be clear,” he said. “Our people are our greatest asset.”

It is a matter of historical record that that Trump is no more, that a large, loud foghorn of a man has taken his place, a man whose business acumen is undeniable, but whose public persona has become, to many, unbearable. To call Donald Trump a narcissist is to state what seems clinically obvious. There is the egotism of narcissism, the grandiosity of narcissism, the social obtuseness of narcissism. He has his believers, yes. “Love him or hate him, Trump is a man who is certain about what he wants, and sets out to get it, no holds barred,” said one. “Women find his power almost as much of a turn-on as his money.” But it was Trump himself who spoke those admiring words, which makes them comical, sure, but troubling as well.

Trump may be an easy target, but he is also, in some ways, a sympathetic one. Narcissism isn’t easy, it isn’t fun, it isn’t something to be waved off as a personal shortcoming that hurts only the narcissists themselves, any more than you can look at the drunk or philanderer or compulsive gambler and not see the grief and ruin in his future. Trump is unlikely to suffer such a fate, but it awaits plenty of other narcissists—and increasingly, they seem to be everywhere.

Narcissists are corrupt public officials, and honest ones too; they are the criminals who fill the jail cells, and sometimes the police who put them there in the first place. They are in industry, in media, in finance, in show business. They are artists, designers, chefs, scholars. They are the people we work with and the people we work for; the people we love and the people we bed; the people we hire or marry or befriend, and soon want to fire or leave or unfriend. They are the people who love us—until they betray us.

The very word narcissist—once the stuff of Greek mythology and psychology texts—has entered the cultural argot as a shorthand descriptor for all manner of unpleasant characters, and we recognize each of them. It’s the windbag drinking buddy who can go on for an entire evening about himself and his work and his new car and new house, but whose eyes glaze over and whose mind wanders the moment you begin to talk about yourself. It’s the mirror-gazing friend who insists on modeling every stitch of clothing she owns for you but never seems to notice—or comment on—whether you’re wearing a new dress, a favorite business suit or a giant garbage bag. It’s the bombastic relative who sucks the air out of Thanksgiving dinner, holding forth on politics from the pumpkin soup through the pumpkin pie and tolerating neither interruption nor contradiction. It’s the lover who charms the pants off of you—literally—and never returns your calls after that.

Narcissists may be ubiquitous—paradoxically commonplace given how exceptional they think they are—showing up in every corner of our lives, but it’s the famous ones, the ones with the biggest stages and the biggest soapboxes, we notice before we notice the ones closest to us. That makes sense, partly because they warrant close scrutiny given the kind of impact—usually negative—they can have, partly because there’s a can’t-look-away quality to their train-wreck behavior. And we’ve had a lot to look at in the United States of late.

So we get Ted Cruz, the freshman senator from Texas, conducting a twenty-one-hour filibuster—perhaps democracy’s greatest “Look at me!” spectacle—in 2013 to oppose a health care law he couldn’t repeal, couldn’t defund and wouldn’t sit down quietly to try to amend and improve, because that would mean weeks and months of collaborative work in private rooms with no cameras rolling or headlines flashing, and where’s the fun in that? So we get Marlin Stutzman, a back-bench congressman who helped engineer the two-and-a-half-week federal shutdown that followed Cruz’s spectacle and who, when asked why he and the rest of his faction wouldn’t back down despite the cost to the nation, answered, “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.” Because when 800,000 federal employees aren’t allowed to go to work, when food inspections are being canceled, when the country is losing over $1.5 billion a day, what really counts is whether the politicians themselves are feeling the love.

So we get New Jersey governor Chris Christie, longtime political bullyboy, on whose watch the entire town of Fort Lee, New Jersey, suffered through four days of gridlock when most of its access to the George Washington Bridge was cut off, an act of professional payback after the town’s Democratic mayor declined to cross party lines and endorse Christie in a reelection bid he was certain to win by a landslide anyway. Christie’s marathon 109-minute press conference after the story broke was less mea culpa than personal lamentation, a catalogue of the ways he’d suffered as a result of the incident.

“I am a very sad person today,” he said. “That’s the emotion I feel. A person close to me betrayed me. . . . I probably will get angry at some point, but I got to tell you the truth, I’m sad.” Christie also shared that he hadn’t been sleeping well as a result of the scandal and that he felt “humiliated” and “blindsided” and found it “incredibly disappointing to have people let [him] down this way.” The Washington Post ran a word count on Christie’s first-person references in the course of his long, on-camera ramble and reported 692 uses of I; 217 repetitions of me, my or mine; and 186 uses of I’m or I’ve. Thousands and thousands of Fort Lee residents suffered, but the big story to Chris Christie was, apparently, Chris Christie—and that hurt him badly. “I had a donor say well ‘Who gives a shit about you?’ ” said one GOP finance official, according to “What about all the people who are stuck on the bridge?”

We have had, too, Miley Cyrus, who from childhood never had to look far for a camera or an audience, because she was practically born with them in front of her. Her twerking and grinding and stroking herself with a foam-rubber finger in a live TV performance left critics and fans slack-jawed. Most people concluded her performance was an effort to demonstrate to her fans that she had, you know, grown up and was, you know, no longer a child—a rite of passage as inevitable for her as for anyone else, but somehow newsworthy because it was happening to Miley. This played out in the same summer that Lady Gaga—she of the meat dress, which may or may not have had much fashion merit, but undeniably drew eyeballs—released a song called “Applause,” in which she repeats over and over the lyric “I live for the applause, applause, applause,” as frank an admission and as powerful an anthem of the age of narcissism as you could imagine.

There is Bernie Madoff as well, a man whose multi-decade Ponzi scheme made him exceedingly rich, but at the cost of $65 billion in other people’s wealth, stolen from a victim list that, in the government’s records, ran 165 pages long. Hedge funds and banks made up much of that inventory of the wronged—admittedly, nobody’s idea of sympathetic victims—but there were also pension funds and charities, as well as individuals like Jack Cutter of Longmont, Colorado, a seventy-nine-year-old oil industry worker who was living with his wife on $1 million in retirement savings, a nest egg that vanished in Madoff’s care, forcing Cutter to take a job stocking supermarket shelves. Madoff may not have known Cutter, but he did know there would be hundreds or thousands of other Cutters among his victims—indeed, his scheme depended on that fact—and every morning he could nonetheless get out of bed and say, “Yes, this is all right, these are good decisions.”

Narcissists are the vanity presidential candidates—the likes of Herman Cain and H. Ross Perot, people with more money and name recognition than governing skills, but who fancy themselves up to the task of being the most powerful person on earth because, well, how could they not be? It doesn’t even require wealth to go on that “Vote for me or at least pay attention to me” ride. Did anybody believe Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich had any chance at all of ever taking the oath of office—did they even believe it themselves?—or was it just the naked craving to be on the presidential stage? In 2000, Ralph Nader ran quixotically for president on the Green Party ticket, winning 2.8 million votes nationwide—and 97,488 of them in Florida, the large majority of which surely came out of Al Gore’s hide. That Florida haul would have been more than enough to overcome the paper-thin 537 votes by which Gore lost the state to George W. Bush and, ultimately, the presidency. Yet when Nader was asked afterward if he felt like he had cost Gore the election, his answer was succinct: “I think that Al Gore cost me the election.”

Narcissists are athletes, too, and if anything, they’re worse than the politicians, since they don’t even have to affect humility, freeing them up to enjoy their posses and their bling and their SUVs, and to indulge in their magisterial habit of referring to themselves in the third person because, apparently, a mere pronoun is so unsatisfying when you have the opportunity to speak your own name aloud. “I wanted to do what was best for, you know, LeBron James, and what LeBron James was gonna do to make him happy,” said, well, LeBron James about his 2010 decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat—or, as he put it, “to take my talents to South Beach.”

“If they don’t sign me, sorry, but I must go. That’s what Carlos Zambrano thinks,” said, yes, pitcher Carlos Zambrano when he was in contract negotiations with the Chicago Cubs. “Rickey wants to play another year, and he thinks he wants to play for you,” said baseball Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson near the end of his career when he called to chat with the general manager of another team. And Rickey was job hunting at the time.

Few of us will ever rise to the self-adoring heights of LeBron or Madoff or Miley or Cruz, but we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think we may have been bitten by the same narcissistic bug that infected them. It’s not merely the “Notice me” roar of the Facebook age—with 1 billion of us updating our status and uploading our photos of such who-cares minutiae as what we had for dinner, because, really, how could our friends not want to look at a glamour shot of the farfalle with peppers and shrimp we just made? It’s not just the 500 million of us on Twitter, trained in the urgent art of posting 140 characters of absolutely nothing. (“Just had a Krispy Kreme! Yum!”) It’s not merely Foursquare that lets us check in when we go somewhere—anywhere, really—so that we can report the late-breaking news that we just drove past Fenway Park or the Gateway Arch or our old elementary school. It’s not even the reductio ad absurdum site, which allows—indeed, invites—your friends to sign up so they can choose the three words that best describe you, and you in turn can describe them. That’s all there is to it—really. If the site accepts hyphens, how many uploads of “self-absorbed twit” do you think they’ll get?

Our narcissism has other expressions, too: the symbiotic exhibitionism and voyeurism of the reality show. Look at me while I, um, live in a house on the Jersey Shore, and maybe one day you can get a show and people will look at you living in a house too! Yes, there’s money to be made from being a reality star, but it’s a simple truth of commerce that the things a culture rewards are the things it values, and in twenty-first-century America, spending your life before the camera is a growth industry, with both consumers and providers willing to contribute to it.

Those cameras don’t even have to be wielded by TV producers. We can do it very well ourselves, thank you very much, giving rise to our culture-wide sexting habit, with videos and cell phone images forever getting shot and saved and shared, because what good is a vigorous sexual romp unless other people can watch it play out and what good is the pleasure you take in looking at your own hot bits if other people can’t look along with you. Preposterous ex-congressman Anthony Weiner may be the poster boy—or poster something—for sexting, but with 80 percent of college students saying that they sext and 20 percent of the rest of the population admitting they do, too, he’s got plenty of company.

It’s starting earlier and earlier, this pandemic of simultaneous showing off and mirror-gazing—in the everybody-gets-a-trophy ethos of the grade-school track meet, in the well-intentioned song preschoolers are taught to sing to the tune of “Frère Jacques”: “I am special, I am special, Look at me, Look at me.” Well, maybe you are, but as with the 1981 study that found that 82 percent of people believe they’re in the top 33 percent of drivers—a statistical impossibility—if everyone’s special, by definition no one is. Only in Lake Wobegon are all the children above average. Mister Rogers sold the same idea of pre-K exceptionalism decades ago, but with an important twist: “You are my friend, you are special, you are my friend, you’re special to me,” he sang. The specialness lay in the connection to Mister Rogers—and, by implication, to all the other friends the child was learning to make—not in some factory-loaded excellence that’s standard equipment in all of us.

Some of this is natural in kids. “If you go into a classroom and say,
‘How many of you are good at math?’ ” observes Brad Bushman, a professor of psychology and communications at Ohio State University, “kids under eight will raise their hands even if they suck at math. The same is true of singing and other skills. Before age eight, people think they’re good at everything.” But what starts as a sort of naïve conceit is too often hothoused into full-blown grandiosity.

It’s hard to say when Americans finally, fully gave themselves over to the cult of love-me-ism—or at least openly acknowledged it—but December 2006 is often pointed to as a sort of benchmark. That was the month one of Time magazine’s most-talked-about Person of the Year issues was published. In all the decades Time has existed, it has accorded the honor to a host of history’s giants: Lindbergh, Gandhi, Eisenhower, Sadat, Gorbachev, Churchill (twice), Franklin Roosevelt (three times). Monsters have been chosen, too—Hitler, Stalin, Khomeini—abiding by the magazine’s self-imposed rule that the sole standard for selection be the person who most influenced world events in the previous year, for better or worse. Whole groups have gotten the honor: Hungarian freedom fighters in 1956, Baby Boomers in 1966, American women in 1975. In 1988, the Earth itself was named Planet of the Year as a nod to the perilous state of the environment; in 1982, the personal computer was named Machine of the Year—a choice that turned out to be prescient given that there wasn’t even a publicly available Internet yet.

In 2006, however, everyone got the track-meet ribbon. Time’s Person of the Year was, simply: You. “You. Yes, You,” the cover line read. “You control the information age. Welcome to your world.” The conceit of the story was that in an era of user-derived content, we were all now running the cultural show. “For seizing the reins of the global media,” Time wrote, “for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game, TIME’s Person of the Year for 2006 is you.” To make sure that the congratulatory message got through, the cover included a piece of reflective Mylar—a hand mirror to match the self-adoration theme of the story.

As a longtime Time staffer—someone who looks at the red border the way Yankee players see their pinstripes—I wish I could say I questioned the choice, raised my hand and asked if that really, truly was the statement we wanted to make. But I didn’t. The fact is, I cautiously applauded the idea, thought it captured the zeitgeist in a fresh and interesting way—and I still think it did. The problem was, it also endorsed that zeitgeist, validated it, gave cover to people for whom the “I am special, Look at me” refrain was more than a song lyric. It was the animating idea of their lives.

In the years since, the tidal wave of first-person love has only climbed higher. Our careful curation of our Facebook pages has become something of a cultural art form, as we post only the prettiest pictures, the sunniest news, the funniest observations—grooming our image for a following that we convince ourselves gives a hoot. We have become artists of the selfie, the first-person photo taken with a smart-phone held at arm’s length—an immediately recognizable posture that may become the signature pose of our era. The Vine website allows us to post eleven-second video clips—the visual equivalent of Twitter— doing whatever we’ve convinced ourselves the world wants to watch us doing. now lists nearly 70,000 book titles under the “Self-esteem” rubric—and that’s only in paperback. More than 3,700 such books are aimed at kids and more than 300 of those, incredibly, at the birth-to-age-two group—or precisely the stage of life in which kids need absolutely no help to believe they sit at the center of the universe. The titles achieve a certain redundancy after a while—I Like Me; The Best Part of Me; You Are Important; Happy to Be Me!; The Lovables in the Kingdom of Self—but they all sell the same ego-puffing product. Self-esteem is undeniably important, and plenty of people—especially kids—with rough lives or troubled psyches need a boost. But surely not 70,000 books’ worth of boost.

Calling all of this narcissism can be something of a stretch. Physical and emotional conditions tend to slip in and out of vogue, with a lot of sloppy diagnosing of ourselves and of others coming with it. We find it awfully easy to label a moody friend “bipolar,” notwithstanding the fact that only 2.6 percent of the world’s population actually suffers from the condition, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Ditto obsessive-compulsive disorder, which everyone on the planet seems to think they have at some point or another—even reducing the label to an adjective (“I’m so OCD!”)—simply because they like to keep their desk neat. But if you’re not part of the 2 percent of all people who actually have a clinical, diagnosable case of the condition, you’re probably just tidy. As for hypoglycemia? Please. Unless you’re diabetic and have just injected yourself with insulin and skipped a meal, odds are you’re just tired, hungry and looking for an excuse for a snack. So eat a Snickers and pipe down.

It is much the same way with narcissism. The actual incidence of true narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is just 1 percent in the general population, sneaking up to 3 percent in certain groups—such as people in their twenties who have yet to be humbled a bit by the challenges and setbacks of adult life. The numbers climb much higher among self-selected populations of people who have already entered psychotherapy for some emotional condition, ranging anywhere from 2 percent for the average therapy patient to 16 percent for institutionalized patients.

The behaviors that characterize the narcissistic personality are spelled out starkly by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), psychology’s universally relied-upon field guide to the mind, which defines the condition as, in effect, three conditions: a toxic mash-up of grandiosity, an unquenchable thirst for admiration and a near-total blindness to how other people see you. But those are only the broadest features. There is, too, a lack of empathy in the narcissist—an utter inability not only to understand what other people are feeling but how they may be responsible for those feelings, especially when they’re bad.

Narcissists are afflicted with a bottomless appetite as well—for recognition, attention, glory, rewards. And it’s a zero-sum thing. Every moment a narcissist spends listening to another party guest tell a story is a moment in which the stage has been surrendered. Most people welcome that give-and-take; it’s the social part of socializing, and listening can provide a welcome break from the performance demands of telling a story or otherwise holding court. In the karaoke cycle that is life, we all get our turns on the stage and our turns in the crowd. The narcissist withers in—and rages against—any dying of the light.

Entitlement is another part of the narcissistic profile—a sense that attention and rewards are not only expected but owing—accompanied by an always-ready rage when those goodies aren’t delivered. “Perhaps the worst expression of narcissism is that sense of entitlement,” says research psychologist Robin Edelstein of the University of Michigan. “It usually exists side by side with a terrible exploitativeness, a willingness to take advantage of other people, but a brittleness and defensiveness if they feel someone is taking advantage of them.”

Adds Brad Bushman of Ohio State University, “I’m an aggression researcher, and when it comes to narcissists, nothing sets aggression off so much as that sense of entitlement.”

Narcissism is not a stand-alone condition. It’s part of the suite of ten personality disorders, which also include paranoid, borderline, histrionic, antisocial, dependent, avoidant, rigid, schizoid and schizotypal personalities. (The last two, as their names suggest, include features of schizophrenia but are not the same as that full-blown condition, which is in a diagnostic class almost by itself.)

Personality disorders are among the most stubborn conditions psychologists treat, because they’re what is known as “egosyntonic”— which is shrink-talk for the idea that the patients buy into what their minds are telling them. You’re not paranoid, people really are after you; you’re not pathologically rigid, there really are certain ways all things must be done at all times; and you’re not narcissistic, you really are more talented, more important and just plain better than everybody else.

Anxiety conditions, such as phobias and OCD, are what’s known as “egodystonic.” The person with a morbid fear of spiders or snakes or elevators knows it’s nuts but can’t control it. The obsessive-compulsive who devotes three hours a day to hand-washing or checking to make sure the stove is turned off recognizes the madness of the behavior and would much rather be doing other things, but the psychic pull of the rituals is too great. When anxiety sufferers come into therapy, they deeply want to change. When people with a personality disorder at last enter treatment, it’s typically because family or friends push them there. Absent that kind of coercion, they really see no need to change. This is especially true of narcissists, who not only don’t think they need a doctor but are convinced they’re smarter than the doctor.

Not every case of narcissism is the clinical, capital-N kind. Like all personality disorders, it exists on a sort of continuum, with people with ordinary self-esteem at one end, the floridly narcissistic at the other and uncounted little gradations in between. A whole lot of people are now moving up that scale, developing cases of subclinical, or lowercase-n, narcissism that may not shut down governments but may cause plenty of personal harm to the people around them.

In 2008, a team of researchers published a study in the Journal of Personality looking at narcissism among college students over a twenty-seven-year period, from 1979 to 2006. Their paper was what’s known as a meta-analysis, a recrunching of the data from eighty-five separate narcissism studies covering a collective 16,475 subjects. All of the people surveyed had been administered the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), a forty-item questionnaire that requires subjects to choose between such essentially opposite statements as “I insist upon getting the respect that is due me” and “I usually get the respect that I deserve”; “Sometimes I tell good stories” and “Everybody likes to hear my stories”; “I can read people like a book” and “People are sometimes hard to understand”; “I am more capable than other people” and “There is a lot I can learn from other people.” (See page 259.) In some cases, both statements can be true—you may in fact be more capable than other people and still have things to learn from them—but the “forced choice” nature of the questions is designed to make people own up to the traits that best describe them, even if that’s not all there is to them.

The average person scores slightly below 16 on the NPI. Move above 20 and you’re flirting with narcissism. Broadly, people diagnosed with narcissism can be divided into three groups: the power group, the special-person group and the grandiose-exhibitionist group, depending on the mix of descriptions they choose for themselves—but all of them are still narcissists. Since 1979, the 2008 study found, there has been a 30 percent increase in overall NPI scores in the sample population, with more than two-thirds of contemporary college students scoring higher than what the mean score was from 1979 through 1985. “The exact same test has been given every year,” says Bushman, who was one of the coauthors of the study, “and the narcissism rates are increasing over time.”

Like all psychological surveys, the NPI will never be as empirically accurate as, say, a blood test or a cholesterol count. But when tools like this stick around as long as this one has, and when they’re used as widely as this one is, they’ve usually proven their powerful if imperfect merit. What’s more, even before people take the test, both experts and non-experts can often predict who will score high, based on their telltale behavior.

Narcissists thrive when there’s an opportunity for glory but are uninterested in the collaborative work that leads to greater good for a larger group; they bristle and bitch when their talents are challenged, but never consider the possibility that those talents may be less than they believe them to be or that there is at least room for improvement. For narcissists, setbacks are not opportunities to learn; they’re problems caused by somebody else who got in their way or sabotaged their plans.

“Narcissists tend to blame others, rather than to own it,” says Nathanael Fast, professor of management and organizational behavior at the University of Southern California. “There’s a fragility to the narcissistic personality, a pressure to be superior and the implicit need to prove how great they are.”

It’s that pressure, that panic, that drives narcissists to cut corners and break rules—the plagiarist or the academic cheater whose shame at acting unethically or fear of being caught is no match for the thrill of the unearned A+ or the fraudulent byline. “Narcissistic students have higher levels of academic misconduct and we think that’s because they don’t feel guilt,” says psychologist Amy Brunell of Ohio State University at Newark, who has studied narcissism and academic dishonesty. “We asked them about their impressions of other students and they felt that other people were cheating more than they actually were. But people who merely have high self-esteem as opposed to narcissism don’t cheat as much.”

That kind of behavior takes its toll on everyone. By the time the cheater has aced the course and moved on, she’s thrown off the curve for the rest of the class and perhaps won the internship or postgrad job that honest students were gunning for, too. By the time the woman who falls in love with a narcissist realizes he will never adore her nearly as much as he adores himself, she may already have given up her apartment, moved into his and never suspected that he’s cheating with the new account executive in his office whom he insists he doesn’t find the slightest bit pretty. By the time the human resources department realizes that the VP it hired to manage an office of two hundred people is a raging narcissist, he’s probably browbeaten dozens of employees, filched credit for work they’ve done, and led the firm to a quarterly loss because, never mind what all the trained analysts told him about why he shouldn’t invest in new product development till next year, he reckoned his judgment was better and smarter and bolder than theirs.

There can, surely, be profound good that comes from narcissists—or at least from their works. However wise and humble and spiritual Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., were, they surely got a charge out of rousing hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people with the sound of their voice and the power of their ideas. Had they been more timid men, less inclined toward—or delighted by— the power that comes from leadership, they might never have stepped up to lead at all. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin saved the world from polio with their competing and very different vaccines. But it was the race to be first—to be the man who would be celebrated for beating the disease—that helped impel their work. Dwight Eisenhower led the Allies to victory during World War II, and for that he was rightly celebrated. But if you don’t think he quietly enjoyed wearing an explosively beribboned uniform and a title like Supreme Allied Commander, you don’t know much about human nature. It is the same confidence—sometimes arrogance—that has allowed inventors and industrialists like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk to press on in improbable ventures against extraordinary odds and create things that improve the world in big and meaningful ways, even if they make few friends doing it.

Still, the heroic narcissist, the ingenious narcissist, the courageous narcissist are not the most common breeds. It’s the everyday, self-obsessed, pay-attention-to-me narcissist who is. Almost anywhere you look in your world, you have an ever bigger chance of finding one of them: in your office, in your social circle, in your arms—in yourself. If you don’t know how to recognize them in time—to avoid them if you can or to manage them if you’re already entangled—the price can be high. And it can be higher still if the narcissist is you.

For too many people, the very idea of love—that greatest and most other-directed of human impulses—is folding in on itself, with admiration turning to exhibitionism, charity to greed, altruism to appetite. We are more and more living in a mirror world—with the most prominent sight being the reflected one. And too many of us like that view just fine.

Customer Reviews

Not informative or interesting at all.
Erika L. Johnson
Do note that there are not footnotes even though there are quotes after quotes, some filling half a page.
Amazon Customer
I would like to have seen the original studies referenced but can't do that.
margo c

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

72 of 79 people found the following review helpful By oldcat on September 22, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I expected (was hoping for) a clear, expository, and thorough book for laypeople about narcissism. I thought it would cover what narcissism is, how it's currently defined and how that definition may have changed in the last decade or so. I would have liked some clinical observations on the effects of narcissists on their families, their siblings, their children especially, and how to deal with them. Instead, this book dwells for half its length on famous narcissisists in public life, "Look, there's another one! And here's another one! And aren't they ADORABLE! How entertaining these entertainers are!" The writer illustrates very clearly just how the narcissist has been received, usually since infancy. He's a fanboy.

There is very little in this book on the destructive, vicious behaviors that comprise the actions of the narcissist thwarted. That's the part we need help with - not identifying how cute they are.
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Format: Hardcover
The term “narcissist” is thrown about a lot in our society, and in my personal life. However, I was clueless about what makes a narcissist a narcissist, and, suspecting that I had dealt with my fair share of some in my life, I wanted to learn more about them. After casually googling about narcissists last week, I came across an article about this book, and anxiously awaited its release. I read it today in one sitting and enjoyed it thoroughly.

First, Kluger provides his cultural theory for why narcissism is more prevalent today than ever: our culture of excessive praise (the “self esteem movement”/a.k.a. “everyone deserves a medal” generation that began in the 1980s) combined with the end of unsupervised play (children were no longer able to work out the spoken and unspoken social “rules of the game”).

Although narcissistic tendencies occur without fail in babies and toddlers, Kluger explains, these tendencies should disappear in normal adults. When these narcissistic tendencies don’t disappear, however, Kluger offers various examples of how narcissism plays out: in the office with coworkers; with your boss; in romantic relationships; in the political arena; in the “us versus them” tribal mentality; and finally, with violent offenders and celebrities.

Throughout each of these categories, there’s no shortage of lively examples—in fact, I found this to be one of the best aspects of the book. Kluger offers tons of great examples of celebrities or historical figures and their narcissistic actions. He does this while often unobtrusively explaining who the figure is or what happened if it’s not an immediately recognizable person or event. Kluger also gives great generic examples.
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59 of 72 people found the following review helpful By William W. Quick on September 13, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was hoping for something reasonable, but only found a totally unhelpful series of vignettes, most of which are about public personalities, a scattering of uncritical and highly selected reviews of various psychologic studies, and strong opinions and attempts at humor that usually backfired. Sadly, there's no real science here, and no help for the reader who's coping with a narcissist except to quit your job if the boss is a narcissist.

Don't waste your money on this drivel.
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41 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Bookworm on September 19, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I spent an evening with this book and sent it back. It contained nothing that would help anyone deal with narcissitic behavior; just a series of quips about famous narcissitic people and some of the more obnoxious things they did. The author tried way too hard to be witty and rambled mercilessly around until the reader became so annoyed and bored they couldn't help but QUIT!! People who see the title The Narcissist Next Door expect a book that WILL help them deal with narcissitic coworkers, spouses, friends and relatives. This book unfortunately does none of that; I think it's a narcissitic rant by a very wordy author! Don't waste your money!
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36 of 47 people found the following review helpful By D. Morris on September 10, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I read the first 10 pages and returned it for a refund. I was hoping for a practical and well-researched work that could prove helpful in dealing with narcissists, but this seems to be more of a rant against conservative politicians and other public figures. (I am NOT a fan of Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, etc., to say the least, but the tirades against them seemed very unprofessional.)

Perhaps the book improves as it progresses, but the amateur opening was off-putting. This is only the 2nd book I've ever returned for a refund.
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23 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Jonathan Rocks on September 17, 2014
Format: Hardcover
I thought this would be an interesting read. I as wrong. It's hard to take the author seriously when his personal bias and petty snark consistently get in the way of an otherwise interesting topic.

Narcissists come in all shapes and sizes, but Kluger seems to pick and choose the ones to make excuses for.

Hell, he leaves other *glaring* examples out of the text completely. That's just odd. Or willfully ignorant.

A disappointing read.
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15 of 20 people found the following review helpful By willmonk on September 28, 2014
Format: Hardcover
I saw this at the bookstore, ready to buy it. It has a few nice bits: its opening about the difficult about being Donald Trump, and the idea that Facebook itself is an exercise in narcissism. Yet it also has laughable errors - like referring to British Prime Minister "Malcolm Browne" (instead of Gordon Browne); Robert Caro's three books on Lyndon Johnson (he has written four) and Margaret Thatcher's "fifteen years" as Prime Minister (she served eleven). This work needed an editor, or at least a second draft.
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