MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Brad Bushman has spent decades studying the causes of human aggression and violence, and he's concluded that in Western society at least one of the sources is narcissism. He co-authored a new study that defines narcissists as those who feel superior to others and believe they deserve special treatment. And according to this study, the origins of narcissism in children can be traced to parents who overvalue their kids. Brad Bushman joins me from the Ohio State University in Columbus where he's a professor of communication and psychology. Welcome to the program.
BRAD BUSHMAN: Thank you very much.
BLOCK: And we should clarify, you're talking about everyday narcissism, not the extreme form narcissistic personality disorder.
BUSHMAN: That's correct.
BLOCK: OK. Well, this was a study of 565 children in the Netherlands, ages 7 to 12, and their parents. What kinds of questions were you asking them to try to figure out if the kids were narcissistic?
BUSHMAN: Well, we used the childhood narcissism scale that we developed. It has 10 items. Some sample items are I'm a very special person. I'm a great example for other kids to follow. Kids like me deserve something extra. Without me, our class would be way-less fun - items like that.
BLOCK: And those are answers that, if answered in the positive, you would say indicate narcissism, not just healthy sense of self - self-esteem.
BUSHMAN: That's right. Self-esteem means you think you're as good as other people, whereas narcissism means you think you're better than other people.
BLOCK: Along with questioning the children, you did question the parents. What kinds of things were you asking them?
BUSHMAN: Yeah, we also developed a parental overvaluation scale. It has items like my child deserves special treatment. I would not be surprised to learn that my child has extraordinary talents and abilities. My child is a great example for other children to follow. And we asked parents to estimate how familiar their children were with different historical events and historical figures. Some of these items were actual, like the French Revolution for a historical event. But some were events that we made up, like the Beijing Revolution. And for historical figures, like Winston Churchill is an actual historical figure, but Queen Alberta is not. And parents who tend to overvalue their children claim that their children know about these bogus historical events and historical figures even though they don't exist.
BLOCK: So if they're asking about it, of course my kid must know about it because he or she knows everything, right?
BUSHMAN: That's right.
BLOCK: OK. Well, if you're a parent and you want your kid to feel good about him or herself, have a healthy sense of self-esteem, where do parents go wrong here do you think?
BUSHMAN: Well, I think it's really important for parents to show warmth and love and affection to their children, but it's not helpful to convey the idea that their children are superior to other children.
BLOCK: Not above average like the children of Lake Wobegon.
BUSHMAN: That's right.
BLOCK: OK. What made you decide to study this in the first place?
BUSHMAN: Well, we've done other research showing that the level of narcissism, at least in college students, in increasing steadily over the past 30 years, whereas other research has shown that the level of empathy in college students has been decreasing steadily over the past 30 years. Empathy involves putting yourself in the shoes of another person and narcissists don't do that. They only think about themselves, but empathy is one of the best predictors of prosocial behavior. So narcissism is not good for society because narcissists aren't very empathic. They're also more aggressive than other people. Narcissists think they're special people who deserve special treatment. And when they don't get the special treatment they think they deserve, they become very angry and aggressive and they lash out against others. So we're really interested in how narcissism develops in the first place. And I think our study is encouraging because it suggests that you're not just born a narcissist and there's nothing you can do about it, but rather parents can have an influence on how narcissistic their children become.
BLOCK: That's Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at the Ohio State University and co-author of a new study on the origins of narcissism in children. It's published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Professor Bushman, thanks so much.
BUSHMAN: My pleasure.
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