James Poskett: The social narcissist

Me, me, me. What could be more antisocial than a preoccupation with one’s own life at the expense of others? The Greek myth of Narcissus perhaps captured it best. The proud young hunter, uninterested in the affections of others, found satisfaction in his own reflection. Consumed by self-love and unable to leave his mirror image, Narcissus’s obsession led to his eventual death. Carvaggio’s painting of this, the original narcissist, is in fact featured on the latest edition of Medical Humanities in which Alessia Pannese’s article alludes to a possible neurological cause.

But is narcissism really such an antisocial tendency? I was recently lucky enough to attend a talk by Julie Walsh at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, which radically challenged my assumptions.

Walsh started by pointing out that traditional psychological drives are routinely characterised as having enormous social significance. Libido, or sexual desire, is the classic. Spend ten minutes in your local nightclub (rather you than me) and you’ll see what I mean. And it’s not just on the dance floor, sexual desire clearly motivates a great deal of social interaction, from cinema dates to divorce courts.

With this in mind, Walsh takes narcissism and suggests it too has a social function. Walsh argues that the narcissist, by withholding something of themselves, provokes the interest of others. Flirting is a case in point. It is precisely the inaccessibility of the flirt, ‘playing hard to get’, which proves attractive. We might also think of gossip. The Daily Mail website thrives on the fact that we do not have unlimited access to celebrities’ intimate lives. Again, inaccessibility sustains a social reaction.

Narcissism, then, should be thought of like libido: an important component of our social world. With this in mind, scholars in the medical humanities might look to reassess the pathology of narcissism. Like libido, it can certainly produce undesirable or abnormal behaviour. But similarly, we can no longer dismiss narcissism as simplistically destructive. What distinguishes the social from the antisocial narcissist remains an open question.