Questions and Answers

The economic collapse in America revealed how an age of indulgence has dramatically impacted our lifestyle. What psychological factors fueled the years of excess?

The main factor is the decline in self-control. Impulsivity, rudeness, and declining self-control is observed daily. But it's more than shouting out "you lied" at a presidential address, cursing out a judge or referee, or grabbing the mic at an awards ceremony to tell a winner someone else's entry was better. It is evident in many areas that collectively I have called a culture of excess. Americans are overweight, buried in debt, overusing medications, and cheating more than ever before. We even put more people in prison per capita than any other country. The decline in self-control is connected to an increase in cultural narcissism-our sense of entitlement, grandiose expectations, immediacy, and demand that we are so special. We believe we deserve everything now. Our social and legislative policies encourage and advance the decline. In an era that prized deregulation, we have deregulated our internal mechanisms of self-control.

What is "productive narcissism"?

Like many personality traits or tendencies, there are pros and cons. Everyone has narcissistic tendencies. Those who succeed in business and politics are often narcissistic in the sense that they listen to their own voices and develop and pursue innovative thoughts and ideas. While they may be difficult to work with, they become leaders who foster change and innovation. They are able to do this without being done in by the cons. Their manipulation and maneuvers are described as elective and not required. People follow them and they are successful. But it is a continuum or matter of degree, because the manipulation can get out of control and the hero or leader then self destructs-engaging in antisocial or fraudulent acts. Many of the financial explosions of fraud are by leaders who never had a criminal record, but were narcissistic types who were quite productive leaders who then self-destructed-sometimes by just one act. A cover up usually follows.

You say we should move from Generation Me to Generation We. How will we be able to do this?

There are several ways I sum this up in the last chapter of The Culture of Excess. First, overall, the concept of We is even more than collectivism. Self-control at this point can only be reined in by what everyone seems to resist and hate — increased rules and regulations. The obsession with financial deregulation has permeated down to families and individuals. More regulations for Wall Street is absolutely required. Parenting must begin to reinstall the collapse of authority and provide stronger limits and boundaries for children. Other factors include less emphasis on materialism and consumption and more emphasis on competence. This would especially be true in improving through our schools and parenting a competence in math and science and learning a second language. This is in contrast to the emphasis on the immediate fulfillment of success by becoming rich and famous quickly. The emphasis today is on the financial degree or the MBA. The primary focus is on making money through consumption, not developing competence or developing as a person. Today, success is totally defined by wealth accumulation and it is easy to see that the fastest way to do this is not to spend a lot of time studying to be a good teacher, doctor or engineer-but by becoming a broker. A broker in a deregulated world is king. The ironic part is that when "success" is attained-we don't feel happy. I discuss several other factors, including new ways to measure success and media reform. What is going on in healthcare today-if it can be resolved in a fair and equitable way-can implement a policy that includes everyone and is an antidote to an entitled policy whereby many profit greatly from the health care "system" at the expense of everyone else.

You blame our loss of self-control on a number of factors, but you zero in on excessive capitalism, out of control technology, and non-stop media as the biggest culprits. Does this mean if one wants to make money or enjoys going on to Facebook that somehow we're harming ourselves or the country?

Of course not. Remember the wise mantra-moderation in all things. The excessive risk taking by major financial entities and their demise clearly shows a lack of self-control. This has become more normative than a prudent and conservative financial strategy to make money and profit. The technology and media have simply increased the rate and pace within which this can happen. The pace is so intense we attain success quickly-then crash-just like all the economic cycles of boom and a bubble, followed by bust and despair. The social technology also has a place but the intensity with which it is used becomes excessive and harmful. The Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours a day of screen media for young children. In contrast, would-be activities that are face to face, involve physical and psychological cooperation, and direct and unbranded play.

How did the compromises we made in adapting to intense economic competition lead to a false sense of self and reality?

The tremendous drive of extreme capitalism and its intensity and pace lead to behavior that increases risk taking. The excessive risk taking leads to manipulation and deception. The marketplace mania promotes unlimited success. But what I call entrepreneurial narcissism continues until it is out of control. Everywhere we look we see deception, cover up, and cookin' the books. But within this culture we teach youth they can be whatever they want and they must adapt and respond to the intense competition with their own manipulative drive. We are so inundated with hype and exaggerations we forget who we are, what is important and develop unrealistic expectations that distort our sense of reality. Increased self-deception, lying to our selves, develops into a person who has a false self and view of the world.

What are some steps parents can take to ensure they raise a healthy, balanced, self-controlled generation of youth?

Limit time spent on screen media, especially at an early age. Set firm limits and boundaries on behavior and support authority represented by schools and society. Encourage activity and time spent on quantitative thinking like math and science, and promote learning a second language. Deemphasize commercialism and materialism. Encourage natural unstructured play with peers without branded toys or screen media. Avoid the tendency towards the specialness of homeschooling or private schools. Avoid the early and intense competition that promotes getting into Harvard at the expense of security and happiness.

If our definition of success is creating problems, how do we redefine it?

I believe we have to do it as a culture. Success can be redefined as enjoying the benefits of love, work and play and not defined as attainment of wealth and consumption. Success in career will need to be defined and rewarded by competence. The financial area and MBA degree is considered the royal road to what is success. But they often don't build or produce anything-just move paper to make money. It is important to produce more degrees and professionals in math and science. Along with this we need to increase the value and financial rewards for the professional workers. Today, professionals in healthcare, medicine, science and education are devalued. Other middle class workers are also devalued. There is actually a hatred towards workers who organize-the unions. I would also add that regulation, in general, will help rebalance the financial system and restore the value and satisfaction of working professionals. Also, the way we report and measure success is myopic. Success is always measured by increases in the GDP as reflected by consumption. We need more qualitative measures of success-measures that contribute to healthy and productive living. Finally, media promotes a fast, quick emphasis on immediate success through becoming a star. So, success is viewed by youth as a process of quickly becoming a star or going in the financial world as a broker. This is not, in my opinion, a healthy view or definition of success.

You portray an America that seems lost and out of control, where the drive to succeed and the fear of missing out manifested itself, not only in self-entitled corporate fraud, but in everything from sharp rises in obesity and cosmetic medical procedures to equally troubling increases in the eating disorders, panic attacks, and outbreaks of uncontrollable rage. Are we just a doomed society?

No. But I felt it was important to put all these factors together to show what a culture of excess we are and question who we are as individuals and as a society. But instead of doomed, we are experiencing a failure of the way we live, including our powerful marketplace and capitalism. Usually, after massive failures we rebound and self-correct. But by the definition of narcissism, it is hard to receive and incorporate feedback and self-correct. So now, we need to change, but there is dramatic conflict, tension and even ugliness about how to do so. I believe we are stuck. Eventually, economic changes will force us to change our lifestyles. Of course this is happening already.

How are underlying psychological changes in individuals being influenced by cultural changes and technological advancements?

The issue has been raised by experts that brain development is changing from all the time spent on screen media. The result is an inability to focus and sustain attention. This can't be good. Many surveys show declining interest and time spent in reading, math and even arts, in lieu of time spent on screen media/technology activities. The fast pace of the technological world leads to an increase in impulsivity and a different way of thinking that mitigates against analytical or quantitative thinking. Impulsivity has been an important research variable related to crime. Immediacy and expectations are increased and this pattern escalates. When immediate needs are not met-we display increased frustration and anxiety. It is easier to get angry, be rude or impolite. There is an increase today in psychological symptoms.

What are the dangers of continuing on this destructive course of excess?

Declining physical and mental health. This is for the individual. As a society, a continuation of the current situation-a stuck-in-the-middle feeling--an inability to help ourselves and make constructive changes and improvements. This divisiveness and inability to change makes our economic and social problems continue to grow and destroy our societal foundations.

Is losing our sense of reality becoming our new normal?

Well, defining and exploring reality is quite a philosophical discourse. Trying to measure it is also just philosophical opinion. The pressures of today's fast pace promote escape. But the escapes are so media based they even become addicting. It is interesting that some of the most popular shows are called "reality" TV. They are anything but. We have become so influenced by media, and our private boundaries so broken down that we have difficulty coping and recovering from loss and pain. In The Culture of Excess I talk about the trauma response industry and our difficulty knowing what we feel and how to allow our natural ability to heal to unfold. We desperately want to be real-and long ago Daniel Boorstin noted the extreme interest in sports and crime-as events/activities that are uncontrived or real. In effect, I describe sports as an escape into reality. I believe the intense interest in crime shows and sports will continue. Pro sports are real competition, and crime and death are as real as it gets.

Why do you say "a false reality of unlimited expectations" is being passed on to our children?

Children today have grown up being told they could do or be anything. But it's beyond the pale and not in balance. Everyone cannot be a movie producer, TV anchor, or the president. In line with the growth of cultural narcissism, youth today will often admit they are spoiled. Their entry into the career/work world is often very disillusioning because their immediate demands and expectations are not met. Many kids from fine homes and with great parents have psychological symptoms and problems. In my opinion, they have a false reality — a reality of unlimited expectations

Why do you believe there is an increase in societal deception and self-deception?

The dramatic evidence of the increase in public cheating and fraud is the first part of the evidence. The economic collapse was mostly due to manipulation and deception by financial instruments presented as something they were not. What has been described as a 'cheating culture' shows we manipulate and lie as a normative response. The bar for what is a lie or cheating is much higher. Extensive survey data of young people show very high rates of admitted lying and manipulation and stealing. This is because they have to do this to succeed. What is striking is that while they admit to lying and manipulation, they rank their own individual ethical standards as something they are happy with.

Are we, as individuals, struggling to represent ourselves in a healthy and realistic way? Why?

Yes. So many factors mitigate against us. We have to always sell ourselves and exaggerate our skills, resumes and past accomplishments. We coach our youth to do the same-go out there and knock 'em dead-I can sell anything-you'll have it tomorrow. It is hard to just be ourselves, to be natural. At some level, we can feel this psychosocial despair.

How has cultural narcissism created a decline in our ability to think critically, analyze data, and make effective decisions?

The cycle of excess again is the explanation. Entitlement and immediacy leads to impulsivity and declining self-control. Thinking critically means considering both sides-the pros and cons-fairly and equally. Narcissistic tendencies lead to immediacy and inability to think through and even take in feedback and make changes or corrections. I believe this would extend to data analysis. In the book, I present an article from Wired that offers the opinion that because of databases like the ones Google has, we no longer need the scientific method. Finally, with impulsivity and immediacy comes hurried decisions that will more likely have poorer outcomes.

What reforms would you like to see take place in our financial markets and the business world?

One word sums it up—regulation. Of course, it has to be fair and balanced regulation. I think hedge funds should be regulated, the uptick rule put back in place, and CEO and top management salaries should have a cap. Perhaps we should do like China does-and if an executive commits major fraud, they would be executed. I wonder if the death penalty supporters would go for this. All the people who bailed out from Wall Street failures with bonuses and or got bonuses from the TARP money should be made to give it back. I understand Michael Moore is trying to collect it.

How do you present health care, and the unwillingness to reform the system, as a perfect example of cultural narcissism?

We are the ONLY country in the world that doesn't have universal health care. China just decided to do it-and they did it in one fell swoop. All the while, even today, we brag we have the best healthcare system in the world. No matter what outcome measures you choose-this simply isn't true. Herein is the narcissistic entitlement and "specialness"-we are the best-but we spend and waste huge amounts of money, don't cover everyone and have worse outcomes. We look down on other countries who have "socialized medicine." This is even so when our Medicare system is similar. For 20 years we have been unable to change this, and now the results and data are so staggering-we have to face the problem. But still, even in the face of failure we insist it is the best system. Health care and our inability to change it-is a pure example of our cultural narcissism-our entitlement, grandiosity and specialness. It is unbelievable that the poor outcomes of our dysfunctional health care system even result in people dying from lack of access to care. But nevertheless-we have the best system in the world. Remember that old joke? The operation was a complete success—but the patient died. Healthcare clearly represents our culture of excess-it is a system of waste, excess and brokers.

How is hero-creation with sports stars, and celebrity entertainers another indicator of cultural narcissism?

There has always been a need for heroes, but my point is that the nature of today's heroes has changed and fits the era of cultural narcissism. We love heroes who get addicted and recover. Athletes or actors who are consistent and non-drug using often get minimum attention. But the obsession is reflected by the instant messaging sent on cell phones to youth about the latest celebrity gossip. This is big business. The well documented fusion of entertainment and news is another example. The whole thing promotes narcissism. There is a joke about a Hollywood love triangle-an actor, his wife and himself.

Why did you write: "Who we are as individuals and as a society, how we connect and our attachments to others have changed"?

Research has clearly shown a new phase of development-a post adolescent/early adult phase. Today's separation from parents has changed-it occurs later-and adulthood starts later. Children are more closely attached and dependent on their parents financially and emotionally than previously. In addition, technology has altered communication. A mother thinks her child cannot be isolated or depressed because she has 200 friends on Facebook. Another parent reports if she asks her daughter how her day was-she gets a brief answer. But if she texts her, her daughter texts back at length with much more information. Connectedness and attachments have changed.

How can we get a new generation of business leaders who will demand checks on entitlements and narcissism?

An awareness of these issues may actually lead to board of directors hiring psychologists to screen and assess applicants for the highest positions. In addition, board of directors must be willing to set and enforce rules and regulations and more closely monitor financial activities and decisions of top executives. They must be willing to regulate them and not just turn away or engage with them in self-serving profit ventures. In sum, all decision makers need to do better to stop the isms—favoritism, cronyism, and nepotism. Limits on CEO-level pay should definitely be considered. Something like the NBA does whereby they have a salary cap based on all the salaries of the entire team is a good idea. A new generation of business leaders will only develop in a regulated business environment. That's where the government comes in.