Cyber (Internet) Narcissists and Psychopaths
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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To the narcissist, the Internet is an alluring and irresistible combination of playground and hunting grounds, the gathering place of numerous potential Sources of Narcissistic Supply, a world where false identities are the norm and mind games the bon ton. And it is beyond the reach of the law, the pale of social norms, the strictures of civilized conduct.
Indeed, many of the innovators who gave us the Internet and social networks can easily be described as narcissistic. Technology did not invent or even foster narcissism – rather, it was driven by it: an increasingly narcissistic populace demanded empowerment, self-expression, self-gratification, and self-aggrandisement via gadgets and software applications that catered to its pathology.
The somatic finds cyber-sex and cyber-relationships aplenty. The cerebral claims false accomplishments, fake skills, erudition and talents. Both, if minimally communicative, end up at the instantly gratifying epicenter of a cult of fans, followers, stalkers, erotomaniacs, denigrators, and plain nuts. The constant attention and attendant quasi-celebrity feed and sustain their grandiose fantasies and inflated self-image.
Many moderators and owners of discussion groups and support forums, for instance, are tyrannical narcissistic bullies with little or no impulse control and the tendency to form cult-like settings where the wayward are sadistically penalized and publicly humiliated by peers for speaking out of turn and in contravention of the “party line.”
In the virtual universe of the Web, the narcissist vanishes and reappears with ease, often adopting a myriad aliases and nicknames. He (or she) can thus fend off criticism, abuse, disagreement, and disapproval effectively and in real time – and, simultaneously, preserve the precarious balance of his infantile personality. Narcissists are, therefore, prone to Internet addiction.
The positive characteristics of the Net are largely lost on the narcissist. He is not keen on expanding his horizons, fostering true relationships, or getting in real contact with other people. The narcissist is forever the provincial because he filters everything through the narrow lens of his addiction. He measures others – and idealizes or devalues them – according to one criterion only: how useful they might be as Sources of Narcissistic Supply.
The Internet is an egalitarian medium where people are judged by the consistency and quality of their contributions rather than by the content or bombast of their claims. But the narcissist is driven to distracting discomfiture by a lack of clear and commonly accepted hierarchy (with himself at the pinnacle). He fervently and aggressively tries to impose the "natural order" – either by monopolizing the interaction or, if that fails, by becoming a major disruptive influence.
But the Internet may also be the closest many narcissists get to psychodynamic therapy. Because it is still largely text-based, the Web is populated by disembodied entities. By interacting with these intermittent, unpredictable, ultimately unknowable, ephemeral, and ethereal voices – the narcissist is compelled to project unto them his own experiences, fears, hopes, and prejudices.
Transference (and counter-transference) are quite common on the Net and the narcissist's defence mechanisms – notably projection and Projective Identification – are frequently aroused. The therapeutic process is set in motion by the – unbridled, uncensored, and brutally honest - reactions to the narcissist's repertory of antics, pretensions, delusions, and fantasies.
The narcissist – ever the intimidating bully – is not accustomed to such resistance. Initially, it may heighten and sharpen his paranoia and lead him to compensate by extending and deepening his grandiosity. Some narcissists withdraw altogether, reverting to the schizoid posture. Others become openly antisocial and seek to subvert, sabotage, and destroy the online sources of their frustration. A few retreat and confine themselves to the company of adoring sycophants and unquestioning groupies.
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But a long exposure to the culture of the Net – irreverent, skeptical, and populist – usually exerts a beneficial effect even on the staunchest and most rigid narcissist. Far less convinced of his own superiority and infallibility, the online narcissist mellows and begins – hesitantly – to listen to others and to collaborate with them.
Ultimately, most narcissists - those who are not schizoid and shun social contact - tire of the virtual reality that is cyberspace. The typical narcissist needs "tangible" narcissistic supply. He craves attention from real, live, people, flesh and blood. He strives to see in their eyes their admiration and adulation, the awe and fear that he inspires, the approval and affirmation that he elicits.
There is no substitute to human contact, even for the narcissist. Many narcissists try to carry online relationships they nurtured into their logical extension and conclusion offline. Other burst upon the cyber scene intermittently, vanishing for long months, only to dive back in and reappear, reinvigorated. Reality beckons and few narcissists resist its siren call.
Narcissists, Social Media, and Porn
Social media, such as Tumblr.com, have become the playground of narcissists, psychopaths, and sadists who post extreme and, at times, illegal porn and revel in the reactions to it, thus garnering vicarious narcissistic supply. Via such postings, they express their rabid misogyny by objectifying women and subjecting them to humiliating subjugation and to aggression bordering on outright violence.
Yahoo and Tumblr’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, some of the content is illegal and can land even an accidental viewer in hot waters. Relatively innocuous search terms such as “family”, “wife”, “sister”, or “daddy” often yield sleazy and actionable photo and video results, displayed automatically on the user’s screen and saved to his or her browser cache without any warning or consent. Tumblr is not alone in this. Twitter and Facebook, although to a lesser degree, also host porn on a massive scale.
Porn addiction ties well with the narcissist’s fantasy sex life. Social media enable and legitimize a host of sexual fetishes and paraphilias, including pedophilia. Via these platforms, the narcissist finds an eager audience and a sense of empowerment and immunity, aided and abetted by his anonymity.
Interview granted to Misty Harris of CanWest on February 23, 2005
Q. How might technology be enabling narcissism, particularly for the Internet generation?
A. To believe that the Internet is an unprecedented phenomenon with unique social implications is, in itself, narcissistic. The Internet is only the latest in a long series of networking-related technological developments. By definition, technology is narcissistic. It seeks to render us omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent - in other words, Godlike.
The Internet allows us to replicate ourselves and our words (through vanity desktop publishing, blogs, and posting online content on Web sites), to playact our favorite roles, to communicate instantly with thousands (narrowcasting), to influence others, and, in general, to realize some of our narcissistic dreams and tendencies.
Q. Why is it a bad thing to have a high opinion of yourself?
A. It is not a bad thing if it is supported by commensurate achievements. If the gap between fantasy and reality is too big, a dysfunction that we call "pathological narcissism" sets in.
Q. What does it say about our culture that we encourage narcissistic characteristics in people? (example: Paris Hilton - we made her a star for loving herself)
A. Celebrity culture is not a new thing. It is not a culture-dependent phenomenon. Celebrities fulfil two emotional functions for their fans: they provide a mythical narrative (a story that the fan can follow and identify with) and they function as blank screens onto which the fans project their dreams, hopes, fears, plans, values, and desires (wish fulfilment).
Western culture emphasizes ambition, competitiveness, materialism, and individualism. These admittedly are narcissistic traits and give the narcissist in our society an opening advantage.
But narcissism exists in a different form in collectivist societies as well. As Theodore Millon and Roger Davis state in their seminal tome, "Personality Disorders in Modern Life":
"In an individualistic culture, the narcissist is 'God's gift to the world'. In a collectivist society, the narcissist is 'God's gift to the collective'".
Read about the Wikipedia as a case of online pathological narcissism
Twitter: Narcissism or Age-old Communication?
It has become fashionable to castigate Twitter - the microblogging service - as an expression of rampant narcissism. Yet, narcissists are verbose and they do not take kindly to limitations imposed on them by third parties. They feel entitled to special treatment and are rebellious. They are enamored with their own voice. Thus, rather than gratify the average narcissist and provide him or her with narcissistic supply (attention, adulation, affirmation), Twitter is actually liable to cause narcissistic injury.
From the dawn of civilization, when writing was the province of the few and esoteric, people have been memorizing information and communicating it using truncated, mnemonic bursts. Sizable swathes of the Bible resemble Twitter-like prose. Poetry, especially blank verse one, is Twitterish. To this very day, newspaper headlines seek to convey information in digestible, resounding bits and bites. By comparison, the novel - an avalanche of text - is a newfangled phenomenon.
Twitter is telegraphic, but this need not impinge on the language skills of its users. On the contrary, coerced into its Procrustean dialog box, many interlocutors become inventive and creativity reigns as bloggers go atwitter.
Indeed, Twitter is the digital reincarnation of the telegraph, the telegram, the telex, the text message (SMS, as we Europeans call it), and other forms of business-like, data-rich, direct communication. Like them, it forces its recipients to use their own imagination and creativity to decipher the code and flesh it out with rich and vivid details. It is unlikely to vanish, though it may well be supplanted by even more pecuniary modes of online discourse.
Interview granted to Agencia Efe, Spain, April 2008
1. Does the Internet make a special amplification of narcissism or is just the reflection of reality? How, despite of the fact that many people is disturbed by the anonymous characters that you can adopt in the Internet, the exhibitionism is, maybe, more usual. I mean, in terms of narcissism? Can a person be addicted to the web because is own narcissism?
A. The narcissist likes to appear to be mysterious. It
enhances his self-perceived sense of omnipotence, it renders him
"unique" and "interesting". The right moniker (Internet
alias or handle) imbues the narcissist with a sense of immunity and superiority and
permits him to commit the most daring or heinous acts.
2. What kind of lacks or necessities there are behind this behaviour? What are we expecting when we search our name on Google? Can we construct our image with the pieces of us in the internet?
A. The Internet is the hi-tech equivalent of a giant mirror. Like the mythical Narcissus, it allows us to fall in love with our reflection every day anew. We gaze into the depths of the Internet to reassure ourselves of our continuity and very existence. It is our modern photo album; a repository of snippets of our lives; and our external memory.
In psychoanalytic terms, the Internet replaces some of our ego functions: it regulates our sense of self-worth; puts us in touch with reality and with others; and structures our interactions (via its much vaunted peer-pressure of the Netiquette and the existence of editors and moderators).
We crave attention and feedback: proof positive that we matter, that someone cares about us, that we are not mere atoms in a disjointed and anomic Universe. In this sense, the Internet substitutes for God and many social functions by reassuring us that we fit into a World that, though amorphous and protean, is sustaining, predictable, constant, and nurturing. The Internet replaces our parents as a source of nourishment, support, caring, discipline, and omniscience.
3. In the case of the blogs, what's the point in common in the idea of doing a private diary and be available for everybody?
A. I am not sure what you mean. Blogs are anything but private. They are explicitly meant for public consumption, thrive on public attention, and encourage interaction with the public (through the comments area). One can set one's blog or online journal to "private", though, as the hi-tech equivalent of a personal diary.
4. Internet, with their blogs, Facebook, Myspace or YouTube, has create the possibility of make yourself famous without promotion, just with the progressive diffusion of your material. Examples like the singers Mika and Lilly Allen or many bloggers, can it make a new way of realizing the "American dream" for the users of the Internet?
A. Being famous encompasses a few important functions: it endows us with power, provides us with a constant Source of Narcissistic Supply (admiration, adoration, approval, awe), and fulfils important Ego functions.
The Internet caters to our narcissistic traits and propensities and allows us to become "celebrities-by-replication". The image that the blogger or artist projects is hurled back at him, reflected by those exposed to his instant celebrity or fame. By generating multiple copies of himself and his work, he feels alive, his very existence is affirmed and he acquires a sensation of clear boundaries (where he ends and the world begins).
There is a set of narcissistic behaviours typical to the pursuit of celebrity. There is almost nothing that the Net celebrity refrains from doing, almost no borders that he hesitates to cross to achieve renown. To him (or, increasingly, her), there is no such thing as "bad publicity": what matters is to be in the public eye at any price.
Because narcissistic individuals equally enjoy all types of attention and like as much to be feared as to be loved, for instance – they don't mind if what is published about them is wrong ("as long as they spell my name correctly"). The celebrity blogger or artist experiences bad emotional stretches only when he lacks attention, or publicity.
It is then that some bloggers, artists, and Webmasters plot, contrive, plan, conspire, think, analyse, synthesise and do whatever it takes to regain the lost exposure in the public eye. The more they fail to secure the attention of the target group (preferably, the entire Internet community), the more daring, eccentric and outlandish they become. A firm decision to become known is transformed into resolute action and then to a panicky pattern of attention seeking behaviours.
It is important to understand that the blogger/artist/Webmaster are not really interested in publicity per se. They appear to be interested in becoming a celebrity, but, in reality, they are concerned with the REACTIONS to their newly-acquired fame: people watch them, notice them, talk about them, debate their actions – therefore they exist.
5. There are many new applications to feed human narcissism on the net: Googlefight, Egosurf.org, the blogs themselves... Could be used narcissism as a business?
A. Every good business is founded on the mass psychology of its clientele. In a narcissistic civilization, business is bound to adapt and become increasingly more narcissistic. The Internet started off as an information exchange. The surge of (mainly American) users transformed it in profound ways. User-generated "content" is a thin veneer beneath which lurks the seething and pathological narcissism of the masses. Narcissism is our main business organizing principle outside the Internet as well: cosmetics, fashion, health, publishing, show business, the media, and the financial industries all rest on firm narcissistic foundations. The management class itself is highly narcissistic!
6. Can be satisfied the true and pathologic narcissism just with the feed-back on the Internet or it needs, finally, to put in "real" his power of attraction.
A. What's not real about the Internet? This dichotomy between virtual and real is false. The Internet is as real as it gets and, for many of its users, it is the only reality and the only frame of reference. It is "reality" as we used to know it that is gradually vanishing and being replaced by "virtual" substitutes: print media are dying and giving way to blogs and online news aggregators; iTunes and Napster and BitTorrent and eMule are ruining the very physical music CD; there is more published on the Internet than is available in many brick and mortar libraries, and so on.
7. Could presence or non-presence in Internet create a new kind of social class?
A. Like every other social phenomenon, the Internet gave rise to a stratified society with hackers, crackers, nerds, geeks, Wikipedians, bloggers, etc. occupying various niches. Not using the Internet - a kind of Internet Luddism - may yet become a badge of honor. Internet addicts may become either outcasts or the new elite. Who knows? Everything digital is still in its formative years and still in flux.
8. How dangerous is narcissism, inside or outside the web?
A. Very dangerous. Just read the list of diagnostic criteria for the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD): the narcissist lacks empathy, is arrogant, exploits people, is envious, has a strong and unjustified sense of entitlement, and is obsessive and delusional. Many narcissists are also psychopaths. Pathological narcissism is often diagnosed with other mental health disorders (a phenomenon called "co-morbidity"). Narcissists are over-represented among criminals, gamblers, and people with reckless and inconsiderate behaviors.
Interview granted to About.com about Online Dating
1. In your opinion, why does the Internet seem to be an easy forum to fall in love?
A. Frequently, in online dating, the partners are treated as "blank screens" onto which the online dater projects her dreams, wishes, and unfulfilled needs and yearnings. The Internet allows the two sides to maintain an emotionally riskless intercourse by fully controlling the interaction with their interlocutors or correspondents. While thoroughly gratified, they are less likely to get hurt and feel less vulnerable because they invest - emotionally and otherwise - far less than in a full-fledged, "real" life liaison. Of course, they are usually disappointed when they try to flesh out their online fantasy by moving the relationship offline, "down to earth" and into "brick-and-mortar" venues.
2. Despite an online relationship being made up of text messages and pictures, why does it seem people more easily get into Internet relationships than they do in real life?
A. "Internet relationship" is an oxymoron. A relationship entails the existence of a physical dimension, time spent together, friction and conflict, the satisfaction of all the senses, and experiences shared. IM, chat, webcams, and the like can seemingly bring people closer and create the illusion of intimacy, but actually it is a narcissistic sham, an echo chamber, a simulacrum. People "fall in love" with their own reflections and with idealized partners, not with the real items. Their counterparty is merely a peg on which they hang their desire for closeness, a sounding board. It is like watching a film: one can be moved to tears by what is happening on the screen, but very few confuse the flickering lights with reality itself.
3. What dangers are there in falling in love online?
A. Online "love" is not love at all and, therefore, it is less prone to heartbreak and disappointment. The parties fully control their side of the interaction and limit it at will. The information exchanged is doctored and there is no way of verifying it (for instance, by paying attention to body language and social cues). Online "love" is more akin to infatuation, comprised of equal measures fantasy and narcissism. The parties fall in love with the idea of falling in love: the actual online partner is rather incidental. The extant technology dictates the solipsistic and self-centered nature of these exchanges.
Online dating is inherently unsafe as it affords no way to ascertain the identity of your interlocutor or correspondent. When you date online, you are missing out on critical information such as your potential partner's body language; the pattern of his social interactions; his behavior in unexpected settings and circumstances; his non-scripted reactions; even his smell and how he truly looks, dresses, and conducts himself in public and in private. The dangers, like in real life, is when one comes across a predator: a psychopath, a stalker, or a bully. Click on this link to learn how to avoid these people: How to Recognize a Narcissist or Psychopath Before It is Too Late?
4. What tips can you share with readers who have fallen in love online and have been burnt by the rejection of a breakup online who might do it again?
A. The Internet is merely a sophisticated, multimedia communication channel, a glorified videophone. "Distance relationships" don't work. Real, lasting, emotionally-rewarding relationships that lead to happiness and personal growth require propinquity, familiarity, intimacy, and sacrifices. Don't make the Internet your exclusive dating venue and don't use it to shield you from life itself . Deploy it merely to find information and reach out and, on the first opportunity, log off and go out there to confront multidimensional reality with all its complexity and ambiguities. Do not use the Internet to fend off potential hurt: there is no growth without pain and no progress without experience.
5. Despite some problems, do you think the Internet should be sworn off as a means of finding love?
A. Online dating is a great tool for people who, for various reasons, have limited access to other dating options or venues where you can date "real" people face-to-face, instead of mere avatars.
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