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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


The Inverse Relationship Between Empathy and Narcissism

Do you remember the character in Greek mythology named Narcissus? He was the handsome man who, because of his indifference and disdain toward others, was punished by the gods to fall in love with his own reflection when he looked into the water. In fact, he so enraptured by his beauty that he was unable to pull himself away from his reflection, and as a result, wasted away and died.

Unfortunately, his spirit lives on in America today. Especially among students.

photo credit: toolmantim via photopin cc

photo credit: toolmantim via photopin cc

Narcissism is on the rise in kids today. One study found that one in four young people were classified as narcissistic, according to a widely accepted psychological test. That number has doubled in the last thirty years. Another study reported that since the 1980s, there’s been a 40% decline among young people in empathy, a personality attribute inversely related to narcissism. In nationwide reports, it takes teens longer to get ready in the morning than at any time since we’ve been studying this topic. They are distracted by the mirror and often blinded to the needs of others.

TV psychologist Dr. Drew performed a study of celebrities and found them to be even more narcissistic than the general population. (Are you surprised?) What’s funny is—the celebrities most prone to Narcissistic Personality Disorder were female reality TV stars! More than talent, it’s likely their narcissism drove them to be stars. According to psychologist Dr. Jim Taylor, another fascinating study was just published exploring the changes in music lyrics over the past three decades. The researchers found a significant shift toward lyrics that reflect narcissism ("I" and "me" appear more often "we" and "us") and hostility (change from positive to angry words and emotions). These findings aren't just due to the increased popularity and influence of hip-hop music (which is known for its aggrandizement of the artists and its venom), but are evident across musical genres.

All of this is cultivating a generation of kids who are enamored with themselves. They have a false sense of who they are. No doubt, we want our children to possess a healthy self-esteem, a sense of self-love. But their condition is now bordering on unhealthy. Self-love is incomplete and immature as a solo attribute. Self-love without empathy is lopsided and leads to both arrogance and misery. We are setting teens and twenty-somethings up for a fall as adults. And now, it’s time to act, as mentors and teachers in their lives.

Steps We Can Take

If you see signs of this in the kids or students you lead, consider the following:

  1. Talk about this topic. Share the statistics from this blog. Discuss how narcissism impacts their generation. Do they see it?
  2. Work to equip them to see the role they play in the bigger picture. They play a role in history, but they may not be the “star” of the story.
  3. Visit the homeless or families who live in poverty. Help them see those less fortunate. This can diminish their sense of entitlement.
  4. Talk about the song lyrics in popular music today. How does it play into self-absorption and self-pleasure?
  5. Help them get involved serving the community around them. Participating in meeting the needs of others is the quickest way to overcome selfishness.
  6. Discuss limiting their time in front of the mirror or in front of shows that foster narcissism and self-absorption.

What have you observed? What steps would you add to this list? Let’s make it helpful to all kinds of problematic scenarios.


Generation iY - Helping you understand, connect, and lead today's students.



  1. dmbrown81 on April 18, 2014 at 7:38 am

    Hello Mr. Elmore. I’ve been a long time fan of your books, blogs and podcasts. I own all of your habitudes books and even still have my notes from a seminar you gave in Florida back in 2004. With that being said I have to call you out on a certain line you just wrote that I feel is unnecessary and demeaning.

    “These findings aren’t just due to the increased popularity and influence of hip-hop music (which is known for its aggrandizement of the artists and its venom), but are evident across musical genres.”

    Why is Hip-Hop being singled out in this point when you even state that this is evident in all musical genres? As someone who has dedicated my life to Urban youth and a fan of Hip Hop I don’t see why that comment was needed. I love the work you do but this was in called for.

    • Tim Elmore on April 22, 2014 at 10:29 am

      Thanks for your comment. I so appreciate your passion for kids, especially urban youth. The reason I mentioned Hip-hop is something you probably know better than I do. While there are growing new options in this genre, when Hip hop first emerged, it became known for lyrics full of violence, sexual conquest and insults. Lyrics that caused even magazines like Rolling Stone to talk about them. The F-bomb was frequently used in lyrics, far more than other music styles. Having said that, I actually enjoy some forms of Hip hop, and worked with athletic teams that love them. Lyrics are the difference maker. In my opinion, any music can be redemptive or destructive—depending on the lyrics. Didn’t mean to offend you. Excited you are investing in kids.

  2. Tess on April 18, 2014 at 10:41 am

    The only Young people that I know of who are not like this are the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They go out to preach God’d Word to everyone, including those who might be in some sort of distress, on a weekly, if not on a daily basis. I believe the Young people of this group should be commended for their selfless atitude and efforts. They could just care about themselves as most Young people out there do, they could be ‘having fun’, the kind of empty fun that leads to nowhere but to imediate and temporary self gratification, but they willingly get up and go talk to others trying to impart Faith in God’s promises in them. And they do it for no material or financial compensation at all. Maybe instead of disrespecting the work they do people should admit JW are raising their children to be better people than most of us is doing with our own. Next time a Young Jehovah’s Witness knocks on your door or rings your bell, be kind and polite, take a brochure (they’re also for free) and thank them for taking the time to remind you to read the Bible a little bit, ok everyone?!

    • iluvoceanshores on October 4, 2015 at 7:03 pm

      I know many Jehovah Witnesses in my neighborhood, and their kids are far from selfless. I can think of one JW family who has a sociopath for a son and a drug addict for a daughter. The son was just recently arrested for raping a prostitute! Is shunning people showing empathy? Is neglecting your family showing empathy? what about abuse? If you tell a wife to show more compassion after he beats her is this showing empathy? All of these things are done by the JW organization, so using this as an example is as hypocritical as you can get

  3. readnwrite13 on April 24, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    Thanks for articulating this since it’s become obvious to those of us not in the Generation iY that these young people are uber obsessed with themselves. “Selfies” are the most important photos many of them take and post. Teaching iY Generation students and working alongside some of this generation is maddening at times. I’m appalled by the general lack of energy, by the lack of manners, by the lack of appropriately expressed gratitude, and seeing nothing wrong with cheating and taking the shortest cut to a “goal.” As for connecting with their parents / grandparents / other family members, many of the people in the iY generation just have an “out of sight, out of mind” perspective…unless they want something from their family, their family members are personae non grata. I have taken the time to study the generation, and yet they are difficult to motivate, work with, and to teach because they often have no visible / discernible work ethic. OY! Thank you for your work / research…hoping the Homelanders Generation will be an easier group with whom to get along.

  4. Tammy Gannon on May 23, 2014 at 8:44 am

    My observation is narcissism is ubiquitous. As a 52-year-old woman, I’m incredulous over the proliferation of it among my generation, too. This is something about which I’m passionate. Yesterday, I went to a continuing education seminar, which is required for my LMSW. Fascinating that it was entitled Personality Disorders and the DSM-5, because the instructor talked more about himself and his life than the subject matter. Wow, really??

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The Inverse Relationship Between Empathy and Narcissism