Age is a funny thing; it grants you the ability to look back in time, drawing on your own personal experiences to compare ‘the way things were’ with ‘the way things are’. Of all of the current things that I shake my head at, few are as inexplicable as the enormous rise of narcissism – a pathological personality disorder that you can almost certainly observe being played out many hundreds of times a day in your Facebook or Instagram feeds. But… why?

Do you know where the word ‘narcissist’ comes from? In ancient Greek mythology, Narcissus was a man that was incredibly proud of his own beauty. As the legend goes (and depending on which version you read), Nemesis – the goddess of revenge – became angry with Narcissus when he rejected Echo, a nymph that had fallen in love with him. (That’s them in the photo above.) Nemesis lured Narcissus to a pool where he saw his own reflection and – not realizing it was himself that he saw – he became enthralled at his own beauty. When he eventually figured out that he was looking at himself and that he could never be in love with what he saw, he died. Or turned into a flower… again, depending on which story you read.

That’s right – the guy took the modern-day equivalent of a #selfie and HE DIED.

Which brings me back to age. One thing that I remember clearly is that until (anti)social networking came about, cameras never had lenses that faced you. The act of taking a picture was largely reserved for capturing memories of somewhere, or someone, or some time – not to snap a photo of yourself for the explicit purpose of having your ego stroked by your social networking contacts. It’s comically sad that a quick tag search on Instagram reveals tens of millions of photos tagged with ‘self’ in some regard, but given how emotionally needy your average young guy or girl is today, it’s not surprising.

The whole ‘shameless’ part is hilarious in and of itself. In her 2003 book “Why Is It Always About You?”, Dr. Sandy Hotchkiss identified the Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism. Guess what #1 is?

Shamelessness. (The rest can be read here, at Wikipedia. Not surprisingly, ‘entitlement’ is on there as well)

Research into this field isn’t exactly new, but it is pretty telling at just how fucked up things are getting. In 2008 – before you were noticing that you have Facebook friends that upload pictures of themselves on a daily basis – researchers Buffardi and Campbell took a look at Facebook page content and its link to narcissism. What did they find?

In terms of objective criteria on the Web page, narcissism is related to a measure of Web site activity derived from the number of friends and the number of wallposts (i.e., messages) posted between friends.

When that girl posts another photo of herself and all of her friends quickly chime in posting heart icons and telling her how beautiful she is – they’re actually contributing to her narcissism and causing neuroplastic changes in her brain, thanks to the dopamine reward she receives from all of the comments. No shit.

This constant reinforcement of something – regardless of whether or not it’s true – can actually lead one to develop a pathological addiction to the attention of others.

The worse it gets, the more provocative the photos will become. Why? Easy – there’s less of a reward to be gained from your online followers (sorry. “friends”) when things aren’t hot enough. And when someone is addicted to likes… they need more likes to sustain their mental state.

Similarly, in terms of coder ratings of Web page image content, narcissism is positively associated with main photograph attractiveness, self-promotion, and sexiness. There were fewer relationships with the other photo album pictures, which were judged to be more fun but not more self-promoting or provocative.

So that #sexy #shameless #selfie has a better chance of feeding ones’ ego than a more fun one would.

It’s not just her friends that are doing it, either. Guys that comment on a woman’s photos again contribute to her sense of ego and self-esteem – pushing past the point of “I’m happy” to “I’m better than others”. If you know me personally, you know that I’ve commented many times at the false sense of ego that women derive – no matter how physically attractive they actually are – from online dating solely due to the scarcity of women and the desperation of men who frequent those websites. If you’re getting 100 messages a day, you must be 9.9/10 hot and worthy of marrying Tom Brady, right? Of course, these same women go through their seven-days-a-week regular life with nary a man approaching them, but let’s not let reality get in the way of a good ol’ delusion. The message multipler? No way, it couldn’t possibly exist! Oh:

The "Message Multiplier" in Action

Imagine your surprise if you started taking ‘hot’ photos of yourself each day and posted them to Instagram or Facebook… and nobody clicked like or commented. $20 says that after a few days, you’ll start to feel like shit – especially if you’ve already become accustomed to receiving daily affirmations from virtual people that you’re just SO amazing. Why? It’s known clinically as ‘withdrawal’. What’s even worse: the more attractive the photo that nobody notices, the more you will start to detach from yourself since you’re convinced that the photo you posted is actually you, even if it’s not:

…narcissists’ self-enhancing biases might lead them to consider more attractive pictures of themselves to be more accurate representations of their true likenesses.

Hilariously enough – studies like last year’s “Mirror, Mirror on my Facebook Wall: Effects of Exposure to Facebook on Self-Esteem” by Gonzales and Hancock indicate that on top of Facebook’s well-recognized ego-boosting properties, for many people viewing the profiles of their “friends” actually lowers (!) their self-esteem when compared to viewing their own profile:

An ordinary least squares (OLS) regression of self-esteem on viewing behavior (self-only profile vs. self and other profiles) and gender revealed a significant effect on viewing behavior, b=0.40, p=0.03 (one-tailed, 1=‘‘yes,’’ 2=‘‘no’’), indicating that participants who left their profile during the study reported lower self-esteem than those participants who exclusively viewed their own profile.

Which brings us back to Narcissus, staring in the pool. He couldn’t fall in love with Echo, but he could fall in love with his own reflection. And apparently, so can you.

What’s the point of all of this? It’s pretty simple: if you’re the type of person that relies on the constant admiration of others through #selfies or whatever else – you might need your head examined. Perhaps try using the camera on the other side of your phone for a while.