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Do you feel, deep in your bones, that you’re “just more deserving” than other people? Do you believe that your talents make you “more capable” than others? Or would you agree, by contrast, that you have “a lot” to learn?

Psychologists use questions like these to get at the phenomenon of narcissism, that “inflated view of self” that leads to “self-aggrandizing” behavior and a “dominant orientation toward others.”

“Mounting empirical evidence,” notes University of California at Berkeley social psychologist Paul Piff in a newly published paper, seems to clearly indicate that Americans today live amid much more narcissistic “grandiosity” than Americans yesterday. What should we make of this increasing narcissism?

Berkeley’s Piff sees today’s much more rampant narcissism as a function of class. His basic hypothesis — that privilege leaves upper-class individuals “more prone to feelings of entitlement and narcissistic tendencies” — reflects a growing body of social science research.

Social class, this research suggests, has a powerful impact on our personalities. The disadvantaged in deeply divided societies come to depend on mutual-aid relationships. They tend to become “more interdependent and other-focused.”

Upper-class individuals, on the other hand, have more “control over their lives” and a “reduced exposure to external influences,” a set of life experiences that promotes a “greater independence” from others and more of a “self-focus.”[pullquote]The greater the privilege, the more intense a focus on self can become. [/pullquote]

The greater the privilege, the more intense this self-focus can become. The privileged can begin feeling fully and eminently entitled to their advantages, a sense of entitlement that can slip into narcissism.

In his new research that appears in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Berkeley’s Piff ran five distinct studies to test this notion that narcissistic behaviors thrive amid privilege and “relative advantage.” The findings from these fascinating studies — one involved watching to see which people, before a photo shoot, tend to preen in front of mirrors — all link higher social class with feelings of entitlement and a narcissistic take on the world.

Piff’s new paper also hints at the next direction his research may take. Future studies, he notes, ought to explore how the “associations between social class, entitlement, and narcissism may be curtailed in societies with more egalitarian distributions” of income and wealth.

Translation: Do people of relative advantage in more equal countries like Sweden tend to preen as much as their American counterparts?

Sam Pizzigati, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, co-edits His latest book: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970.

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