Why Self-Involved People are Overrepresented in Arts and Entertainment

Alec Baldwin was recently thrown off an airplane because he considered his computer game important enough to delay everyone else on board from getting to their destination. These sorts of celebrity temper tantrums surprise no one. We are used to famous actors, writers and musicians behaving in extraordinarily selfish ways. It’s not just anecdata: Psychiatric research has shown that narcissistic traits are more common in the “creative classes”.

Having been married to a (wonderfully unselfish) artist for decades, I have had many opportunities to observe the world of artists, good and bad. I have concluded that the over-representation of self-involved people in the arts/entertainment is the end result of a three stage selection process.

1. The fantasy stage. When choosing a career path, what kind of person thinks for example “People would and should pay a lot of money to look at me — I’m going to be a supermodel”. The more self-regarding you are, the more realistic aspirations of this sort seem.

2. The endless rejection stage. Once someone has embarked on a career in the arts or entertainment, they typically have to endure a large amount of rejection and disappointment. Very few people shoot to the top in the arts. Even the Beatles slaved away for years in obscurity before they “suddenly” became famous. Poets probably have it the worst — easily 90% of submissions to poetry journals and 99% of submissions to book publishers get rejected.

Mentally healthy people are more likely to react to this by saying “This is too hard, I am going to do something else” or “Maybe I am not as good as I thought. Oh well, it can still be a hobby”. But deeply narcissistic people are more likely to react to a stream of negative notices by telling themselves “Yet another fool has failed to appreciate my extraordinary genius”. They damn the ‘philistines” and keep plugging away. I have seen some very talented artists give up the fight because their self-confidence had been destroyed by the frequency of rejection inherent in the craft; they lacked the armor that deep-seated narcissism provides.

3. The endless butt-kissing of the successful stage. If you do indeed make it to the top in the arts/entertainment field, you will have people telling you all day every day how wonderful and interesting you are. They will also tolerate lots of selfish behavior on your part, and may even lionize it as your “artistic temperament”. Even if you weren’t full of yourself already, this flattery and excuse-making can move you down the path of unremitting self-regard.

There are artists who go through all of this — Paul Newman is a great example — and somehow keep their egos in check. But we notice those people precisely because they are unusual. Many of the people we love to watch on screen or stage would be very hard to tolerate in person.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

20 thoughts on “Why Self-Involved People are Overrepresented in Arts and Entertainment”

  1. It’s worth noting that all of Keith’s selection stages are culturally dependent–they are not inherent to music, acting, writing, or the like. It might also be worth noting that much of our culture conflates art with religion and artists with shamans. My guess is that the cultures that don’t distinguish art from artisanship, like pre-war Japan or pre-Romantic Europe, didn’t have artistic personalities.

        1. But isn’t it the self-regard coupled with the encroaching deafness that thrust Beethoven into his second period mold in which the works bear the signature of personal expression? Works by earlier composers, such as Haydn, seem to reflect a utilitarian purpose of evening and occasional entertainment, albeit very well-crafted.

          In order to self-justify the change in idiom, the artist must think that what they have to say is important enough to damn the critics and mentors, and maybe even the audience, whom Beethoven reportedly called “cattle and asses” after their negative reception of the Gross Fuge. Now, certainly a lot of semi-talented narcissists are most probably induced into the creative arts primarily by the enticement of fame and fortune, which is culturally maintained, but that doesn’t support your thesis that in the absence of such support, narcissism and (genuine) creative talent can remain divorced from each other.

          Within highly talented individuals, I think it’s the motivational impetus of the self-regard that drives their creative engine to manifest their talent as tangible output consumable by others. If these individuals were forced to remain as craftsmen, most, I venture, would underachieve or drift into some other outlet or despondency.

          1. You may be right on the narcissism, to some degree. But the whole “artiste” package isn’t required. Science (which I’ve done, at a low-medium level) fits your description of creative work very nicely. But scientists–even top ones–are a dowdy bunch, pretty much, the occasional florid Feynmann aside. And look at prewar Japanese art. World-class stuff: Japanese visual aesthetic destroyed French aesthetic in head-to-head 19th-century competition. But done by craftsmen.

    1. I’d add one more thing to Keith’s list: our culture (ie books, TVs, movies).

      Culture tells people how they should behave, or perhaps how they are expected to behave, in different circumstances — Americans see people on TV becoming hysterical and irrational when they hear of the death of a loved one (beat up the police office who told you, try to run into the burning building, etc) and think this is the natural, appropriate way to behave in real life; likewise for talk shows and telling the world your problems; and likewise for artists. Practically every movie I’ve ever seen featuring an artist carries as the subtext “artists are tortured souls, who will act out their anguish, and the rest of us need to give them some slack”.

        1. Insofar as getting to the top in business requires somewhat more working-with-others than individual-performance arts, that would be expected. So actors and lead singers would be narcissists; bandmembers, directors and conductors would be sociopaths.

        2. High function sociopaths are certainly not limited to being CEOs. There’s more than a few DAs around where conviction rates trumps everything else including innocence and justice.

          1. Keith´s area not mine, but I gather there´s overlap not identity. The egoism is similar. But the textbook definition of psychopathy is a total lack of empathy, which I would have thought is incompatible with much creative art, including acting at a high level. The narcissist wants others to adore him; the sociopath merely wants them to act exactly as he wishes, like robot slaves. So narcissists keep lapdogs, sociopaths keep pit bulls or white fluffy cats.

          2. I am in the dark on the fine distinctions here, but I would put the core point thusly: self-confidence is a sufficiently valuable trait that even a perverted form of it, one that annoys numerous bystanders, often propels the possessor forward in life. Thus we get a high proportion of arrogant and/or self-regarding people in high places, by mechanisms such as Keith describes in more detail.

  2. I’m kinda skeptical of the entire premise here for various reasons. Two main ones:

    1. Alec Baldwin has, over the years, given many people ample justification to conclude he is an asshole. But no matter how much of an asshole I think he is, I would always — always! — trust his word over that of an airline over the propriety of his behavior on the plane. Now, it wasn’t United Airlines, so there is the slimmest possibility that the airline might be telling the truth, or a serviceable facsimile thereof. But I doubt it. Really, really doubt it.

    2. Folks get tossed off planes all the time for one selfish reason or another. Or for no reason at all — something which I’ve seen happen twice (once on United, once on Continental) and seen threatened many more times (usually on United). Seriously — for no reason at all. That Alec Baldwin got tossed, too, doesn’t really seem remarkable, and doesn’t seem the proper jumping-off point for evidence-free speculations about artistic temperament. He’s famous, he acts like an ass, and it makes news when he does. Hell, it makes news when non-famous people are assholes at the airport, too. We just don’t remember it quite so much a week later, and we certainly don’t use it to opine about why accountants or general contractors or baristas are so often assholes. There just seems to be a lot of confirmation bias here.

    So, all in all, I’d say this incident humanizes Alec Baldwin.

  3. Why do these people have be so rowdy and make such spectcles of themselves. Everyone on the plane probably knew he was on the plane and yet he had to “yell out” look at me, look at me. I’m special.

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