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 percent of submissions to poetry journals and 99 percent 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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.