An Epidemic of Narcissism?

July 14, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

There it was again, the panic about the narcissism of millennials as evidenced by selfies. This time it was NPR’s podcast Hidden Brain.

The show’s host Shankar Vedantem chose to speak with only one researcher on the topic – psychologist Jean Twenge, whose even-handed and calm approach is clear from the titles of her books, Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic. She is obviously not alone in worrying about the narcissistic youth of America. In 2013, a Time Magazine cover on “The Me Me Me Generation” showed a millennialish woman taking a selfie. (The article itself, by Joel Stein, was much more reasonable than what the cover photo implied.)

There are serious problems with the narcissism trope. One is that people use the word in many different ways. For the most part, we are not talking about what the DSM-IV calls Narcissistic Personality Disorder. That diagnosis fits only a relatively few (a lifetime prevalence of about 6% ). For the rest, the hand-wringers use a variety of terms. Twenge, in the Hidden Brain episode, uses individualism and narcissism as though they were interchangeable. She refers to her data on the increase in “individualistic” pronouns and language, even though linguists have shown this idea to be wrong (see Mark Liberman at Language log here and here) .

Twenge also warns of the dangers of “the self-esteem movement.” Self-esteem may be part of narcissism, but maybe not. When Muhammad Ali said, “I am the greatest,” he sounded like someone with high self-esteem. Also like a narcissist. But he was also being accurate. More to the point, the Ali described by people who knew him or even interacted briefly with him was far different from the public persona. That’s true of all of us. We have a diverse repertoire of behaviors and feelings, including feelings about ourselves, and these behaviors and feelings are often contradictory.

Then there’s the generational question. Are millennials more narcissistic than were their parents or grandparents? Just in case you’ve forgotten, that Time magazine cover was not the first one focused on “me.” In 1976, New York Magazine ran a similarly titled article by Tom Wolfe.

And maybe, if you’re old enough, when you read the title The Narcissism Epidemic, you heard a faint echo of a book by Christopher Lasch published thirty years earlier.

We have better evidence than book titles. Since 1975, Monitoring the Future (here) has surveyed large samples of US youth. It wasn’t designed to measure narcissism, but it does include two relevant questions:
  • Compared with others your age around the country, how do you rate yourself on school ability?
  • How intelligent do you think you are compared with others your age?       
It also has self-esteem items including
  • I take a positive attitude towards myself
  • On the whole, I am satisfied with myself
  • I feel I do not have much to be proud of (reverse scored)
A 2008 study compared 5-year age groupings and found absolutely no increase in “egotism” (those two “compared with others” questions). The millennials surveyed in 2001-2006 were almost identical to those surveyed twenty-five years earlier. The self-esteem questions too showed little change.

Another study by Brent Roberts, et al., tracked two sources for narcissism: data from Twenge’s own studies; and data from a meta-analysis that included other research, often with larger samples. The test of narcissism in all cases was the Narcissism Personality Inventory – 40 questions designed to tap narcissistic ideas.

A sample from a 16-item version of the Narcissitic Personality Inventory. Narcissistic responses are in boldface. (It’s hard to read these and not think of Donald Trump.)

1.    __ I really like to be the center of attention 
       __ It makes me uncomfortable to be the center of attention 

2.    __I am no better or nor worse than most people
       __I think I am a special person
3.    __Everybody likes to hear my stories 
       __Sometimes I tell good stories 

5.    __I don't mind following orders 
       __I like having authority over people 

7.    __People sometimes believe what I tell them 
       __I can make anybody believe anything I want them to 

10.  __ I am much like everybody else 
      __  I am an extraordinary person 

13. __ Being an authority doesn't mean that much to me 
      __People always seem to recognize my authority

14.  __ I know that I am good because everybody keeps telling    me so 
       __When people compliment me I sometimes get embarrassed 

16.  __ I am more capable than other people 
       __There is a lot that I can learn from other people

Their results look like this:

Twenge’s sources justify her conclusion that narcissism is on the rise. But include the other data and you wonder if all the fuss about kids today is a bit overblown. You might not like participation trophies or selfie sticks or Instagram, but it does not seem likely that these have created an epidemic of narcissism.


Unknown said...

Thank you. There was an article worrying about narcissistic students on recently, and I thought that it was completely overblown.

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks Eric. There's a second part to this -- about why selfies are not narcissism -- that I should really get around to writing.

Anonymous said...

This was a suggested supplemental read for my Sociology 101 course for SBCC. Very neat post. I guess the idea that people have always been concerned with how they are perceived shouldn't be surprising. Maybe its just like everything else where we just more often aware since we have faster means of communicating.

Steven Mildred said...

This is a great postt thanks