genme (genme) wrote,

The "debate" about increases in narcissism: More twists than a crime novel

It's been a long ride.

In 2007, my co-authors and I released data showing that narcissistic traits were higher in Generation Me than in GenX or Boomers. It was based on 85 samples of 16,000 American college students who completed the Narcissistic Personality Inventory sometime between 1982 and 2006. The study was covered by the Associated Press and NBC Nightly News, and both Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno made jokes about it. I figured my career could only go downhill from there. :) The paper was published in the Journal of Personality in 2008.

This being academia, someone (Kali Trzesniewski and Brent Donnellan) had to say we were wrong and that they found no change in narcissism in their dataset. Their paper was published in the journal Psychological Science in early 2008. Just before it came out, a New York Times reporter called me, saying she was interested in the changes in the culture that led to the increase in narcissism. Only later did she call back to say the story would mention this (supposedly) contradictory data. I explained the problems with this dataset and how the shift in ethnic composition might have suppressed change (see post below), but she used none of it. The whole premise of the NYT story was that I was wrong, and that there was no change in narcissism.

My co-author Josh Foster wrote to Trzesniewski and Donnellan to ask for their data separated by ethnicity. They graciously provided it, though they said the ethnicity data was only available for the 2002-2007 samples from UC Davis. When I opened the datafile, I was floored: Narcissism increased over time in every ethnic group. In other words, researchers who told the New York Times and Psychological Science that their data showed no change in narcissism had data showing that narcissism was increasing. So I guess we weren't so wrong after all.

Josh and I sent a paper based on these analyses to Psychological Science, the journal that published Trzesniewski and Donnellan. Incredibly, the editor of the journal sent it to Trzesniewski and Donnellan for peer review (even though we had specifically asked that they NOT review it, as we guessed they would find it hard to be objective). On the basis of Trzesniewski and Donnellan's negative review, the editor of Psychological Science rejected the paper.

The Journal of Research in Personality (JRP) accepted and published the paper soon afterward:

Trzesniewski and Donnellan then published another paper, also in JRP, now saying that the ethnicity data had suddenly become available for a 1996 sample from UC Berkeley. This analysis showed a small increase in narcissism; they changed their argument from saying there was no change to that the change was small.

Even before this I'd begun to realize that ethnicity was not the key to the story. The key was campus. Both of the early samples in Trzesniewski and Donnellan's dataset (1982 and 1996) were from UC Berkeley, and all of the later ones (2002-2008) were from UC Davis. So any differences (or lack thereof) could be caused by campus and not time, as the two were completely confounded. Sure enough, UC Davis students score much lower in narcissism, which suppressed the change over time. When you looked within campus at UC Davis, as we did in the JRP article, narcissism increased over time. Because Trzesniewski and Donnellan apparently never analyzed their data within campus, they mistakenly concluded that there was no change over time.

Josh and I updated the nationwide meta-analysis with this data, controlled for campus, and found a significant increase across 50,000 students between 1982 and 2008. Josh also had data from his own campus, the University of South Alabama, from 1994 to 2009, and scores increased there too. That paper was published in January 2010 in Social Psychological and Personality Science:

And a study we had nothing to do with found a much higher lifetime incidence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), the more severe, clinical form of the trait, among younger generations compared to older ones:

Now that a nationwide meta-analysis, two within-campus analyses, and a clinical interview study all show the same effects, the debate should be over.
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