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Have young people always been self-absorbed?

Almost everyone over the age of 30 -- or maybe even 25 -- has complained at least once about the state of youth today. They're selfish, they're rude, they're spoiled, and they get away with stuff no one would ever have put up with in my day.

But perhaps people have always been self-absorbed during adolescence and young adulthood, that glorious time when adult responsibilities have not yet begun.

I heard this argument a lot when one of my studies (for a list, see found that narcissism is markedly higher among college students in the 2000s compared to those in the 1980s. But age can't explain the results of these studies, because they compare people of the same age (18 to 22), but at different points in time. Maybe 18 to 22-year-olds have always been narcissistic, but 18 to 22-year-olds are now more narcissistic than 18 to 22-year-olds used to be.

Irrelevant as it is to this research, the argument that greater narcissism is universal to youth keeps popping up, and in some high-profile places. In an article in Perspectives in Psychological Science, Brent Roberts and his colleagues concluded that narcissism was a product of youth rather than of generation. Then today, the New York Times asked if every generation was self-absorbed on a blog related to a story covering his article.

Why is this argument more persistent than the animatronic rodent in a game of Wack-A-Mole, when it so obviously doesn't fit the data? (How can you say something is due to age when age doesn't vary?)

Two reasons. First, some researchers mistakenly concluded there was no generational change because they failed to control for a really big confounding variable. Do that, and the increase in narcissism is even stronger than what we originally found.

Roberts then did his own, one-time study, comparing narcissism scores among college students, their parents, and their grandparents. The college students had the highest scores, followed by their parents and then their grandparents. Voila! Narcissism must decrease as people get older; it's Developmental Me, not Generation Me, they concluded.

Except those parents and grandparents were a different generation than the college students -- they were born and grew up at a different time as well as being a different age. So the changes could be due to either age or generation. Thus his study could be seen as further confirmation that narcissism is higher among Generation Me (those now in college).

Admittedly, it sounds very plausible that people should get less narcissistic as they get older. More than likely, Jersey Shore's Mike "The Situation" won't flash his abs quite as much once he hits 60.

But no study has yet shown that narcissism decreases with age -- for that, you'd need a longitudinal study following people as they age, preferably from adolescence to middle age, completing the Narcissistic Personality Inventory at every point. But that hasn't been done. The closest is a study following women from college to middle age using another measure of narcissism. So did women's narcissistic traits decrease as they aged? No --instead, as the women got older, their narcissism scores increased. This study was headed by Roberts (yes, the same one), who concluded that the cultural changes of the time period -- here, from the early 1960s to the late 1980s -- reflected the increasingly individualistic culture of the times. No argument from me there.

Here's the more interesting question -- how has the experience of adolescence and young adulthood changed over the generations? My co-author W. Keith Campbell puts it this way: "Of course people have always said young people are self-absorbed. They are. The difference is that cultures used to have rites to transform young people into adults, like male circumcision or walkabouts. Today if you're 28 years old and living in your Mom's basement eating Ho Hos and playing Xbox you will be called an 'emerging adult.'"

Although it's tough to wax nostalgic for ritual male circumcision at adolescence (ow), he's got a point: Our current culture does not require young men and women to "grow out" of their self-absorption for a very long time. That has some advantages, as they can explore their identities and take more time to find their way. But there are downsides, and greater narcissism is likely one of them.

Will Generation Me grow up, and grow out, of some of their self-absorption? Probably -- life is a good cure for narcissism. But they're starting at a higher level, and reaching adulthood at a time when narcissism is celebrated. Just ask Mike "The Situation." He's 28.
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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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New York Times article: The missing important details

The good news is that the book made it into the New York Times.

The bad news is that a lot of important details were left out. For example, the study by Kali Trzesniewski et al. looked at changes in narcissism on only ONE campus (UC Davis, which they compared to 1980s data from UC Berkeley). Our analysis (soon to be published in the Journal of Personality) found increases in narcissistic traits in data from TWENTY-SEVEN campuses across the nation. So we need to modify our conclusion only slightly, to "American college students are increasingly narcissistic, except at UC Davis."

So why aren't they more narcissistic at UC Davis? In 1996, California passed Proposition 209, which radically changed admissions policies at the UC campuses. The enrollment of Asian-American students at the UCs nearly doubled, from 25 percent in the 1980s to 45 percent now. Nationwide only 8 percent of college students are Asian-American. Asian culture discourages narcissism, so it makes sense that this campus wouldn't show the same change as the rest of the country. Even apart from the ethnic changes, the shift in admissions policies created a different campus climate that might have suppressed narcissism even among non-Asian students.

The other people in the article appear to be stating their opinion rather than providing any data. Though I'm a big fan of Jeffrey Jensen Arnett's book Emerging Adulthood, I can't figure out why he would question the validity of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. His opinion is not supported by the hundreds of scientific articles showing that the NPI predicts all kinds of narcissistic behavior, from liking to gaze at yourself in the mirror to hoarding resources to lashing out with aggression when insulted. Even if some of the test items “sound like pretty normal personality features” to Arnett, it doesn’t change the fact that the NPI predicts an array of negative outcomes.

And when he and the Yale prof talk about older people having warped perceptions of younger people, I agree. That's why my studies always look at what young people say about themselves and not what older people say about them. Generation Me increasingly says that they think they're special and they like to seek attention -- some older people might agree, and some might not, but it's not their opinion that matters.
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what do young voters want?

The election season started me thinking about why some presidental candidates have instant appeal to GenMe voters, while others don't. Why do young people like Barack Obama and John McCain? And why did Hillary Clinton pull off a win in New Hampshire, doing much better with young people there than she did in Iowa?

My op-ed on this question appeared today in the San Diego Union-Tribune:
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Interested in your opinions & stories

I'm embarking on a new project: writing a proposal for a book on narcissism that will be co-authored by my friend and colleague Keith Campbell.

So this is your chance to "talk back" and share your thoughts! Take the survey at:

The survey has a bunch of questions, but you do NOT need to answer all of them -- just whatever you are interested in. I will include quotes from the responses in the book proposal, and eventually the final, published book.

This is an "everyone" survey -- all ages, perspectives, backgrounds, etc. are welcome. Also feel free to post the link on your own webpage, LJ, MySpace page, etc.

I can't wait to see what everyone has to say!
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op-ed response to Howe and Strauss

Some of you might have seen an op-ed in the LA Times ("Will the real GenY please stand up?") questioning my take on the generation of people born after 1980. Although the op-ed did not question the narcissism study's results, it brought up a number of other trends (e.g., pregnancy, alcohol use, voting). However, these trends have little or nothing to do with narcissism.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press, which reprinted the "Gen Y" op-ed on March 5, published my response to it today:

If you're interested in hearing a verbal debate on these issues, go here for a podcast from Minnesota Public Radio:

(This is what my husband decided to call my "steel cage match.")
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More on volunteering

If you've read or heard about generations, you've probably heard the current crop of young people (born after 1982) described as "Millienials." (A term I'm not sure will stick ... remember Y2K? Barely? Exactly). Some people have advanced the theory that this generation is civically minded and group-oriented.

However, there is very little evidence that this is true. Instead, the analyses highlighted in Generation Me (based on historical survey data on over 1.3 million people) show clearly that younger generations are more individualistic and are higher in self-esteem and narcissism. There have been no changes in "communal" traits. These are not anecdotal observations -- they are based on young people's responses to psychological questionnaires over many decades.

The piece of evidence often given to support the "civically-oriented" agrument is the rise in youth volunteering. Yes, increasing numbers of high school and college students report that they have volunteered their time in the last year. However, the trend for those who volunteer their time once a week or more is completely flat, and the number who volunteer once a month has barely budged (maybe 3-5%). (These data come from the "Monitoring the Future" survey out of the University of Michigan).

So young people volunteer, but they do it once or only a few times. This might be because many high schools and colleges require community service (or colleges like to see it on admissions applications). So even the rise in short-term volunteering might instead be "involuntary volunteering."

It's great that more young people are volunteering, whatever the reason. But it doesn't seem to be a sustained activity -- and in many cases it's not even voluntary.
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entitlement or cluelessness?

Last summer, soon after I finished writing _Generation Me_, my (home) phone rang at 9am on a Sunday morning. The caller asked for Dr. Twenge, and I cautiously said "Yes?" It was a high school age girl. "My name is X, and Y [someone I had never heard of] at SDSU is a friend of our family. He said you might be able to help me with my school project on Z." Still not really understanding what was going on, I asked her to repeat what she said. I then said, "It's Sunday, and I'm at home. Could you e-mail me about this? That would be much better."

Sure enough, an e-mail was waiting for me on Monday morning, asking for help with the project. As you might imagine, my schedule is pretty full already, so I sent her two of my research articles that addressed many of her questions (and which, I might add, could have been easily found in the university library).

A year later, I am still somewhat agape at the entitlement, and some might say rudeness, inherent in this interaction (the calling at home on a Sunday, in addition to the general problem that I should not be doing high school projects for students who should do them themselves.) Or was she just completely clueless? Or clueless in her entitlement?