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.
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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 http://www.igenconsulting.com/articles.html) 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.
It's been a long ride.
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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. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2008.00507.x
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.
The good news is that the book made it into the New York Times.
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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.
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?
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My op-ed on this question appeared today in the San Diego Union-Tribune:
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.
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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!
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.
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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.")
I've moved my blog to the amazon.com page of my book:
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I may still post here occasionally, but if you'd like to follow along with book & research-related stuff, that's the place to go.
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.
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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.
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."
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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?
One of the fun things about writing a book is hearing from readers. I got an e-mail recently from a reader who heard Dr. Wayne Dyer say, “The best thing about Jesus was that he had a mom that believed he was the son of God. Imagine how much better the world would be if all of our moms thought that way.”
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God, no! Imagine how much *worse* the world would be if we were all raised to believe that we were the second coming of Christ and that the world revolved around us. Of course we want to raise confident kids, but not narcissistic kids who think that they are God's gift to the world no matter how they behave. I guess I shouldn't be so shocked to see this type of statement, given the current emphasis on self-esteem building, but this is beyond the pale.
Previous generations believed that if you were brought up "too high," you would be arrogant, self-centered, and difficult to get along with (sound familiar?). They probably could have done with more emotional expression back then, but current parenting philosophies have clearly gone too far in the other direction. We are telling kids they are special (and thus deserve special treatment) and that they shouldn't care what others think (so why should they be considerate?)
We are not all Jesus. Get over it.
There is a stat out there which might potentially challenge the thesis that today's young people are self-focused: youth volunteering has gone up quite a bit in the last 10 years.
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But this might be because a lot of high schools require community service ... and a lot of colleges like to see this on an application (colleges that are now more difficult to get into). So there is some involuntary volunteering, so to speak.
I'd also argue that motives have shifted. A lot of young people who volunteer say "I want to make a difference." A generation or two ago, the reason might have instead been "Because it's the right thing to do." Although any reason for volunteering is a good one, "I want to make a difference" is still an individualistic statement.
Here's another example. Ask a roomful of medical students why they wanted to become doctors, and most will say "Because I want to help people." But think about the type of people who become doctors -- driven, individualistic, even narcissistic people, some of whom have God complexes. Not all doctors are like this, of course -- but probably more than in a random sample of people. (BTW, the same is *definitely* true of my profession -- I have no doubt that there is a higher than normal percentage of narcissists among college professors. After all, twice a week, 300 people take notes when we talk.)
Or is this a twisting of logic? Is a higher rate of youth volunteering directly contradictory to the notion that this generation is more self-focused?
An interesting take on part of my book from a blogger:
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I like what she has to say, and it brings up so many interesting questions:
• Should young people (including those of us in our 30s) concern ourselves more with self-presentation? Is "just being yourself" a dead end?
• Does our tendency to "express" ourselves hurt us on the job market? This question assumes that GenMe has had a hard time in the job market, which I'm not 100% convinced is true.
• Where is the line between "good" honesty and "bad" honesty? Or is it more of a matter of overshares/TMI?
It's an oft-repeated complaint. Even young people themselves believe this -- after "open-minded" and "independent," "lazy" was the third most popular word that my undergraduates used to describe their own generation. Then last week Sen. Hillary Clinton made similar comments (though she later apologized):
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There is probably some truth to this -- one of my main points all along was that young people feel entitled. Yet I think most of them are willing to work hard. But most of them don't realize how hard they are going to have to work until relatively late in their development. Teens especially get the idea that you can become rich overnight with little effort, and often don't realize that it takes years to move up in a company.
Another possible counter to the laziness argument: young people today are very, very ambitious. 80% of high school students say they want to graduate from a four-year college. 75% of college freshmen say they will get a graduate or professional degree.
Of course, most of them don't reach these goals. Is that because they are lazy and don't work hard? In some cases. In many others, though, things are simply too competitive and even with hard work they don't make the grades or get into the graduate program.
So maybe it's not that young people were brought up to be lazy. They were just brought up to expect too much.
Or are they just lazy? This is one I don't have data on, so argue away.
There was a news story yesterday about popular baby names. For example, Emily is once again the most popular name for girls.
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However, the most popular names are not as popular as they used to be. That is, the most popular names account for a smaller percentage of births. Emily accounted for 1.2% of girls in 2005; Jessica (the top name for 1995) was 1.5% in 1995; and Jessica (again #1) was 2.6% in 1985. Jennifer, #1 in 1975, was the name of 3.7% of girls born that year. In the early years of the 20th century, more than 5% of girls were named Mary (and 6% of boys were named John). So over time the numbers have gone downward as more parents choose less common names for their kids. The trend holds true if you add up the percentages for the top ten as well.
You can play around with the data yourself on the SSA website:
As usual, I'm interested in the psychological/sociological underpinings that explain this trend. People are now not as willing to give their children common names. Instead, they want their child to have a unique name. It used to be a good thing to have a common, popular name, in order to fit in. Having a weird name would get you made fun of, or beat up on the playground. Now it's considered better to stand out as an individual and be "unique." Parents will say, "I've never heard of anyone named XXXX," and proceed to name their child that. Previous generations were much less willing to make up names, and this SSA data show that the trend reaches beyond Hollywood celebs.
It's yet another indication that American culture has moved steadily toward individualism and uniqueness.
Ana Marie Cox (aka the Wonkette, aka someone who I should have known at U of Chicago but somehow didn't) recently wrote a column in Time magazine about the MTV show "My Super Sweet 16." If you have not had the nauseating pleasure, this is a show about very rich, very spoiled kids whose parents spend half a million dollars on their birthday parties. When I mention it in the book, I point out that the irony of rich kids whining is likely to slip past the typical 15-year-old watching the show. Sure enough, one of my undergrads tells me her sister was disappointed with her perfectly nice 16th birthday party because it did not approach the excesses of this show. All I could do is shake my head.
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At any rate, Cox's column focuses on how these youngsters want to be like celebrities. A few lines from the column: "Their blingy flings are not celebrations of accomplishment; they're celebrations of self." "Each guest of honor is really after only one thing: 'I feel famous. I love it,' says one." "Far from joining polite society like the debutates of the past, the kids gleefully rip through social graces, alienating friends and sacrificing tact."
I love pop culture analyses like this, but it's even more interesting to take it a little deeper: *Why* do these teens act this way? I'm sure there are multiple causes. At least one is the underlying psychology I lay out in _Generation Me_: the ever-present emphasis on the self that often crosses over into narcissism. The obsession with becoming famous or acting like a celebrity plays right into that -- the need for recognition is a subscale on the narcissism inventory (Items: "I wish someone would someday write my biography"," "I like to be the center of attention.")
Other possibilities -- Is American society more materialistic now than it was, say, 30 years ago? Or is it something else?
If you saw the Today show, you saw that I tussled a little with the other guest about the statement "You have to love yourself before you can love someone else." She clearly believed this statement, and I bet if you did a poll you would find that the majority of Americans believe it too.
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Of course, there's no evidence to support that it's true. Narcissists -- people who really love themselves -- are horrible relationship partners. My friend Keith wrote a great book on this (called _When You Love a Man Who Loves Himself_). Narcissists lack empathy; they play games; they cheat.
And as Keith also likes to say, "If I had to name the top ten things necessary for a good relationship, loving yourself would not be on the list." That's because most of the time, a good relationship requires *not* putting yourself first. Good marriages are based on compromise. And I don't think it's any coincidence that the divorce rate has stayed high (despire people marrying later, and thus probably wiser) at the same time that the self-emphasis has grown. Previous generations didn't worry much about loving themselves.
Some research does show that low self-esteem people are more likely to doubt their partner's affection, but this doesn't mean that they love their partner any less, and they don't choose bad partners (contrary to another popular belief). And high self-esteem people aren't much better -- they get mean and defensive when they are challenged.
Much more important for relationship success is a variable called attachment style, which is about how you relate to others (rather than your self-feelings). Having a good match of attachment styles predicts relationship success much better than the self-esteem of the partners.
The popularity of this statement might have started in therapy sessions, where people with serious addictions were told that they needed to get themselves together first before they started a relationship. But that's not the same as loving yourself first, and there's no reason it needs to apply to everyone.
Back from a whirlwind trip to New York -- I was on the ground less than 24 hours. It was amazing, though. I am still somewhat stunned I got to meet Katie Couric. We talked about the issues in the book for a little before the segment and for several minutes afterward. She is not only nice, but very straightforward and smart. She's very interested in why young people are more anxious and depressed and whether high expectations have something to do with it -- she said she might do a 60 Minutes piece on this once she moves over to CBS.
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Off-air, she also asked me a question I expect I will get more often in the coming weeks: "Are you a conservative?" It's funny -- I don't consider valuing relationships and junking self-esteem boosting to be either liberal or conservative. I see it as more common sense and just thinking through the issues more deeply. Plus the book is really all over the map politically if anything -- some might see the skewering of pop culture as conservative, but then they will be awfully confused when they get to the last chapter, where I call for preschool to be publically funded (on the principle that with so many two-income families -- and the benefits of preschool for kids even if a parent does stay home -- it would be in everyone's best interest). Plus the chapter on minorities and women makes it abundantly clear that I would never want to go back to the 1950s culture. Does that make me liberal? I don't think so, but maybe some people think it does. I guess I agree with the basic 1960s/1970s principle that individual rights and freedoms are important; I just think the self-focus has been taken too far and emphasized to the exclusion of other important things (self-control, relationships, etc.)
A book excerpt and a link to the show segment:
Tentative time for the Today show appearance is 8:09am on Thursday. I am leaving for NYC soon. (My dad is here for a conference so he will have the house to himself!)
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Just got the official word a few hours ago: I will be on the Today show between 8 and 9am this Thursday! They are flying me to New York and I am doing the interview on the book in studio. Don't know if I will talk to Katie or Matt or neither. But no matter what I'm really excited!
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