There it was again, the panic about the narcissism of millennialas as evidenced by selfies. This time it was NPR’s podcast Hidden Brain. The show’s host Shankar Vedantam 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. . . .
What’s the evidence that so impressed National Public Radio? Livingston explains:
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). . . .
Then there’s the generational question. Are millennials more narcissistic than were their parents or grandparents? . . . 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.
And now on to the data:
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.
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.
Oooh—ugly ugly ugly Excel graph. Still, Livingston has a point.