I thought I was witnessing an unhealthy trend, but I didn't know how much weight to give my own observations. I could have been misremembering the past, or just getting more crotchety.
Whether or not I am, young people today are clearly getting more narcissistic. I learned this from a great book I've been reading: The Narcissism Epidemic, by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, coauthors of a landmark 2008 study of narcissism over time. As they write,
"We found that... college students in the 2000s were significantly more narcissistic than Gen Xers and Baby Boomers in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. The Boomers, a generation famous for being self-absorbed, were outdone by their children. By 2006, two-thirds of college students scored above the scale's original 1979-85 sample average, a 30% increase in only two decades... The upswing in narcissism appears to be accelerating: the increase between 2000 and 2006 was especially steep."
The book drives home the point that this upswing is bad news. The authors present a lot of evidence that "overconfidence backfires," and that narcissism does not equip people to succeed in today's competitive world. Many people think that a healthy sense of self-esteem helps them get ahead. It appears that more often, it leaves them further behind.
To take just one example, The Narcissism Epidemic describes a devastating study conducted by psychologist Don Forsyth and his colleagues aimed at better understanding the relationship between self-esteem and performance. A group of low-performing students in a college psychology course were randomly divided into two groups. The control group got weekly emails containing practice questions to help them prepare for the final. The experimental group got the same questions, but their emails also contained self-esteem-boosting affirmations like "Bottom line: Hold your head — and your self-esteem — high."
The control group did about as well on the final as they did on an earlier test. The experimental group, meanwhile, tanked. As a group, they went from scoring 57/100 on the first test to 38/100 on the final.
Narcissists apparently make good solo performers, and are more likely to become entrepreneurs because of their high tolerance for risk. But in most contexts narcissism is a handicap. It makes you a less valuable professional and a less valued colleague.
It also makes you a less complete person. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has just published Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, which is a passionate argument for a broad liberal arts education. Part of that education, she argues in an interview "must be a cultivation of the ability to think from the perspective of another person, what we might call the sympathetic imagination. We all are born with this capacity in a rudimentary form, but if it is not trained it will remain crude and highly uneven." A crude and uneven ability to think from the perspective of another is a pretty good working definition of narcissism.
Why am I writing this post? In part, it's because I'm honestly tired of narcissists (both young and old) and their enablers. I'm tired of people who show no other passion or interest than themselves, of parents who can't separate from their kids, of Millennials who apparently think that talking about how much they're going to help the world is some kind of important precondition to doing so, and of the cottage industry of folk who encourage and amplify this talk.
I'm also writing this post so I can write the next one. I'm a big fan of social media for lots of purposes, but Twenge and Campbell point out that these technologies are catnip for those with excessive self-regard. So I want to write next about how to use 2.0-era digital tools to be a good colleague instead of a narcissist.
Until then, I'd love to hear what you think. Am I being too hard on narcissism and its practitioners? Leave a comment, please, and let me know.