The Kids Are Alright

College students are more narcissistic than older people. But, perhaps young people always have been narcissistic, and it’s not so much a generational problem as it is a problem of youth, research suggests.

October 13, 2017
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The way kids these days dance is, quite frankly, indecent and without any modesty. It’s a reflection of the times, and how the world and its governing morals are degrading.

The above is not about the year 2017, but rather is paraphrased from The London Times’ description of the introduction -- and growing popularity of -- the waltz, more than 200 years ago.

“We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the ‘waltz’ was introduced (we believe for the first time at the English Court on Friday last),” The Times wrote in its warning about the new, crass dance which involved “the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressure of the bodies.”

“This is a circumstance which ought not to be passed over in silence. National morals depend on national habits,” the paper wrote, according to an excerpt from 1816 reprinted in the 2009 book The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances

Older generations have been complaining about younger generations for all of human history, argues Brent Roberts, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In a new study, co-authored by Roberts, his research pushes back against the assertion that there has been a wave, or epidemic, of narcissism among younger generations, particularly college students.

Young people do tend to be more narcissistic than their older peers, the paper found. But according to the study, titled “The Narcissism Epidemic is Dead; Long Live the Narcissism Epidemic,” to be published in the journal Psychological Science, students grow out of those higher levels of narcissism. Higher levels of narcissism are not so much generational as they are related to static age groups, no matter which generation is currently in them. 

Current college students, who on average score a few points higher on the Narcissism Personality Index, Roberts said, will likely eventually grow up to become the older, less-narcissistic generation, and perhaps themselves scowl at future youngsters.

Growing up in the 1970s, Roberts remembers being a member of what was called the “‘Me’ generation” by cultural critics at the time. 

“We didn’t have any values and mores like the great generation which came before us and fought the world wars. We were running around during the 60s and 70s being indulgent,” he said, describing the commentary at the time. Then, in the 2000s, there was another narcissism epidemic, according to some researchers, and the generation coming of age was full of unusually narcissistic individuals as well.

But rather than generation upon generation of narcissists, Roberts said it’s just a facet of youth. In fact, according to his study, narcissism among current college students has slightly decreased since the 1990s, when controlling for different interpretations of questions on the Narcissism Personality Inventory.

The NPI pairs two statements next to each other -- such as "I insist upon getting the respect that is due me," and "I usually get the respect that I deserve," -- and asks the user to pick which one applies best.

Roberts and the co-authors used data collected in 1992 and 1996, combining for a total of just over 1,150 students from the University of California, Berkeley, for the cohort of students from the 1990s. For the 2000s, the researchers used data from about 33,650 students at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and the University of California, Davis. For the cohort of students in college between 2010 and 2015, data from 25,412 students at those same two institutions was used.

The average NPI scores of all three cohorts were relatively similar -- scoring about 15 of 16 points on a scale that goes up to 40. Grandparents, on the other hand, score at around 12.

“By average, you’re going to be more narcissistic than most people who are older than you,” Roberts said of college-aged students. “But your generation is no more narcissistic than prior generations at the same age.”

Additionally, the study found, when controlling for potential changes in interpretations of the NPI questions over the years, there was actually a slight decrease in narcissism among college students since the 1990s.

W. Keith Campbell, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia and co-author of the 2010 book The Narcissism Epidemic, said that Roberts’ research was interesting, although it wasn’t an exact replica of his and Jean Twenge’s research. Twenge is a psychology professor at the University of San Diego and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic.

“The term ‘Narcissism Epidemic’ is from a book Jean and I wrote that spent about 5 pages on increases in trait narcissism and the rest on cultural changes (changes in word use in books and song lyrics, changes in naming practices toward more individualism, increasing rates of cosmetic surgery, larger home sizes, etc),” Campbell wrote in an email. “This research is irrelevant to these cultural changes, most of which are simple to replicate with open data.”

The answer to why older generations have repeatedly judged younger generations negatively, of course, is another question altogether.

While there are generational differences in how people think and act, Roberts said, older people can often conflate those actual differences with differences that are simply factors of youth, such as, he would argue, narcissism. And while some displays associated with the narcissism and shallowness of youth are particularly visible these days, such as smartphones and social media, for example, Roberts points out that they are often used the same way that rotary phones or mail were used: to communicate with friends.

“We’re using these tools the same way we use old tools,” he said. “To check in with our friends. The fact that we check in with our friends more often, does that make us more narcissistic?"


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