August 11, 2010

Narcissism Run Rampant

we'll have the sex so you don't have to

Is narcissism on the rise in college kids?

According to Prof. Jean Twenge at San Diego State, it is; to Prof. Chris Ferguson in The Chronicle of Higher Education, it is not:

The evidence just isn't there for an epidemic of narcissism or anything else. Social scientists would do well to exercise a degree of caution when interpreting data. Just like with the little boy who cries wolf, people are bound to notice too many phantom epidemics. The price to be paid is the credibility of social science itself.

At the core is the study by Twnege finding that college kids are becoming more narcissistic over the years. 

narcissism college.gif
The Chronicle disagrees, taking the perspective that data is conflicting, and anyway "epidemics" and "crises" are often fads of the social sciences.

So Twenge says it's on the rise in college kids and Ferguson says it's not. My question is, who cares?  Seriously, so what?  I admit it's annoying though enlightening to be in a bar near them, but otherwise, does it matter?  The problem isn't the college kids, the problem is the adults.


Take a developmental perspective.  

If you follow that narcissism is more appropriate in adolescence than in middle age, then it may just be that adolescence has been extended into your late 20s, i.e. that we really should be comparing the narcissism of college kids in 2010 to the narcissism of 10th grades in the 80s.  This isn't a slander/libel, it's to put the social context out front.  If you adults-- media, parents, givernment, colleges, banks-- created a society that promotes lingering adolescences, you can hardly blame college kids for lingering.  Right?  When Vanderbilt University spent $150M to create a walled garden for their freshman nymphs and satyrs, did you expect them to instead join the Marine Corps? If I went to Vanderbilt now, you know what would happen?  I'd be pregnant.  Yeah.  Figure that one out.


you want us to grow up... why?

I don't want kids to be narcissists, of course, but I simply don't know if what Twenge detected  is pathological narcissism, a relatively stable trait over time, or developmentally appropriate though tremendously expensive adolescent narcissism.

It is completely useless to talk about the narcissism of kids without first yelling about why they have whatever level of narcissism they do have: adults.  You made them this way.  Honestly, I doubt if you (an individual parent) could have done anything differently, the entire structure was built for that purpose-- kids have disposable income so let's build a giant marketing network around that, along with TV and movies and people you want to be like, and probably adults will want to be part of the youth crowd because being an adult blows so you know what to do for them: create a show called Friends, then replace with Sex and The City, then Cashmere Mafia, which are all the same show but less funny but either way they will buy shoes.

"They're going to have to grow up eventually!"  First, I hear contempt in your voice, like you can't wait till they have to suffer.  That's narcissism.  Get that out of you, why should you be happy that they're going to suffer?  Do you see how you take their lives and reduce it to how it impacts yours?  Fix that, forget about them.  It's a miserable way to live, your own successes will never be enough to make you happy.  Ask Mel Gibson.

But here's an alternative response: really?  do they have to grow up?  Haven't you constructed a society where you can credit your way to a simulacra of branded prosperity for the next few  decades? Healthcare, social security, unemployment and extremely cheap food?  I know, I heard it to, the Dutch have it better in Sweden.

What we should be asking is not how the kids got this way, but how the 50 year olds got this way.  It's the same answer.


One thing you should know about the study done by Twenge: it uses the NPI as a measure.  The Narcissistic Personality Inventory is a valid and reliable measure of the kind of narcissism a layman thinks of when he thinks of narcissism: someone on The Bachelor.  Extraverted, grandiose, vain, overconfident, exhibitionistic.

Here's the guy the NPI does not detect.  Nor the guy who kills his family, nor the suffering 40 year old man who can't seem to get a date despite how much time he spends learning how women think and what tricks to use.

If you're on a desert island and you're a narcissist, it doesn't matter.  It only matters as it affects other people.

Were a narcissism epidemic truly striking the United States, we ought to be seeing signs of it, but we're not. Violence among young people is at the lowest levels since the late 1960s. Rates of teen pregnancy, substance abuse, smoking, and dropping out of high school are all down as well.. more high-school students are taking difficult courses like calculus and advanced science... achievement in reading and math among schoolchildren has either remained stable or improved in recent years (and that is on standardized exams, so grade inflation is not the issue). And, as far as selfishness goes, evidence suggests that young people are engaged in community service and other civic activities more than before.

So what does that tell you?  If violence and teen pregnancy and all that is a mark of narcissism, and theses kids have lower rates than previous generations, what does that tell you about the previous generations?

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Do you see?



Short post on Twenge's study