Are We More Narcissistic? Part 2

Read Part 1 on the “epidemic of narcissism” here. .

My sociology 101 professor at Rice, Bill Martin, once told us that his primary goal for the class was to help us develop our “built-in crap detector.” (He may have substituted a more colorful word for “crap” but you get the idea.) He hoped that as a result of the class that we would be able to analyze the news and culture and look beyond what seems obvious to what is really going on.

For example, I’m planning to let Caroline walk the half block from her bus stop to our house by herself this year. I will do this because despite widespread parental worries about kidnapping, I know that kid-snatching is NOT more prevalent than it was when I walked the two miles home from school in the 1970s. Human beings are terrible at assessing risk, it seems. But a built-in crap detector  looks at actual rates of kidnapping rather than focusing on the exceptionally rare (though admittedly heartbreaking) stories that make the news.

The built-in crap detector also helps us deal with “trend” articles in which writers for the New York Times style section dig up several egregious examples of something weird and breathlessly announce the latest fad.

Anyway, my built-in crap detector goes off all over the place with this narcissism stuff. Let me say that it is entirely possible that I am wrong, and that there really is an epidemic of narcissism. Or, I am partially wrong, and that there is merely a terrible outbreak of narcissism, plus a generous sprinkling of hysteria and savvy PR to make it look like an epidemic. Could be. It does feel like there is less of an emphasis on the common good than in the past. And the culture of celebrity gets kind of gross.

My skepticism may also be wishful thinking. Maybe I just don’t want to believe that my kids are growing up in a world in which narcissism is epidemic… not just because it will be a less pleasant place for them to live, but because if it’s true, then our planet is doomed.

With those caveats in place, here we go.

The primary statistical evidence for a rise in narcissism, especially among the young, is a survey called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, studied by Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. Apparently students’  scores have risen steadily since the test was introduced in 1982. By 2006, the researchers said, two-thirds of the students had above-average scores, 30 percent more than in 1982. Twenge says it is the self-esteem movement, among other factors, that have caused this sharp rise in the stats.

So here are some things that cause the crap detector to go PING!

1. There is something psychologically satisfying in the “epidemic of narcissism” narrative. Almost too satisfying. Our intuitions are powerful guides, but they can be duped. It just feels correct to say that we’re getting more selfish as a culture and to pine away for a better time when people weren’t all about me me me. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re right. I’m reading On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not right now, and hoo boy!

A related point: Presbyterians and other Calvinists just looooove to talk about pride as the fundamental sin of humanity. Add a rise in narcissism to that long distinguished tradition and the sermons just write themselves. I’m not saying there isn’t truth to it, but I’m wary of the relish with which some of us approach this topic as well as the pat manner in which we talk about it.

2. Cries of narcissism are tailor-made for anecdotal evidence. Everyone knows a story of a sullen twentysomething sitting around in his parents’ basement, a parent who inflicts their unholy terror little darling on a poor defenseless group of restaurant patrons, or a boorish driver on the highway. These seem to bolster the claims of the study. But for narcissism to be epidemic, or even widely prevalent, you’d have to know a great many people who exhibit this behavior. Maybe my sampling is off, but I just don’t know that many. Carol Merritt has a nice post on this, and she hits other points as well.

3. The fact that Twenge first published her findings in a book called Generation Me, frankly, makes me trust her less. Children learn what they live, and if they’ve been taught by us to be narcissistic, you’d think a responsible discussion of this matter would focus on where WE have gone wrong and how to change things for the better, rather than on how freakishly entitled “kids today” are. The fact that she decided to point fingers at an entire generation, with lots of juicy and outrageous anecdotes, causes me to doubt whether this is anything more than the “get off my lawn” carping that has been directed at the younger generation forever.

4. As far as I can tell, there’s no study of how these college students change as they mature. Many young adults are self-centered. It may even be developmentally normal. I can remember doing some things as a college student that make me cringe now. What we need more than continued studies of college students is to study people as they develop into adults. Are they still narcissistic as they get out into the world? Or are we seeing a larger swing toward narcissism in recent years, but one that will later equalize? (It’s also possible that people of all ages are edging toward narcissism, but again, let’s see the study and not just anecdata.)

5. Some suggest that the NPI is not a great tool. Check out the quiz yourself. I have no expertise in designing these intruments, and must defer to those who do, but I see a lot of false binaries in these questions, as well as questions that show shifts in cultural norms. The stuff on “showing off” one’s body, for example, may not be about narcissism but about a comfort level with one’s body that is actually healthy. Many girls in my high school wore big shirts and slouched because they were embarrassed by their developing breasts, and I’m hard pressed to see how that’s somehow better than the stylish, confident way that many young women I know carry themselves today. (That said, have the pants with writing across the butt gone out of style yet? Because No. Just No.)

6. Finally, I am certainly not alone in raising questions about Twenge’s research. Here are a couple of articles that provide a balanced approach.

Why does all this matter? I started out wanting to comment on an article I read in Relevant magazine about Facebook and its impact on our spiritual lives. In the article, the author talks about narcissism in the same broad terms I have critiqued here. Which is a shame. If we rely too easily on the narcissism trope, then it impacts our ability to talk about technology and social media in any useful or nuanced way. There’s nowhere to go from there that’s helpful. I hope to inject something useful into the technology discussion later in the week.

Thank you, by the way, to those of you who read my ruminations and hang with me as I play armchair sociologist.


11 thoughts on “Are We More Narcissistic? Part 2

  1. Erica says:

    On point # 1: Calvinsts also spend a lot of time talking about total depravity (ok, well some of the used to and some of them still do). I know it’s not the hippest part of Calvinism, but I find it somewhat useful in explaining what a mess the world is. And one thing in would extrapolate from total depravity’s that humans have, since the Fall, been sinful. My crap meter starts to go off whenever someone suggests that we are getting a whole bunch more sinful in some way. It’s always been there, I just think we come up with new and innovative ways to do it!

    • mamdblueroom says:

      Anyone who doubts total depravity needs to spend some time reading comments on Internet news sites.

      Regarding new ways to express our self-centeredness: As one of the articles I linked to says, “[According to a different study] there have been very few changes in the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of youth over the last 30 years. In other words, the minute-by-minute Twitter broadcasts of today are the navel-gazing est seminars of 1978.”

  2. Ruth Everhart says:

    You’ll have to talk to some college and post-college kids. I’m with you on some of this, MA, but I do think the cultural norm is to raise kids with every opportunity and the result is a certain entitlement. Plus, there is something to the “luxurification” of America. More to research and think about here, I think. Maybe sweeping statements are always doomed, but on the other hand we are called to reflect on culture. The worst part is that we actually do kids a terrible dis-service if they feel entitled and then graduate into a recession.

    • mamdblueroom says:

      Thanks for commenting.

      I agree about the “luxurification” (great word). Twenge reports that plastic surgery is up sixfold in recent years. Unsurprisingly, she sees that as further proof increased narcissism. Unfortunately she doesn’t analyze the statistic at all. Is plastic surgery more affordable than it used to be? Are there simpler procedures that appeal more to mainstream people? There are many factors that could contribute to the increase. Again, I’m not saying her view is flat-out wrong, just incomplete, maybe even woefully so.

      As I said, I don’t come in contact with many 20somethings in real life. But the trick would be to separate the “get a load of this friend of mine” (anecdata) with “yes, as I think about *all* of the people I come in contact with, they are like this” (a true trend).

      Also, talking to young people is not going to reveal anything about whether things are actually getting worse, as Twenge and her contemporaries insist. 10-15 years ago, everyone was wringing their hands over MY generation (GenX). We were slackers, entitled, lazy, insert pejorative adjective here. It got very, very, very old. Now my generation is in our 30s and 40s. Do you hear a lot of people complaining about middle-aged people and their entitlement mentality? Apparently we grew up, and/or there is a brand new generation on which to focus our ire. How suspicious.

  3. Ruth Everhart says:

    I haven’t read any of the Twenge stuff. And maybe what I’m complaining about is an increase in consumerism more than narcissism. Perhaps the two are linked. I’ll tell you what hit me. The fact that when I spent time with 20-somethings, the norms about socializing really surprised me. Apparently it is now normative to buy beer by the glass or bottle with great deliberation about brand, flavor, etc. What happened to pitchers? This may make me sound old and out of touch. So be it. I think there’s something to it. I could make the same argument with coffee. Or chocolate. People feel that they are entitled to having their tastes catered to in an expensive way that was not normative, at least where I grew up. Yep, that’s anecdotal and perhaps a hobby horse of mine. Cereal. Haircuts. musical tastes. Niche marketing as a result or a creator of changing social norms?

    • mamdblueroom says:

      I think Twenge wrote The Narcissism Epidemic…? That’s my point, all of this stuff is coming from one person/body of research, that is anything but definitive, according to other researchers. Yet she’s been masterful at marketing. This message has saturated the media and become THE narrative. I think that process is what I’m questioning as much as the substance of the narrative.

      I can’t argue what what you’ve said. The choices we face just in the grocery store feel unnecessary and mentallly oppressive sometimes. As Robert likes to say, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” (Cinnabon cereal?)

      I think when I was in college we were right on the bottle/pitcher divide, because I remember both. But even that can be spun differently: young people who drink bottles apparently like the taste, not just to get a buzz or drunk, which let’s face it, is the only reason to drink from pitchers, because ewww. Beer in pitchers goes flat in about 45 seconds. Also, my husband is an amateur homebrewer, so I appreciate the artistry of microbrews.

      I really should just rename this blog “Yes, And…” or perhaps “It’s Complicated.”

  4. […] I said in my earlier posts, Hipps hits the narcissism angle, but I’ve already said enough about that. Except one […]

  5. Asad S. Jafari says:

    There is an epidemic of epidemics out there. The news loves to point out the latest epidemic because they need to sensationalize things in order to get ratings. By the way, do you know there’s a common household cleanser THAT COULD KILL YOU? First, the weather…

  6. wonderer says:

    I hear about these dynamics from my husband who has been teaching twenty-somethings for close to 40 years. He feels a clear shift–but I’m not at all sure what he describes in narcissism. It is more an “I deserve __________” rather than “it’s all about me.” The most interesting article he’s found connects it with smaller families. Not sure if that is it either. It does not correlate with no care for the larger world or no passion for others. More an entitlement about ME but that does not exclude demands/expectations for or on behalf of the larger world (including in relation to peace, justice, etc.). The whole consumer thing is obviously at work in that, but I also suspect it is the reality that most of us who are below the age of 60 don’t have any memory of large scale suffering that shaped immediate life in the U.S. That lack of memory is likely also tied to the economic ditch we drove ourselves into in the last few decades. Obama talked about that in his campaign. I think he is right. And kids are shaped by what they see experience. So the “I deserve…” is likely related to that.

  7. […] wrote the other day that I’m ready for Caroline to walk home from the bus stop this year. And more to the point, […]

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