At the next table in the cafe where I was working this morning, a young woman spent a whole hour talking excitedly to her older companion about herself, her hopes and aspirations for her job, her romantic relationship and her home. It was hard to avoid the impression that she thought herself the centre of the Universe, her dreams eminently fascinating and important.
Is this simply what young people or “millennials” (people born after 1980) are like these days? Fuelled by the endless opportunity for self-promotion and self-reflection on social media, combined with a wider culture that’s arguably placed greater emphasis on the importance of self-esteem than learning, have young people’s personalities changed from earlier generations to become more narcissistic and selfish?
Psychologists are divided. Some say the evidence that the young have become “Generation Me” is overwhelming, yet others counter just as strongly that this simply isn’t true. Meanwhile, more encouraging evidence is emerging to show positive trends in how our personalities seem to be changing over time, similar to the way that intelligence has increased over the generations.
The most vocal proponent of the view that young people today are more narcissistic and self-centred than in previous generations is psychologist Jean Twenge at San Diego State University, California, who has been studying the shift for more than 15 years.
Twenge believes that the rise in narcissism has its roots in cultural changes, especially the increased focus on individualism through the last few decades. For example, with parents, and society as a whole, today arguably placing greater value on young people’s individual achievement over their civic duty.
Another possible theory is that it’s down to what’s been dubbed the “self-esteem movement” – the idea that many of society’s problems, from drug addiction to violence, can be traced to people having low self-esteem. Alas, countless studies have shown this simply isn’t true; in fact, myth 33 in the book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology is “Low self-esteem is a major cause of psychological problems”. Nevertheless, thanks to this movement, especially through the 1980s and 1990s, efforts were made to protect young people from negative feedback, such as poor grades, for fear it may damage their self-esteem. At the same time, self-love and feelings of being “special” were nurtured.
Writing in New York magazine recently, Jesse Singal describes how the self-esteem movement especially took hold in American schools, which adopted exercises like Koosh ball: “A kid tosses the ball to another kid and compliments them — I like your shirt. Then they toss the ball to someone else and compliment them — You’re good at soccer. The good feelings travel with the Koosh ball across the room, back and forth and back and forth.”
Given these cultural trends, it certainly seems plausible that today’s youth might have learned to see themselves as gifted and crave admiration.
Much of Jean Twenge’s case is based on the “Narcissistic Personality Inventory”, a measure that asks people to choose between 40 pairs of self-descriptive items, one of which is narcissistic in tone (“I will be a success”) and the other not (“I am not too concerned about success”). Twenge’s studies show that scores have risen among US college students over time. For example, she and her colleagues found that, among a 2009 cohort, almost two-thirds of undergraduates were more narcissistic than the cohort average from 1982.