The Chronicle Review

Narcissism Run Rampant? Let's Not Flatter Ourselves

Geoffrey Moss for The Chronicle Review

August 01, 2010

The last few decades have seen increasing efforts by teachers, policy makers, therapists, and others to shield children from anything remotely negative, whether that be competition with each other or criticism from adults. Competitive T-ball games, dodge ball, well-deserved falling grades—all of these have been flattened under the crushing wheels of the so-called self-esteem movement. It should come as little surprise that many folks (myself included) find all of this to be quite ridiculous and worry that the self-esteem movement may ultimately do more harm than good. Life, after all, is filled with hard knocks and disappointments, so if we don't allow our children to learn how to navigate the inevitable negativities and inequities of life early on, how will they function as adults?

There is also the tyranny of the least common denominator. If one child does not enjoy playing tag or dodge ball, then no one can play. (I wish we could employ that logic to ban country music.) One could raise numerous reasonable objections to the self-esteem movement and its foibles, yet combating one extreme position with moderation never leads to much. One must fight fire with fire.

There has been much recent discussion in the psychological literature and the popular press about the idea that self-esteem among young people has become so problematic that an "epidemic" (not my word) of narcissism has gripped the younger generation. Allegedly, high levels of narcissism place young people at risk not only for manipulativeness and selfishness but also for all manner of ill outcomes, including increased propensities for violence, depression, anxiety, and poor academic performance.

One of the leading proponents of this view is the psychologist Jean M. Twenge, who has two well-selling books out on the topic including Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled-and More Miserable Than Ever Before and The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, both published by Free Press.

Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, is no pop psychologist. Her research has been published in a number of well-respected peer-reviewed journals in psychology. I believe she is motivated by a sincere desire to be of help to children and society. Nonetheless, the tone of her book titles is difficult to miss. Labeling the youth of today "Generation Me" is clearly pejorative, and can we all agree that, at this point, the word "epidemic" has been used so carelessly so many times that it has lost all meaning?

The work of Twenge and others involves tracking scores on measures of narcissism such as the Narcissistic Personality Inventory over time. Purported increases in this measure over several generations of young people would suggest that narcissism is on the rise. But do such increases really indicate that our young people are awash in waywardness, a new horde of ne'er-do-wells to be unleashed on our nation? Well, no. There are two basic problems with these measures: Psychologists are not sure that the data really indicate that narcissism is on the rise, and it's not clear that it's such a bad thing if it is.

First, psychologists have debated whether or not the evidence points to an increase in narcissism over time. Kali H. Trzesniewski, M. Brent Donnellan, and Richard W. Robins have examined data sets similar to those used by Twenge and her colleagues and have come to the opposite conclusion­—that little evidence exists for a rise in narcissism over time. Dueling data sets are nothing new in psychology, of course, nor is the progressive vitriol into which debate on this issue has descended. However, it is clearly too soon to be talking about epidemics and slandering millions of young people with a derogatory label. There is simply not the quality of evidence available to support such hyperbole.

Second, the concept of narcissism itself as discussed in the literature is poorly defined. As Twenge and her colleagues themselves acknowledge, the NPI and similar instruments do not measure pathological narcissism. Put more bluntly, no one really knows if high scores on the common measures of narcissistic personality are such a bad thing. Where does healthy self-esteem end and pathological narcissism, something that leads to selfishness, manipulativeness, and violence, begin? That ought to be an instrumental point to understand before claims of mass harm are passed on to the general public. Psychometric flaws with the NPI, in particular, limit the degree to which scores on this measure can be interpreted. Interestingly, a new measure, the Pathological Narcissism Inventory, has recently been developed by Aaron L. Pincus at Pennsylvania State University's main campus. It would be nice to see how scores on this, arguably better, track over time. Unfortunately that will take decades. At present we simply don't know if there has been an increase or not, and if there has been an increase, in what exactly? Happiness or selfishness?

Twenge and her colleagues are not the first to lambaste the self-esteem movement. Others have been identifying it as the source of all that ails us for years. I'm no fan of it myself. All the efforts to ban competitive sports, encourage group hugs, and say nary a negative word to a child do seem to run the risk of turning today's youth into some socialized version of the Children of the Corn. I'm the first to acknowledge a certain absurdity at the core of the self-esteem movement and the implication that competition is harmful and children so delicate that any failure will be horribly crushing rather than an opportunity for learning and growth. However, the notion that children are so malleable that the self-esteem movement, or anything else, could twist them into an antisocial horde is equally absurd.

There's nothing wrong with examining narcissism rates over time. It's an interesting question. Yet once we start throwing sneering labels around and started talking about "epidemics" and "crises," we have left the realm of science and entered that of polemics and pseudoscience. The narcissism debate is, I'd argue, no extreme case in the social sciences either. The rush to slap young people with the tag "Generation Me" is simply one more spin of the "kids today" wheel, as in "kids today, with their music and their hair. ... "

The social sciences have too often jumped in feet first, raising unnecessary panics over video games, "fad" mental illnesses, and "crises" of sexual assault. I'll acknowledge that it's probably difficult to sell a book or get a government grant arguing that something isn't a big problem, yet it is time for the social sciences to carefully consider the chasm that too often exists between the data that they produce and the claims they make to the scientific community and general public. Words such as "epidemic" should only ever be preceded by words like "smallpox," and should henceforth be stricken from the social scientist's lingo.

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. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more high-school students are taking difficult courses like calculus and advanced science. According to national statistics, 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.

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.

Christopher J. Ferguson is an associate professor of psychology in the department of behavioral and applied sciences and criminal justice at Texas A&M International University.