Rising narcissism among college students

Random Teens from CBS NewsA psychological report that indicates that self-esteem programs have given us a generation of narcissists is getting a lot of attention in the media. The authors argue that decades of being told that “gosh darnit, people like them” has gone to the heads of today’s college students.

Moreover, it seems social technologies encourage narcissism. Jean Twenge, an author of the report, is quoted as saying: “Current technology fuels the increase in narcissism. By its very name, MySpace encourages attention-seeking, as does YouTube.” (Wait: How can both MySpace and YouTube be narcissistic names, but whatever.) In other words, you may be a narcissist if you blog.

Uh-oh. Maybe this is all about me.

Naturally, there is something narcissistic about blogging. You have to believe that what you have to say is important enough for other people to hear. Twenge’s claim that the ability to express yourself actually “fuels” narcissism, rather than attracting narcissistic people (as does acting, journalism, and other careers–ahem, teaching–that require personal performance) seems to me to be more than a little premature. But what about this: are we all becoming narcissists?

By 2006, the article suggests, two-thirds of the students surveyed had scores above average on the Narcissistic Personality Index. Now, unless they were surveying near Lake Wobegon or the distribution was really skewed, it seems unlikely that two-thirds are above average–what is meant is that two-thirds are above the average of 1982 students. The difference is more than merely semantic, as a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder generally relies on someone being significantly above the average in terms of self-regard. If everyone’s self-regard is rising, it gets a bit harder to be considered a narcissist.

I am one.

I mean, I’ve always known I was a bit of a narcissist (I’m really good about knowing things like that), but never realized that I was a clinical narcissist. As I run down some of the short-form NPI items, I am clearly leaning toward that top (bottom?) end. For example:

* I have a natural talent for influencing people < --> I am not good at influencing people.
* I think I am a special person. < --> I am no better or no worse than most people.
* I will be a success. < --> I am not too concerned about success.
* If I ruled the world it would be a better place. < --> The thought of ruling the world frightens the hell out of me.
* I see myself as a good leader. < --> I am not sure if I would make a good leader.
* I like to start new fads and fashion. < --> I don’t care about new fads and fashion.
* I rarely depend on anyone else to get things done. < --> I sometimes depend on people to get things done.

(These are from the 40-item NPI created by Raskin & Terry in 1988, and reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.)

Now, it’s true, I didn’t answer all forty items as a raging narcissist, but I did tend very heavily to that end. As an aside, I wonder whether seeking out the NPI to take it can itself be considered a narcissistic act. In any case, I’m OK with being a bit of a narcissist, and I am interested in knowing other people who tend toward those characteristics. Normal is boring.

I guess the real question is the degree to which some of the less socially beneficial elements go hand-in-hand with these tendencies. Clearly, we don’t want to eliminate narcissists–in doing so, we would probably take out most of the interesting people who have ever lived or been imagined, from Gandhi to Godzilla. It seems that the worry is that if we are all becoming more narcissistic, we might all want to lead, all create our own fashions, all rule the world. But I wonder if, when it comes to being a creative owner of our selves and what we contribute, I wonder under these circumstances if greed is good.

Perhaps the real issue is that some people think that students should recognize their place, as passive recipients of collected wisdom. I don’t think that is the case. I am confident that I would do an OK job at ruling the world, but part of that is because I grew up knowing that I was special, and that I therefore had special responsibilities. The attitude that I find disturbing among students is not inflated self-regard, but deflated other-regard–a lack of respect for their fellow men, and a lack of knowledge about their circumstances. I am a humble narcissist; I know I believe I am more able than most, and therefore have to work harder to make everyone’s lives better. Too many college students believe that they are just average members of their caste, and have no desire to work their way to the top. They have no will to power, no will to commit the extraordinary, but instead believe that they should profit by being as close to average as possible.

If that’s narcissism, then I’m not your average narcissist. I’m special.

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  1. Posted 3/2/2007 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    A colleague and I were chatting about this today. I’m glad to see it’s not just me. I mean, I recognized long ago that kids these days are completely into themselves. It’s such a great feeling when good hard science confirms my stereotypes.

    It’s also great to see the media jumping all over a press release. Regarding data that will be presented at some future date. At a workshop.

  2. Fishee
    Posted 3/7/2007 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    In other words, you may be a narcissist if you blog.
    totally agree

  3. Posted 3/23/2007 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    Alex, this piece was very interesting to me. Lilian Katz, one of my favorite
    early childhood people writes about narcissism versus self-esteem in what we do
    with young children – one of my favorite essays by her:

  4. Posted 3/23/2007 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    The preponderance of social/everywhere media means that we’re assuming that others are really interested in the intimate details of our lives. Twitter is a great example. Pinging people constantly with witty commentary about the minutiae of our daily lives assumes (a) others are actually interested in such things, and (b) such information/thoughts should be public and archived for posterity.

    I think this might be one of the negative aspects of postmodernism. Now, everyone’s “story” is equally important, and the lack of grand narratives means that we often fall into some sort of nihilistic pattern – “there’s nothing I can do about the crappy state of the world, so why not just make my mark in another way.” Maybe part of the problem is that instead of grappling with the difficult issues of the day (environmental degradation, poverty, injustice, racism, classism, etc.), our feelings of helplessness gets transmuted, and we begin to focus on the minute aspects of our lives which we perceive are more easily controlled. Hence the digerati’s fascination with lifehacks like GTD and Twitter-esque apps. Now, maybe I’m being unfair and some people are using apps like Twitter to create engaging, real-time social commentary about the state of the world, but I doubt many folks are posting things much deeper than “I hate AIM,” “I wish I had a Wii at work,” “Leaving for the day,” and “TMobile Sux” (just watch twittervision for a while: http://twittermap.com/twittervision). These are mostly one-way (narcissistic) shout-outs to the universe.

  5. Goldfish
    Posted 4/1/2007 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    “…I grew up knowing that I was special, and that I therefore had special responsibilities.”

    A quote from “Spiderman” (2002) in your honor:

    Uncle Ben (addressing Peter Parker): “Remember, with great power. comes great responsibility.”

  6. Posted 4/16/2007 at 12:03 am | Permalink


    I have kept a diary since I was twelve; two years ago I started blogging for a few of reasons;
    1. My life meant that catching up on my diary at the weekends became harder and harder. I didn’t like neglecting it, an online diary meant I could drop titbits and longer entries in anytime, anywhere.
    2. My family is on the other side of the planet and always saying ‘Not much’ when being asked o the phone ‘What you been up to?’ got kinda boring. By blogging they get images as well as words.
    3. I started doing a Masters in Writing and needed to get used to word counts. Blogging is great for keep your stories short, sweet and on occasion amusing.

    There are worst things to be than a narcissist.

  7. kalee
    Posted 10/25/2007 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    Narcissism is healthy … typically. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is not the same as narcissism.
    Different ballgame all together. If you love yourself and are self-interested that is great … but a true Narcissist, the kind psychologists are worried about, have a lot of nasty personality traits. They are emotionally retarded and morally compromised. The amount of them is increasing due to permissive parenting and undue adulation. It is really not something to take lightly. They scare me.

  8. Posted 12/27/2007 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    Alex, I am not well versed on actual narcissism, but can be a lovely past time when paired with some humble failures and the ability to laugh at yourself.

  9. Farah Iqbal
    Posted 1/29/2009 at 12:48 am | Permalink

    Excclent! Its wonderful to see that theopinion is shared throughout the world. right now I am in the mid of conducting such a study on a group0 0f 200 male and female students at colleges in pakistan. Will keep u guys posted.

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