Jean M. Twenge is professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of more than 130 scientific publications and numerous books, including iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood; The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement with W. Keith Campbell; and Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable than Ever Before. The following is an excerpt from a WHI interview by Michael Horton on Dr. Twenge’s research.
WHI: Please talk about the overlap between your books Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic. Generation Me received a lot of press with major magazines and interviews. Why, first of all, did you become interested in this topic as a psychologist, and how did that lead to the second book?
JMT: Generation Me summarized the research I’d been doing since graduate school. When I was twenty-one, I noticed that the students who were filling out a questionnaire I gave them looked a lot different in their scores than students from the 1970s. I found that self-esteem and individualistic traits in the younger generation were higher, but so were anxiety and depression. This helped me put together the book with various topics, although everything came back to the focus on the individual.
This is why I came up with the title Generation Me, as there’s so much more emphasis on feeling good about yourself for these young people. The potential downside, however, is that you’re focusing so much on yourself, you let your relationships go—which may be one of the reasons you put so much pressure on yourself and end up with more anxiety and depression.
With the second book, The Narcissism Epidemic, Keith Campbell and I cover generational differences in narcissism. We realized, however, that narcissism and the overfocus on the individual are not limited to just one generation. This really goes across people of all ages and, more importantly, across our whole culture. That’s where we figured out that we had a book on our hands. Although there are changes in individuals, these are reflective across many aspects of our culture in the way people behave and in the way they use media, which shows up in vanity, materialism, relationships, and so on. Even people who aren’t particularly narcissistic have gotten sucked into this materialistic and vain culture.
WHI: Before we go any further, it might be helpful if you defined narcissism. Although people may be familiar with the Greek myth of Narcissus, how did we get this term?
JMT: Narcissism is an inflated sense of self. Now, you can be narcissistic at a clinical level, which is called “narcissistic personality disorder” (NPD). But you can also have narcissistic traits at a more normal personality level. In the book, we concentrate mostly on this second type, because it’s so much more common and thus potentially even more harmful. It’s kind of a garden-variety self-centeredness. There is a difference between self-esteem and narcissism, which we see in relationships. People can be high in self-esteem—proud of themselves in individual achievement areas—but they also really care about others. Narcissists are missing that piece about caring for others. They tend to have high self-esteem; they’re not particularly insecure, unlike some myths out there about that, but they have that one big hole in their personality.
WHI: I’ve seen one international study in which South Koreans came in the highest on actual test scores and the lowest for self-esteem, while Americans came in lowest on the scores and highest on self-esteem. Is that what we’re talking about?
JMT: You’re talking about math performance. Yes, the Korean kids did really well on the math test; but when you ask them if they’re good at math, they’ll answer, “Well, sort of, not really.” On the other hand, the American kids didn’t do well; but if you ask them if they’re good at math, they’ll say, “Yeah, I’m the greatest!” That’s the problem, which shows up within the American culture as well. There are all different kinds of interesting research findings on this. One shows that there has been huge grade inflation at both the high school and the college level. But when you look at actual performance over time, either it hasn’t changed or it has gotten worse. What we get is a whole generation who has been rewarded in education and sports—everybody gets a trophy for just showing up—when the actual performance just isn’t there. This is one of the roots of narcissism—an overinflated sense of self; not just confidence but overconfidence; not having a realistic picture of yourself and your abilities.
WHI: Tell us more about “narcissistic personality disorder” (NPD). What is this disorder, and is it caused by nature or nurture, social conditioning, or what?
JMT: NPD is the clinical form of the trait. At one time, psychologists talked about only one percent of the population having it, so it was considered not that common. But a recent study done by the National Institutes of Health looked at how many in the big sample (they had 35,000 people) fit the definition of having experienced NPD at some point in their lives. They found that almost 10 percent of those in their twenties had already experienced symptoms of NPD, while only about 3 percent of people over sixty-five had that experience. Now, you would expect those numbers to be flipped. Somebody who is sixty-five has had forty more years to live than somebody who is twenty-five, which means they have forty more years to develop any psychiatric disorders. It’s therefore a really shocking number that almost 10 percent of people in their twenties have already experienced it. This is one strong indication that there are these cultural effects going on. Like any psychiatric disorder, there are some genetic roots to it. But that big of a change between those two age groups, and the changes we find over time among generations, suggests that there is definitely something cultural going on here.
WHI: What are some other big indicators of this trend?
JMT: I was one of the researchers on a study looking at college students and how they scored on the narcissistic personality inventory, which is one that looks at the narcissistic personality among a normal population. It has a whole range: you could score zero on it, or you could score 40. If you score toward 40, you’re probably more in that range of NPD. Anywhere in the middle—a score over 20, where you’re answering the majority in the narcissistic direction—you may have somebody who’s pretty narcissistic, although not at the clinical level.
We found that scores on the scale went up significantly between the 1980s and the present. We have now found this in a nationwide sample from one campus in Alabama (my coauthor has some data) and one campus in Northern California. We see increases in narcissistic personality across the board. For the school in Alabama, where we have the most recent data, from just this year (2009), one out of three college students answered the questions in the narcissistic direction. It used to be about one out of five.
WHI: So, we’ve come a long way from what Tom Brokaw called the “Greatest Generation” of the World War II era. As you discuss in the book, how much of this is due to historical factors? For example, people didn’t get everything they wanted growing up in the Great Depression; their plans didn’t turn out the way they had hoped when they had to sacrifice everything, even their lives, during the war years. What effect does that have?
JMT: In the book, we identify what we think are four major causes of this problem of an epidemic of narcissism. One is parenting. This is when parents give their kids not only the material things they want, but also an unrealistic sense of self by saying, “You’re special, you’re a princess,” and praising everything they do. I saw a T-shirt the other day that read Daddy’s Expensive Princess, which takes it even to the next level.
Then we have the celebrity culture in the media. Celebrities obviously have a higher level of narcissism than the rest of us, but they are the people we follow as examples—especially the reality TV stars who are even more narcissistic than most celebrities. There was actually a study that proved this. It draws in the people who want to show off and who want the attention. But what bothers me is that those are the shows that are really popular, especially among young people. They’re supposed to show a slice of “real life” and “real people” behaving in “real ways,” but they are actually showing cases for narcissistic behavior. They make narcissism seem normal. To a whole generation, this highly narcissistic behavior seems normal. So that’s another possible cause.
Another cause is the Internet. My coauthor and his grad student did an interesting study that showed that narcissists thrive on Facebook. They have more friends there, and they post more attractive pictures of themselves. Of course, there are plenty of people on Facebook who are not narcissistic, who use it to keep in touch with friends. But if you spend time on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, you see that there are a lot of people getting attention here.
WHI: Especially if you’re not spending that same time actually talking to friends and having to listen to their problems.
JMT: It doesn’t really get to the in-depth, emotionally close relationships you would have in person or on the phone. It also tends to emphasize the more narcissistic parts of people’s identities. On social media, nobody talks about how much they like history class. It’s always, “Here I am at the cool party with my cool friends and here I am looking hot.” It’s those particular aspects of identity that happen to line up with narcissism.
WHI: Let’s talk about technology. What do you think about the new culture of expression? Not only technologies such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and so on. But, for instance, kids who text each other while they’re with their parents or grandparents, which means they’re not really talking to their parents or grandparents. Or what about the sort of effusive free-for-all in our culture, where people express themselves as if they’re an expert—regardless of their knowledge of a particular issue—because everybody’s an expert?
JMT: I’ll use blogs as an example of this. Some blogs are great, while for others you wonder why they’re telling you this. It’s clear that it’s all about the blogger, which is why it’s interesting (to the writer at least). A lot of Twitter is the same way. Everything is a trade-off. The Internet is a fantastic example of that. It’s great that we have this more democratic culture and that you can have people who are not professionals posting things. We can see the great benefits of this. But there’s also a downside, which is that a lot of people don’t have any idea what they’re talking about. They think that everybody’s opinion is just as important as everybody else’s. Well, the problem is that this is not really true, because there are some people who have expertise and have actual information, and there are others who don’t. This causes a lot of problems, and it plays into the narcissistic culture of “I’m important and I know everything, and that journalist might have been doing this for thirty years, but he’s wrong, because my sister’s hairdresser said . . . ”
WHI: So, technology isn’t necessarily bad, nor does it necessarily generate narcissistic personalities. But we also have at our disposal technology as a vent for our narcissism, which could even help promote or become a vehicle for these narcissistic tendencies.
JMT: Right. Technology per se is not necessarily narcissistic, but the way many people use it ends up being more narcissistic.
WHI: You mention Christopher Lash’s famous book, The Culture of Narcissism, first published in 1979. How have things changed? Evidently, things have not improved along these lines. Was he observing an overall phenomenon that was just starting?
JMT: That’s what we think, as far as we can tell. In our book, Keith Campbell uses graphs to trace narcissism in the popular press and in academia. This trend first started in the 1970s, but it only really got going in the past decade. Lash’s book is brilliant. At the time, however, there was basically no research on narcissism in terms of knowing how narcissists behave, if they are insecure, or the real symptoms behind it. In 1979, there was very little research, but Lash did see the beginning of this trend. This is the big difference now. We have all this great research, and we know so much more about what narcissism really is and its consequences.
WHI: In your book, you observe, “For most of our history, Americans have adhered to a work ethic postulating that hard work demonstrates one’s worth in the eyes of God and others, but the current ethic of self-admiration in contrast declares that it is not necessary to do anything to be special or to like yourself.” Are you saying that we’ve lost something of an objective criterion for right and wrong, for good and bad behavior, for excellence and baseness?
JMT: Yes, that seems to be what has happened. Let me clarify that having a basic sense of self-worth—believing that you’re one of God’s children, that you belong here, that you’re worth having someone love you—is not what we’re talking about here. That is a basic sense that every person should have. But when you’re talking about objective things—like you deserve a trophy regardless of whether you won the game—this is what has really shifted. The idea now is, well, you just show up and you get the trophy. People tell kids, “You’re special just for being you.”
WHI: Which is the subtitle to your book, Living in the Age of Entitlement. We don’t really ask, “Why do you think you deserve this?”
JMT: Right, that’s the problem. One of my favorite examples is in a survey of college students that just came out. One of the items said, “If I attend most of the classes for a course, I deserve at least a B.” A third of college students agreed with that. There were other items such as, “If I explain to my professor that I’m trying hard, he/she should increase my course grade.” Two-thirds of college students agreed with that one. So, this is the problem. Grades, raises, and pretty much all the real rewards in the actual world are not given just for trying or showing up. Trying is a good first step, but it’s only a first step. You have to actually perform and learn the material or do the work to get the reward. Yet we’ve lost sight of that with some of these attitudes.
WHI: A lot of us were raised with the Dr. Benjamin Spock child-rearing movement, and then the self-esteem movement in school. Is that basically what we’re reaping right now?
JMT: Much of the focus on self-esteem began with good intentions. The idea was that if you increase children’s self-esteem, then it will lead to all kinds of good things. They’ll feel good about themselves, they will be better relationship partners, less likely to get pregnant when they’re teens, or less likely to commit crimes. The problem is that it didn’t work. In the relationship between self-esteem and teen pregnancy, it actually goes the other way. The high self-esteem people are the ones out there getting themselves in trouble, because the low self-esteem girls are sitting at home and don’t have the courage to do anything. It’s the same for the low self-esteem boys. It’s the overconfident narcissists who are out there doing all kinds of stuff.
WHI: So, it was a hunch that didn’t exactly have a lot of data underneath it?
JMT: Exactly. It didn’t really have much data at all. It felt good, and it sounded good, and it was easy. But now we know that this didn’t really work out all that well. I don’t want to say it’s too late, because we could still do some things; but for a lot of people, it is a complete given that you have to feel great about yourself to succeed. When I tell young people that they don’t have to be narcissistic or even have high self-esteem to succeed, they’re absolutely shocked by this. This is the bedrock of the cultural belief they’ve been raised with.
WHI: In 1941, Mortimer Adler wrote that one of the biggest reasons why American education is so “frothy and vapid,” as he put it, is that both parents and teachers “wish childhood to be unspoiled by pain.” He said, “Childhood, it is thought, must not be made to suffer the impositions of discipline or the exactions of duty which, of course, are painful. Rather, Americans have come to believe that it must be filled with as much play and as little work as possible.” Learning had to become fun and exciting, and if it wasn’t, then it wasn’t worth it. What does this teach us about some of the most important things in life—marriage, child rearing, friends, commitments, work, church, whatever—things that are not always fun or exciting but incredibly valuable and important?
JMT: If Adler thought that we were coddling kids back in 1941, I wonder what he would think now! Back then, you had to actually do something to get a trophy. You had to accomplish something, really learn and work hard to get an A. But now we have this idea that we want to completely protect kids from failure. And that isn’t such a great thing. Yes, we want to praise them when they do well. But no, we don’t need to praise them when they do nothing. We do, however, need to give them some realistic perspective on how the world works—that you need to know and learn when you mess up. What we’re missing is the idea that we can learn from failure and we can learn from our mistakes. Protecting kids from this does not help them. It’s doing them a disservice, because when they get older, it’s going to be much harder for them to adjust to the realities of life—like the fact that marriage is not going to be romantic 100 percent of the time, work is not going to be fun all the time, especially when they have to do what their boss says. This comes up over and over. There is this high expectation that everything is going to be wonderful and perfect. When it isn’t, that’s when they become anxious and depressed and their world crashes down around them.
WHI: I’ve noticed how often I see advertisements for educational tools for children that promise fun and excitement. Right from the get-go we’re telling them that if it isn’t fun, if it isn’t exciting, then it’s not worth the time.
JMT: Since I’m a college faculty member, I have to walk the line on this, because I’m the first to say that if we can make learning fun, then that’s good. But we need to keep the standards and still teach the same things, and not just give the B for skating by and just showing up. I’ve dealt with this over and over. It’s easier to just say to the student, “Fine, I’ll change your grade just because you asked.” This is an attitude I’ve run into a lot. “I got a 77, and I really need an 80 because I need a B-minus. Can you change my grade?” No. It’s a simple, two letter answer. No, because you didn’t earn it. This is what’s been left behind with massive grade inflation—the idea that the student doesn’t have to do a whole lot to get rewarded.
WHI: Do you think that important practices that used to give a depth to Christian belief and character—through catechism and training up our children in church and school—are now considered too much work and too challenging, and as a result have become part of the narcissistic complex?
JMT: I think one of the reasons the self-esteem movement caught on is that things have become so easy and fun. It’s a lot easier to pass everybody in the class, even if most of them aren’t doing the work. It’s a lot easier to praise all the time and not to criticize, so some of those character traits have fallen by the wayside. But what about character, responsibility, and consideration for others and empathy? What’s ironic is that those traits and character values are actually more likely to lead to success than being a narcissist. The kid who has social skills and empathy for others instead of being self-centered is going to be more popular, have more friends, get along with the teacher better—everything.
WHI: What are some of the prescriptions for this epidemic of narcissism?
JMT: In the last chapter of our book (and also scattered throughout), Keith and I focused on what we can try to do about this problem. We’re both parents. He has a six-year-old and a one-year-old, and I have a two-and-a-half-year-old and another baby on the way. So we thought a lot about starting young. We think that one of the best solutions is for parents to recognize that they don’t have to tell their kids that they’re special, that they don’t have to worry so much about their self-esteem, and that it might not be the best thing for them to always get praise and a trophy. You don’t have to put them on a pedestal and call them a princess. Parents ask, “Should I tell my kids that they’re not special then?” No, just say, “I love you.” That’s probably what you mean anyway, and it’s a much better message. It promotes connection.
Even if you’re not a parent, there are plenty of things you can do. It gives you perspective when you learn about narcissism and realize that focusing on yourself is not the be-all and end-all our culture has made it out to be. You can realize that there’s a better approach, and that it’s important to recognize how your actions affect other people. This is tough to do, especially in this culture, but we need to try to do this more often. As a society, we need to try to move away from emphasis on the shallow values of materialism and vanity, moving toward what everybody actually knows is important: character values and relationships with others.
WHI: One of the other prescriptions you mention in the book is gratitude. Why gratitude?
JMT: There’s some great research on gratitude. Somebody who is narcissistic really doesn’t have a whole lot of gratitude. They’re thinking about how they can get that fancy car, how they can get attention, how they can look better. Not only do they want all this stuff, but they think all the stuff should just come to them. This fascinating research on gratitude basically says that if you realize how much you have, this feeling of gratefulness makes you happier. It also makes you less narcissistic, because you can step outside yourself to put things in perspective. It’s always a good technique when your life is going badly to realize the sad fact that there are a lot of people for whom it’s even worse, and to think about all the wonderful things that you do have, and concentrate on those. You’re going to be happier, and you’re going to step away from those “I want” messages all the time.
Listen to the full interview, “The Narcissism Epidemic,” at https://www.whitehorseinn.org/show/the-narcissism-epidemic/.