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Are Millennials Really Narcissists?

31Jul16

CiLqxN8 - Imgur

We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”―Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

After Fight Club was published in 1996, our dreams have further devolved and divorced themselves from aspirations of talent. Now we just want to be loved and famous. Why aim high and put all the work into becoming a rock star, when you can just ride someone’s coat-tails Entourage style or become the next Kim Kardashian?

Are Millennials the most narcissistic generation yet? Fueled by our self-esteem obsessed culture, and exemplified by children’s song lyrics like “I am special, I am special, look at me…” That’s the argument San Deigo State personality psychology professor Jean Twenge has been making in several books, and recently, where I heard it, on NPR’s Brain Matters podcast. I’ve heard this sentiment made before. Indeed, most Millennials have heard this sentiment and have internalized it[1].

But is it true?

Are Millennials really narcissists? Let’s look at the data. Because if anything defines Millennials, it’s our trust of data over gut feelings. (I don’t have any data to back this up, but it feels right doesn’t it?)

スクリーンショット 2016-07-26 4.10.14 PM

Google a simple question, like “Are Millennials really narcissists?” and you’ll find a range of answers. Like almost any subject, you can find red-faced experts shouting at one another, carefully-crafted think pieces that “finally resolve the controversy,” and laymen tiredly telling us that the answer is obvious–in this case just look at the selfie-stick.

Whether narcissism has increased is murky, like many questions in psychology, but not unanswerable (if we’ve been collecting the right data). Perhaps though the question of “Are Millennials really more narcissists than previous generations?” is too vague to have a clear yes or no answer. Do you find that disappointing? Unsatisfying? Does the lack of simple answers in the real world feel like just yet another way you were lied to in your childhood and the world has disappointed you?

However, if we define our terms well, we can arrive at a satisfying answer to the question “Are Millennials really narcissists,” or at least I can show you some data and you can come to your own conclusions.

So let’s start by defining the terms: (afterwards we’ll dig into the data itself)

First, who are “Millennials”

Urban dictionary defines the Millennial[2] as: “Special little snowflake. Born between 1982 and 1994 this generation is something special, cause Mom and Dad and their 5th grade teacher Mrs. Winotsky told them so…” As Millennial is a term from pop culture crafted by Steve Bannon’s favorite pop demographer’s[3] and not real academics, Urban dictionary’s definition seems as good as any.

スクリーンショット 2016-07-26 4.04.37 PM

As of 2016, when I’m writing this article, Millennials are the approximately 80 million 21 to 34-year-old adults[4], who got this label because they became adults roughly around the year 2000. I fall right smack in the middle of the Millennial generation, and as such, I will speak for all Millennials[5] (/s). But now that I’ve established my Millennial street-cred, I will refer to Millennials with the pronoun ‘we.’

Generations

Also known as Gen Y (since the previous generation was Gen X), we are largely the children of Baby Boomers, the generation defined by the population spike following World War 2. We grew up with home computers, witnessed the Internet bloom beyond email into the modern web, and saw cell-phones shrink from antennaed monstrosities that only existed on TV into the sleek smart-phones in everyone’s pocket. When September 11th happened, we were young and impressionable but old enough to understand and remember exactly[6] where we were when we heard it happened—8th grade, in the hallway between 3rd and 5th period (Why do Millennials always have to make things about themselves). We stressed out in high school about college and if we went, we entered the work force near the Great Recession of the late 2000s.

(If you want to learn more about how Millennials talk and think from a first-hand source, check out the Millennial podcast.)

On average, we are more educated, more diverse, and more single than previous American generations. This we know. These sorts of traits are easy to determine from surveys, but are we more narcissistic? That’s a harder question for reasons we’ll see.

narcissus

Okay, so what is narcissism? 

In the Greek myth, Narcissus fell loved gazing at his reflection so much he transformed into the flower we call the narcissus. 

In everyday life we tend to the use the word ‘narcissism’ to describe behavior and a way of thinking similar to Narcissus in the myth: self-admiration and obsession with one’s appearance. Similarly, it’s first use in psychology, was by British sexologist, Havelock Ellis who in 1898 used the term to describe a patient sexually fixated on his own image.

However, in modern psychology, narcissism has a different meaning that goes beyond physical appearance, and pathological narcissism is defined as “extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s talents and a craving for admiration, as a characterizing personality type.”[7] Essentially, narcissists are selfish people who want to be told how great they are, but they’re not as great as they think they are.

 

Subdivisions of narcissism

スクリーンショット 2016-07-26 7.42.49 PMsource: Ackerman et al. 2011

Recently, personality psychologists have made a distinction between “normal” and “pathological” narcissism. While “normal,” narcissism is associated with increased self-image and a go-get-em attitude, “pathological,” narcissism goes too far. Pathological narcissists ignore the feelings and wishes of others and expect to be treated as superior, regardless of their actual status or achievements. To be diagnosed as a “pathological narcissist” medically by a psychiatrist, a person’s behavior must deviate significantly from what is expected, and it must cause significant personal or interpersonal problems across situations, and not be due to drugs, medications, or medical conditions.

Pathological narcissism can itself be further split into two categories: grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism.

Grandiose Narcissism

When you think of a narcissist, you are probably thinking of a grandiose narcissist. Sometimes labeled as “oblivious narcissists,” grandiose narcissists seem unaware of the impact they have on others. They are arrogant, conceited, and domineering, and in constant search for admiration. Grandiose narcissists are often exhibitionists who deny their weakness. They demand entitlement and angering at unmet expectations. They devalue people who threaten their self-esteem, and feel intense envy towards those who exceed them. When their inflated self-image conflicts with real world outcomes, they blame the world not themselves.

Vulnerable Narcissism 

Also known as the “closet narcissists,” vulnerable narcissists may appear shy or empathetic, suffer from low self-esteem, depend on validation from others, and experience a hypersensitivity to criticism. Doesn’t sound like a narcissist does it?However, paradoxically, underneath all this, “vulnerable narcissists”  harbor grandiose fantasies, unrealistic expectations, and feelings of entitlement. Vulnerable narcissists are more aware of their failures than grandiose narcissists, but failure can cause them to get angry, make hostile outbursts, and then feel shame and depression. They also have increased anxiety in developing relationships, and sometimes this can lead to social withdrawal or avoidance.

A recent study showed vulnerable narcissists feel more comfortable communicating online through social media, and spend more time online, where presumably they can exert more control over their self-image and protect their egos. They are also more likely to self-report problematic relationships with social media—e.g. thinking about it excessively, having difficulty cutting back on using it. Another study showed general narcissism was strongly associated with having more friends on social media. So one reason for the seeming prevalence of narcissism in the modern world may be because vulnerable narcissists are over-represented on social media.

chickenselfie

Interestingly, in these studies narcissists didn’t tend to spend more time online, perhaps because it didn’t distinguish between grandiose, vulnerable, or the non-pathological adaptive narcissists, which brings us to the next issue, one that is crucial for determining if narcissism has increased in Millennials—how, exactly, do we measure narcissism?

Narcissistic Personality Inventory.

The most widely used tool measure narcissism is a survey, the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). Originally a 223-question survey, developed in 1979 to meet the Narcissistic Personality Disorder definition of the upcoming DSM-III, it was pared down to a 40-questions version in the ’80s, which is widely used today.

This survey measures narcissism in a broad sense, so it includes the positive traits of adaptive narcissism, like being assertive, in addition to measures of maladaptive narcissism. Therefore it is hard to distinguish from the results of this survey alone, whether a person displays maladaptive narcissism.

So we collected a ton of results using the NPI, but but we weren’t exactly sure what they meant. Some researchers came along and decided to deeply analyzed results. They looked at how answers on one question influenced answers on other questions. For example, the type of person who answers yes to “I see myself as a good leader,” probably also agrees with the statement “I am a born leader,” but this seems to have no relation with whether they agree with the statement “I like to look at myself.” By doing this they showed that their tended to be groups of questions where an individual’s answers where if a person answered “yes,” on one question, they could predict if that person would answer “yes” or “no” on other questions in the other questions in the group.threetypesofnarcissmsource: modified from Ackerman et al. 2011

If narcissism, was a single-dimensional measure, they argued, all of the answers should be equally, related, but instead they saw 3 clusters of questions that grouped together. And based on this finding they proposed that narcissism isn’t a single-dimensional measure, but rather a group of inter-related personality traits such as Leadership/Authority, Grandiosity/Exhibitionism, and Entitlement/Exploitativeness. When the study divided up the question, 11/40 questions fell into the adaptive Leadership/Authority category, more than did so for either Grandiosity/Exhibitionism, and Entitlement/Exploitativeness, showing that this survey isn’t great for detecting maladaptive narcissism.

So perhaps we shouldn’t think of narcissism as a one-dimensional line that goes left to right, with low self-esteem on the left, adaptive narcissism in the middle, and maladaptive narcissism on the right, but rather a three three dimensional space, with the x-axis representing Leadership/Authority, y-axis Grandiosity/Exhibitionism, and z-axis Entitlement/Exploitativeness.

To make this more concrete, let’s imagine that two people, Peter and Sarah, got equal scores on the NPI:

1-dimensional model of narcissism

However, when we breakdown their answers we see very different patterns. Peter’s score resulted largely from his grandiosity and entitlement, whereas Sarah’s resulted from her belief in her leadership abilities:

three-dimensional narcissism

This example illustrates an extreme case of how NPI-lump-sum scores can be difficult to interpret.

Another way to look at whether the NPI lump-score is a good measure for pathologic narcissism is to give people the NPI survey, but then test them for the traits we are interested in to see how the NPI correlates with those traits. The NPI lump-score shows more correlation with normal personality traits like extroversion than it does with the more recently developed and specific Pathological Narcissm Inventory, Pincus et al. 2009, which was specifically designed and validated to separate between pathological and normal narcissism. This lined up with a review by Pincus and Lukowitsky 2010, which suggested that NPI lump-score measures normal adaptive narcissism more than pathological narcissism.

スクリーンショット 2016-07-26 7.40.00 PMsource: modified from Ackerman et al. 2011

スクリーンショット 2016-07-26 7.37.46 PMsource: modified from Ackerman et al. 2011

However, while the NPI had a low correlation with the Pathological Narcissism Inventory, it did correlated with traits like entitlement rage, exploitative-ness, and grandiose fantasies. 

How Do Scientists Measure Changes to Narcissism Over Time?

Narcissism can change over-time between generations, but it can also change over-time as an individual ages. Because of this it is important to look at studies that use a time-lag method, which analyzes people of the same age at different points of time. And because the NPI is an old survey and widely used, a lot of the data that exists, comes from the NPI, and most of the information available is just the lump-scores, not the actual results of each question. The NPI may not be ideal, but it’s what  we’ve got, and we can’t generate data backwards in time with surveys that better measure what we’re probably more interested in, characteristics like grandiosity and entitlement.

So finally… Are Millennials More Narcissistic Than Previous Generations

Well, something is changing, that much is sure. Twenge, the San Diego psychologist and “Millenials are narcissists” alarm-sounder I mentioned before,  conducted a meta-analysis on the mean reported NPI-lump-sum scores from 85 studies (which together totaled 16,475 students), and showed a statistically-significant increase in their NPI scores over time[8]:

スクリーンショット 2016-07-27 11.27.29 PMSource: Twenge et al., 2008

Remember though, the NPI doesn’t just measure pathological, mal-adaptive narcissism, but also adaptive narcissism which is associated like extraversion, assertiveness, self-esteem, and agency—all of which, as Twenge notes in the study had been reported to increase over this same time period. Also note, the rise is continuous, there is no sharp rise denoting some generational split or the sudden effect of a new technology or parenting fad.

Also, a smaller subset of the data allowed responses to be separated between male and female students. This data showed that: “College men’s NPI scores are not significantly correlated with year (β=.16, nsk=44, d=0.12), but college women’s scores are (β=.46, p<.002, k=44, d=0.28).” The lack of significance does not indicate that a trend did not exist for men[9], suggesting that the increases in NPI scores may have been larger in women, and could relate to positive trends like increasing assertiveness, self-esteem, and leadership in young women. Indeed, the sex differences significantly declined over this period, though men still show higher NPI scores, as of 2006.

Conclusions

So the most often-mentioned data of this trend shows that the NPI is increasing over the time. Whether this is due to increases in gender equality or entitlement seems unclear. Is it due to extroversion or exploitative-ness, I don’t know. Also, whether it is a change that has only occurred in the new generation, or a general trend is unclear. Are the baby-boomers more narcissistic than their parents were at the same age?

A Chinese co-worker once recounted to me her mother’s advice, which shocked me as it contrasted starkly with my American self-esteem valuing childhood. When she was a child, her mother told her, “You’ll never be the best at what you do–someone will always be better than you. So, you need to learn to come to terms with that and find enjoyment in what you do outside of achievement and being the best.” This woman went on to be a high school track star, get a PhD in biology, and become a staff scientist at MIT, the whole time clinging to her mother’s words as good advice.

Maybe as a result of similar cultural attitudes, Twenge points out that Asian Americans report the lowest self-esteems, but also the highest achievement in many domains. Twenge argues Asian Americans show esteem is not necessary for achievement, and therefore blindly praising our children will not make them more successful. Instead we should praise their efforts when they succeed.

Somewhere in between my Chinese coworker’s mother’s advice and the esteem-boosting lies we were fed as American Millennials, is the ideal parental advice according to a show I adore, Community:

tumblr_l43j8fCksI1qzhdlyo1_r1_500

Jeff’s Mom: Jeff, you’re a normal person. There’s nothing very special about you at all. You’re going to be great at a few things, but really crappy at many more. And that takes a lot of the pressure off, so you can live a full, happy life. Oh, and sorry it took me so long to tell you that, and it was only in your imagination. My bad. Kind of a sloppy mom.

Jeff: That’s okay, Mom. Nobody’s perfect.”


If you liked this blog post, you might also like another I wrote on intergenerational differences, happiness and life satisfaction: Frames of Reference – Why Smart People Feel Stupid, Money Buys Happiness, and You Will Never Feel Truly Satisfied

Also, I researched and wrote this for free out of the goodness of my heart (and an insatiable need for the approval of strangers), so if you liked this article please share it, or follow me to get notified about future articles. And if you didn’t like the article, write a comment if you please about why it was a piece of shit.


Footnotes (Tangents/Bad Jokes)

[1] Though older generations rate Millenials as more narcissistic than Millenials do themselves.

[2] This line is to be read in a self-aware ironic voice, perhaps imitating of a middle-schooler giving a presentation in class

[3] It was first coined in 1982 by pop-historians, demographers, and business-partners Neil Howe and William Strauss, according to USA Today. Mr. Howe also states the generation spans from about 1982 to 2004. In their 2000 book, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, they assigned the generation seven “core traits”: special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, conventional, pressured and achieving. Now Howe gives about 60 speeches a year at schools and corporations, and consults on ways that these institutions can better engage and communicate with Millennials.

[4] Which means notable narcelebs Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are Gen Xers.

[5] Interestingly, Howe and Strauss, who coined the term Millennials, based their portrait of the generation on surveys of high-schoolers and teachers from my home town, Fairfax County, VA, so in a strange way maybe I am particularly representative of this generational stereotype.

[6] Or think we remember exactly where we were anyway. The intense “flashbulb memories” that accompany events like Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination, or the O.J. Bronco Chase are just as susceptible to distortion as other memories.

[7] Of course many definitions of narcissm exist, especially because it is studied by a variety of fields: psychiatry, clinical psychology, personality psychology, etc., and research into narcissism is said to suffer from a “criterion problem,” where different definitions of what narcissism is used by different researchers make it difficult to compare and interpret data.

Narcissism and narcissist also exemplify the problem for taking already existing words and giving them precise scientific meanings. Although, scientists are often called out for inventing new unnecessary jargon to describe simple concepts for which words already exist, terms like narcissism illustrate how words that have cultural baggage that can cause scientific findings to be misinterpreted.

[8] The mean increased one third of a standard deviation.

[9] Note, statistical significance with one gender and not the other does not prove a gender difference. For example, perhaps the sample was too small and the trend was lost in the noise of the data, especially if they both trended the same direction. To prove a gender difference that has to be assessed specifically with a different statistical test.

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6 Responses to “Are Millennials Really Narcissists?”

  1. Have not read Twenge’s study but a few observations as a long time psychiatrist. Narcissism can be viewed as a developmental stage and people in their teens and twenties are generally much more grandiose than the same people would be even 10 or 20 years later. It is probably one of the main reasons this group is targeted for military recruiting. All of the data needs to be rigorously corrected for the age of the participants.

    Like any personality trait, cultural influence cannot be minimized. Parenting can be a factor and the main psychoanalytic theories were focused on that dimension. Today there is also social media. Social media might prolong the illusion of grandiosity for some – but at some point life happens. You still have to get along with people to work and find a suitable life partner. At a clinical level narcissistic personality disorder remains a relatively rare diagnosis in clinical populations. I am unconvinced that people born between 1982 and 2004 are any more narcissistic than anyone else and professionally I have see a lot of those people.

    Like

    • Yeah, the increasing trend is looking at survey results of college students over 20+ years, so the participants were all the same age. People have talked about this generation also having a delayed adolescence, so maybe some difference results from people not getting married, etc. around college? But yeah, very few people have clinical level narcissism, and the changes noticed were mild. Multiplying a small change by millions though and I wonder if it could push some people on the edge over into having a clinical diagnosis.

      Like

  2. 3 Alex

    “More diverse” only reveals the weakness of this association. A White Millennial has more in common with White Gen X and Boomers than with some Ghetto Black of the same age.

    Like

    • I didn’t mention in the article but maybe I should have, white Americans show the highest scores on the NPI, so these results came be explained by increased diversity. Also, these studies pretty much only look at college students.

      Like

  3. 5 Ktsword

    The three dimensional model makes so much more sense although perhaps more difficult to explain to a lay person. A good post. If you want to brush a little of the “shit” off so to speak, run spell check and watch your tenses and transitions.

    Like

    • Thanks… Maybe will have time to do a better job, usually just try to throw a bunch of ideas onto a page and hope it’s comprehensible

      Like


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