I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

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Saturday, March 03, 2007

The narcissism of Generation Y

A recent article came out on a major study among college students and their narcissistic tendencies. Here are a few clips:

By DAVID CRARY, AP National Writer Tue Feb 27, 12:32 AM ET
NEW YORK - Today's college students are more narcissistic and self-centered than their predecessors, according to a comprehensive new study by five psychologists who worry that the trend could be harmful to personal relationships and American society.

Twenge and her colleagues, in findings to be presented at a workshop Tuesday in San Diego on the generation gap, examined the responses of 16,475 college students nationwide who completed an evaluation called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory between 1982 and 2006.

The standardized inventory, known as the NPI, asks for responses to such statements as "If I ruled the world, it would be a better place," "I think I am a special person" and "I can live my life any way I want to."

The researchers describe their study as the largest ever of its type and say students' NPI scores have risen steadily since the current test was introduced in 1982. By 2006, they said, two-thirds of the students had above-average scores, 30 percent more than in 1982....

"Unfortunately, narcissism can also have very negative consequences for society, including the breakdown of close relationships with others," he said...

Twenge, the author of "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before," said narcissists tend to lack empathy, react aggressively to criticism and favor self-promotion over helping others.....
[Taken from http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070227/ap_on_re_us/self_centered_students_1]

Ok, so since I'm under 30 I suppose that I am a tweener - between Gen X and Gen Y. Perhaps I have some of the narcissistic tendencies of Gen Y....hhhhmmmm....well, I don't know that I was ever surrounded with an overabundance of self-esteem talk...sob, sob, woe is me! That's why I'm so screwed up!! My parents didn't say enough nice things about me!!!.....All right, so maybe I am a bit narcissistic, but who isn't these days...

What I find interesting about narcissism is the inability to form close relationships. I've had several narcissistic friends over the years ranging in levels of severity (severe narcissism to more mild varieties), and the more severe the narcissism the greater the impossibility of forming close relationship bonds. It's for real. Narcissistic people tend to keep close score on their relationships, and if they think that you are not contributing as much to the relationship as they are they start to become very suspicious. This works, but only as long as two people both have the same scoring system. If you are using a different system and you score some points for yourself and I am using a different scoring system and I don't give you credit, then we've got problems! And, of course, if you are narcissistic by nature then you tend to over score your own contributions and underscore the contributions of others. After all, you've got this sneaking suspicion that people ought to be giving to you just because it is fun to give to ME.

As you can imagine, if there are large numbers of people in society who feel like they are contributing more to their relationships than anyone else than you have a situation like we've got in United States culture today. Relationships tend to be of the short-term variety and seem like they end because of a somewhat minor squabble that really just represents a lot of other little minor squabbles that all went unresolved....

Another thought is that I wonder if this study is less about a specific generation or social demographic and whether it might be more of a reflection of western culture as a whole. (But here I go, again, blaming the parents!) I have encountered incredibly large groups of narcissistic adults whose general life-course has reflected a drastic me-centered view of the universe. I think that it has taken a very narcissistic group of parents to produce the most narcissistic generation to date. And wouldn't narcissistic trends help explain why the majority of adults get divorced at least once?

Here is a link where I comment and interact with this idea a bit more:
(I'm sure you will want to visit this link because, after all, who wouldn't want to hear what I have to say about this issue.)


ktismatics said...

It's been argued that narcissism was one of the fruits of the '60s. But Baby Boomers were presumably rebelling against the repressive and stodgy culture of their parents. So how come Gen Y isn't rebelling against the prior generation by adopting a more altruistic outlook? Just can't be bothered to rebel?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Well, that's an interesting thought...Maybe rebellion is only fun if you are doing something bad...I guess sometimes rebellion can be for the good. Sometimes kids see their parents dying of lung cancer and decide to never smoke.

The more I think about this narcissism thing the more I begin to think that maybe we are all just creating a culture that embraces narcissism as the mo. Narcissism is kind of becoming the norm rather than the exception. We are all kind of becoming more narcissistic and are now trying to learn how to relate with each other in families, friendships, dating, working, etc. Any better example of this than professional sports? T.O. has become the sports icon of a narcissistic generation. Check out his website and the opening song: "I'm back and I'm better than ever...Got the whole world's undivided attention...I got what I wanted, 10 mil..."

It's interesting, too, that every time T.O. blows up a situation and has to go to a new team he carries with him the expectation that people should embrace him and give him that second chance. I think that sense of entitlement would also be characteristic of a narcissistic individual, at least from my experiences. Even though they might have a history that is as shady as a pair of Oakley's narcissists like T.O. seem to think they always deserve another chance. It's very interesting.

ktismatics said...

It's possibly the case that the Boomers are narcissists, but if so then it should spill over into their childrearing. They would be expecting their kids to feed their own parental egos, would make their kids adapt to them rather than vice versa. But the prior generation's criticism of my Boomer generation is just the opposite: we're too kid-focused, we let our kids run our lives. The kid doesn't like broccoli? Make him something else. The kid wants to play an instrument and then wants to quit taking private lessons 3 days after you buy her the piano? I guess it wasn't her passion; what's next, sweetie?

Of course we think our own parents are being defensive for neglecting us in our childhood, causing the insecurity that makes us narcissistic. We are going to do better than our parents; we are going to treat our children as blooming flowers, and we are going to do whatever it takes to help them grow in their unique and special ways. Then as they grow they'll feel secure in themselves, so they won't need to pursue the same sort of compensatory self-seeking behaviors we've been stunted by.

So you're telling me it isn't working, that the kids are if anything even more self-absorbed than their overnurturing parents? And it's their parents' fault either for babying them or for passing on a narcissistic attitude? Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Fair points. And good observations.

Maybe the narcissism of Boomers is their indulgence of their children. They invest in their kids because they are my kids. Or they give because the children are extensions of themselves, and by overnurturing they are in effect giving their children the nurture they never had. Or in some cases (particularly in the single parent scenario) the kid(s) is being made into the parent's best friend....

I don't mean to downplay the efforts of Boomers and say they did a terrible job raising their kids...but neither do I think that the narcissism we are seeing start to bloom in today's Gen-Y just dropped out of the sky. I think the study hinted at the fact that it was a trend. Maybe less pronounced in the Boomers, but I still think the seeds were there. Boomers, after all, are the one's who couldn't get enough of Oprah and invented the self-help books and self-esteem pop culture.

ktismatics said...

You could be right. There's no doubt that a lot of parents live vicariously through their kids, that their kids' accomplishments and sheer level of activity become focal points of competition. In a lot of ways parenting is subsumed under a broader context of market pressures. With so much available for your kids, are you being selfish to deny them every single opportunity? It's like loading up your kid with accessories.

Having been a parent, I no longer believe that parenting has that much impact on how a kid turns out. There's a book called The Nurture Assumption which summarizes research evidence indicating that genes and peer culture are the real drivers. Parents serve a kind of generic role of moving kids toward self-sufficiency, but they're nearly interchangeable -- any other adult in their culture would get more or less the same results. Kids come into their own when they get to reproductive age. Then they're jockeying for position, lining themselves up for optimal breeding stock. Peer comparison and competition is more important here than whether someone was a good son or daughter. Here again the market mentality can kick in: why settle for this girlfriend when I could probably qualify for one that's just a little bit hotter? Problem is, she's thinking the same thing about you. You're both pushing your carts down the aisles looking at all the choices on the shelves. To pick any one choice is to close off all those other options you haven't even tried out yet.

You want to optimize the features of your girlfriend choice, but the higher up the scale you go, the lower you slide relative to what she could get on the free market of potential boyfriends that she could choose from. And even after you get married the stigma against divorce is much less, so you can still trade up (or be forced to trade down).

Jonathan Erdman said...

Quite the cynic!

But no doubt that this mentality carries itself out in American culture. No doubt. It is even evident within nice Christian evangelical circles...That's why a few years back a group of young folks reacted against this consumer orientation towards dating and suggested completely doing away with the whole dating matrix that seems to encourage this approach to marriage and romantic relationships. I was amongst this group, a wide-eyed optimistic college student. A small group of us created quite a stir on our campus with such radical views! Within only a year or two a book came out by Joshua Harris called I Kissed Dating Goodbye that kind of picked up on that general theme. I remember that I got so excited about it that I called up his secretary to see about booking him at our college. The secretary didn't seem interested when I told her that it would only be a few hundred students....That's when I began to realize that even the best counter-cultural reformers wind up becoming institutionalized when they become rock stars....sigh...

Truly, though, the consumer oriented approach to relationships ain't Christ-like.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Your comments on the dating game reminded me of a song by Nada Surf, "Popular":

Being attractive is the most important thing there is
If you wanna catch the biggest fish in your pond
You have to be as attractive as possible
Make sure to keep your hair spotless and clean
Wash it at least every two weeks
Once every two weeks
And if you see Johnny football hero in the hall
Tell him he played a great game
Tell him you like his article in the newspaper

I'm the party star
I'm popular
I've got my own car
I'm popular
I'll never get caught
I'm popular
I make football bets
I'm a teachers pet

I propose we support a one month limit on going steady
I think It will keep you both more able to deal with weird situation
And get to know more people
I think if you're ready to go out with Johnny
Now's the time to tell him about your one month limit
He wont mind he'll apreciate your fresh look on dating
And once you've dated someone else you can date him again
I'm sure he'll like it
Everyone will appreciate it
You're so novel what a good idea
You can keep your time to your self
You don't need date insurance
You can go out with whoever you want to
Every boy, every boy, in the whole world could be yours
If you'll just listen to my plan

ktismatics said...

Then there's the classical description of a narcissist as someone who finds him- or herself so attractive that nobody else can compare. This kind of person seems so cool, so self-contained, that you can't help but share their opinion of themselves. And often that's the point, to attract everyone else's attention, because the narcissist can't live without that external validation. It's a sham, the opposite of self-contained.

This is the kind of narcissism more often caused by parental indifference -- or rockstar status. Do you think this sort of thing is on the rise too? Or is it more the insatiable desire to have more of everything: money, stuff, status, attention?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yea, that's a good psychological observation. The Terrell Owens Syndrom!

This is just my opinion....but I think we seem to be more infatuated with celebrity status than ever. If you love music you want to be a rock star. If you love theology then you want to write books for Baker. If you are into sports then you want to be a pro athlete and get the big shoe deal. Even if we don't really have a chance at going big time it seems like we (especially Gen Y) are still fascinated by star watching, and infatuated by the thought of being a rock star. It's like a fantasy to think we can make it big. That everyone would be looking at me and, more importantly, everyone would envy my star status.

I think this growing obsession with celebrity has definitely made its way into the church. The "I am of Paul - I am of Peter - I am of Apollos" Syndrom found in the Corinthian church seems to have been replaced by chasing after our most favorite author or speaker. Hhhhhmmmm....maybe in the future it will be bloggers who are celebrities....maybe that's my fast track to becoming a Christian celebrity!!!

Melody said...

I bought my sister a keychain that says "I'm so great I'm jealous of myself" (it was that or one saying, "Sometimes I wish I were you, so I could be friends with me").

Apparently it's a miracle that she hasn't gotten stoned for having that thing hanging off her purse.

Complete strangers yell at her for owning it.

I don't think I've ever met anyone that actually finds themselves that amazing though.

Most people are incredibly insecure...

Jonathan Erdman said...

I, for one, know that there is no way I would ever be friends with myself - not a chance! Frankly, I'm amazed that my friends have stuck with me as long as some of them have....But you raise an interesting question: Does narcissism mean a high self esteem?

My first knee-jerk reaction is that Narcissism does not translate into feeling good about yourself, although, as Ktismatics/John Doyle has pointed out if you feel really confident in yourself this can often translate into narcissism....A narcissistic person would probably suffer from downturns of low self-esteem, I would guess, because when you are really into yourself you will often come across your flaws and faults. And, let's face it, that's depressing!

Melody said...

Your blog does not like me. Every other time I try to post comments it deletes them.

Anyhow, I can buy that narcissicism does not mean you have high self esteem, but that just makes it very weird.

Because people like that are often horrified by their faults, but demand that others overlook/embrace them (the flaws, I mean).

They see the problem as a problem but want others to justify it for them.

Jonathan Erdman said...

My blog is very narcissistic. It never gives me any problems when I post comments, but it gets cranky about having to do the work of posting other people's comments.

I apologize on behalf of my self-absorbed blog.

I agree with you, by the way, about narcissists and their faults. It does start to make this situation kind of complicated, eh? It always gets interesting when we start to peer into the psyche!

ktismatics said...

The mass media, with their cult of celebrity and their attempt to surround it with glamour and excitement, have made America a nation of fans, moviegoers. The media give substance to and thus intensify narcissistic dreams of fame and glory, encouraging the common man to identify himself with the stars and to hate the "herd," and make it more and more difficult to accept the banality of everyday existence... In his emptiness and insignificance, the man of ordinary abilities tries to warm himself in the stars' reflected glow. Lasch, in The Culture of Narcissism, (1979), proposes that the media creates superstars as sources of vicarious greatness that the fan can participate in and identify with. The media always has to create the Terrell Owenses and Britney Spearses of the world. Maybe an imperfect idol is easier to relate to than a perfect one.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Well said. And that's a great quote. Fascinating that this quote is from the late 70s! How much more is the case today as the culture has continued to progress with celebrity making. We have even managed to make celebrities out of the banal and common people through the new genre of reality tv. So now we have "Reality TV Stars" - They are stars because they can entertain us with their depiction of "ordinary." They are extraordinary because they are so ordinary. A bizarre twist to the celebrity game!

It is true that in the same way that we love to gaze at the brilliance of the stars, we are just as intrigued when we see one of those stars fall. We can relate with them, or we can judge them, or we can pity them. But whatever we do with them we will always envy that they have captured our attention - they have through their star power gained the eyes and ears of the world.

ktismatics said...

In reality television, TV is watching us, scanning its lens across the audience looking for a good program. The blurring of difference between audience and entertainment means that we are all entertaining ourselves; blurring the difference between idol and idolater means that we are our own idols. Hey, I'm starting to sound like Baudrillard.

Maybe the fall of the star reinforces to us the cost of really going for it. Why bother when you can live vicariously through the stars? Then when the star begins to fade you can just move on to the next one. I wonder: do we continue to envy the fallen star, or do we knock them out of the sky ourselves? Maybe we feel guilty for deserting them. Maybe we're pleased because they really owed their stardom to us all along. If we choose, we can make anyone a star. We are the starmakers.

Jonathan Erdman said...

The lines between Ktismatics/John Doyle/Baudrillard are blurring....Don't they call that Multiple Personality something???

Maybe we also kind of define ourselves by the celebrities of the day. I know I do that from time to time. I'm a nineties kid so I think Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, Will Smith on Fresh Prince, Britney/Justin/Jessica started to come on to the sceen, Bill Clinton was a celebrity-politician.

Since Gen X had no event to define ourselves with maybe we define ourself by the rising and falling of the stars? Maybe Gen Y has 9/11, but perhaps the celebrities are an even more preferrable way to define ourselves. (I say "ourselves" because I am a Tweener: between Gen X and Y. A Gen XYer?)

ktismatics said...

Let's say the star is a particularly bright point on the matrix where desire and envy converge. We love the star; we want to be the star; we envy the star; we want to kill the star. Desire/envy gradually builds up, until there comes a time when it becomes dangerous to the idolaters. Desire/envy has to discharge itself or all hell breaks loose. At the boiling point the star has to be shot out of the sky as a kind of sacrifice or scapegoat. The sacrifice is the destruction of the star; the scapegoat is the release of desire/envy from the star. The ex-star returns to the wilderness, where he/she releases free-floating desire/envy back into the world. Eventually it has to start accumulating again, and a new star is born.

Maybe each generation can be analyzed in terms of qualitative differences in the desire/envy that gets attached to that generation's stars. And also, maybe every star already possesses the seeds of his/her own destruction, some fatal flaw by which the idolaters can eventually pull the idol down. Maybe generations can also be evaluated by the fatal flaws inherent in their stars.