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Apr. 7 2010 - 1:05 pm | 2,757 views | 4 recommendations | 15 comments

New study shows narcissism on the rise among college kids

I was thinking about a way to start this entry about the rise in narcissism and I thought, why not start with a personal anecdote?

Once upon a time, I interviewed a college-aged kid for a rather high-profile article. There came a point where I had to ask a somewhat uncomfortable question — a follow-up by e-mail, at my editor’s request — and the kid completely flipped out. You know, the way college-aged kids today flip out: There were some ALL CAPS, some cursing, a total lack of punctuation, and at the end, the words, “Ugh. im annoyed now.”

Had I followed the impulse of my lesser angels, I would have rewritten a few graphs to be nasty. I didn’t, not because I’m such a great guy (though I am an all right guy), but because I, unlike him, was able to take a step behind my private / professional wall, analyze the situation from there, and proceed accordingly.

I explained to him that I wasn’t attacking him personally, that I was giving him a chance to set the record straight regarding the accusations of others that were already swirling around the blogosphere. We came to an understanding.

At 31, I would like to think I’m not so over the hill. But the lack of boundaries and decorum totally floored me. It occurred to me what a different place this kid and I were coming from — how much easier it tends to be for me to relate and communicate with someone, say, 20 to 30 years older than I, than with someone a decade or less younger.

I’m just old enough not to have had a cell phone most of college. I researched college papers at the library. At 20, a free Hotmail account felt like a big deal.

But technology moves so fast that a mere half-generation later, here was a kid who had grown up blogging and vlogging about his life since he was a child — someone for whom more traditional privacy walls had all but crumbled.

Concomitant with that erosion of privacy, it seems, is a heightened awareness of the self in relation to others. Like pretty much everyone his age, this guy had likely spent high school blogging about his life, tweeting and updating his Facebook status, renewing his profile photo. His was a world that centered upon constantly updating the world about what he was doing, what he was feeling.

A DSM-IV-certified narcissist? I’m not sure it matters any more — or, if it does, I’m not convinced the old boundaries are as meaningful, or as applicable as they were just a few years ago.

That said, according to a joint study from San Diego State University and the University of South Alabama, narcissism, as more traditionally defined, is on the rise among college aged Americans.

As reported by Josh Clark, at Discovery News:

The study, led by SDSU psychologist Jean Twenge, sought to settle a hot debate in psychology over mixed results of studies examining the prevalence of narcissistic personality traits among tens of thousands of American college students. These traits include an unfounded sense of entitlement and overly high self-regard.

[...]Some researchers believe that the current credit bubble plaguing the American economy and the global financial crisis are the result of the risky decision-making and sense of entitlement associated with narcissism. As the number of narcissists grows, the United States could experience even more social problems as a result.

“What this means is that we have generations of people entering the workforce that expect special treatment, are demanding of others and making risky decisions — ones that could be quite costly when you consider recent business fiascoes,” says Amy Brunell, an Ohio State researcher unaffiliated with the study.

via Narcissism Epidemic Spreads Among College Students : Discovery News.

Indeed, to dovetail to the second graph cited above, talk about narcissism seems to be everywhere today. Mark Jaffe, who owns a high-end headhunting firm, wrote recently that the biggest threat to our economy is our egos. We’re angry, not depressed about our misfortunes right now. Angry, because, as he puts it:

… we always want and feel that we deserve the absolute best of what anyone else has. Maybe what’s hurting most right now is the hangover resulting from an epidemic bender of self-esteem. Feeling warm and squishy about oneself may not be such a great destination after all. Somewhere along the way we adopted smugness as a symbol of affluence. Yet we know intuitively that misery and squalor have always been the springboards to real accomplishment.

via The Biggest Threat to the Economy? Your Ego | Personal Success | BNET.

Steven Johnson has famously — and convincingly — argued in his book, “Everything Bad is Good For You,” that popular culture and technology today are making us smarter. To that, I’ll add, completely empirically, that it also seems to be making us more tolerant, better-informed about the world, and, perhaps, better critically and politically engaged with our surroundings.

But I wonder what it’s costing us? Or, as I pen yet another first-person, news-ish story, what it’s costing me.


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  1. collapse expand

    Narcissists de facto don’t give a rip about others’ needs. It’s all about them. In a country already dedicated to the cult of the individual, that this will get even worse is a terrifying thought.

    I guess it comes down to whatever (remaining) values we share, regardless of age. I have great conversations with people 25 years older and younger. But it’s more based on similar behaviors and expectations of courtesy or thoughtfulness (hand-written, paper, mailed thank-you notes and prompt RSVPs, to name two), not sticking just to those in your cohort.

  2. collapse expand

    In a weird way (as much as I hate to admit it) I think these kids are onto something. In a world where getting into college requires super-human acts of leadership, GPA-mongering, and SAT scoring, and in a world where having a college degree isn’t a guarantee of future financial stability, I have to wonder if shameless self-promotion is actually a virtue, not a vice. How many times have you been in a corporate environment where people are rewarded not for the merits of their work, but because they toot their own horns? We don’t live in a meritocracy, we live in a PR-ocracy–those who can’t say they can, and people believe it if it’s said often enough. So, while the behavior may be not up to civilized standards, I think it may serve them well.

    • collapse expand

      As a recent graduate from college (2009)from a top 10 undergrad business program I can tell you that narcissism isn’t just the norm it’s encouraged. If you want a job at a top investment bank or consulting firm, you need to shamelessly self-promote, as if every little good thing you’ve ever done was some kind of at of leadership on par with Alexander the Great. Students getting jobs at top firms helps increase the school’s prestige so being a completely self-centered douche is something that schools try to get you to do. And for the record, I did get a job at one of the most respected financial institutions after graduations mostly by being a narcissist. (I also got laid off)

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Nicely put, aattarw, though I’m sorry you got laid off.

        I don’t think I’ve ever been a narcissist, necessarily. But I do think I possessed a keen sense of entitlement for a long time because things came easily to me from the time I was 3 until I was… I don’t know, about 27 or 28. When things got really hard for a few years, I got really angry, and felt deeply that world was an unfair place.

        Of course, it is. And I think most people learn to accept that at some point, or get trodden underfoot in ignorance of that fact.

        A lot of the world’s most successful people aren’t narcissists, but are people who have suffered enormously, are deeply insecure, and act from a fear of failure. They learn that the world doesn’t owe them anything, and that they have to create or take what they want, or they’ll never have anything.

        That describes a lot of criminals, so that’s not to say these people can’t also become megalomaniacs. But I don’t think most people are lucky enough (born rich enough, for example) to turn their narcissism into success and have it remain in tact all the way to the top.

        I could be wrong, but it’s fun to speculate.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        LOL. Me too buddy, only I kind of snuck in to those top firms – I should write a book on how. Anyway, having been laid off several times by the ripe age of 30, let’s say humility is the name of my game now. I’m also dropping out to do something completely different. I’m glad I didn’t get brainwashed by a top school. I was around it enough and it probably drove my insecurity (making me a high performer). That meme is a hard one to get out of your head.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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      imho, that’s very well said, and (much as I hate to admit it, myself) pretty persuasive. I’ve struggled with that same reality as more and more of my work moves toward blogging and demands self-promotion.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    I wonder, could it be less that narcissism caused the economic situation than the economic situation caused the rise in narcissism? We’re a society built on hidden agreements: work hard in high school, you’ll get into college; work hard in college, you’ll get a good job; work hard at your job and you’ll have a happy fulfilling life. However, as every graduating class in recent years has seen, this isn’t the case anymore. Every year we graduate thousands of bright, eager people just dying to get out there and work. It’s not that they feel entitled to some mystical “better” job or employment; it’s that they feel entitled for just the simple chance, the opportunity to work and use their skills.

    I don’t want to speak for an entire generation, but I know this has been my experience. I don’t feel entitled to a job. I understand the difficulty of finding fulfilling work and would never expect to just be handed a position. However, I do feel like I’ve upheld my end of the bargain. Society told me the steps I needed to take and if I took those steps I would be rewarded with some sort of employment. But for me, like so many other graduates, this hasn’t been the case. Obviously, this idea will start to rub you the wrong way? You start to wonder, where’s my payoff? Now you’re stuck jockeying with thousands of your peers and it causes the inherent need to separate yourself from the masses. To stick your hand in the face of that future employer and say “I am what you’re looking for! I am better than those thousands of resumes in your inbox!”

    Why do we keep allowing our students to be loaded up with debt, graduate into unemployment, and then turn around and chastise them when they express frustration? Obviously this doesn’t pertain to bad manners (personally I always wrote hand written thank yous and try to RSVP in a timely manner). But I think it’s just as much a show of poor manners to shake your finger at a group of people who wants nothing more than what they were seemingly promised, just the simple chance to prove themselves.

    • collapse expand


      It’s an interesting theory, but I think we’re really talking about different things.

      First, you have to look at the subjects of the university study: they were current students, who wouldn’t have had the chance to really feel any of the frustration you describe.

      Second, I think, psychologically speaking (though I’m no psychologist, so I welcome conjecture), that you may be putting the cart before the horse.

      I don’t think frustration, failure and struggle tend to create narcissism. I think it tends to create humility. I find it makes more sense logically that one could narcissistically enter a tough job market — having felt he or she held up his/her end of the bargain — and be humbled. But I can’t picture entering humble, only to be turned into a narcissist by job rejections. You may grow indignant — and righteously so — but that’s not the same thing as the narcissism described in this study.

      That’s to say that if narcissism becomes outwardly apparent because of frustration, my layman’s feeling is that it was there to begin with, not created.

      I would also argue that I don’t think any emerging generation has ever felt it hadn’t held up its end of the bargain, whether that meant going to high school, a trade school, college, or going off to war. The debt makes our generation different, to be sure, but those are the conditions of the times, and we all share them. What’s important to note (which I should have included) is that the study has noted an increase in college students over the last 15 years, comparing apples to apples, as it were. It doesn’t compare today’s college students to, say, pre-war high school students, or to today’s trade school students, or to recent frustrated graduates.

      I’d love to discuss further, and I hope you don’t think I’m the one wagging my finger. I just think that, viewed as objectively and dispassionately as possible, the study raises some questions worth thinking about.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Jean Twenge and I both write over at the Psychology Today site. Her piece http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-narcissism-epidemic/201003/the-psychology-behind-the-recession is worth a look.

        [You know, I could have just posted the link without including that I also blog at PT: Was I being an appropriate digital self-promoter, a friendly self-discloser, a narcissistic jerk? And what does judging someone else say about one's level of narcissism: healthy, unhealthy, defensive, brittle, fragile?]

        In any case, in my experience “narcissists” tend to be very lonely, frightened people coping with an often life-long legacy of wanting/needing and not getting, of being disappointed by the people who should have cared for them. I’m more and more thinking about whether and how the so-called “me generation” can be seen as “grandchildren of the 60s,” kids who learned early on to hide their vulnerability behind bluster rather than seek comfort from unavailable others.

        Also, as an important counterweight to Johnson’s (to me unconvincing) book is Maggie Jackson’s cautionary work, “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age”

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    My guess is that college students and recent grads have always been narcissistic. Four years of college can give someone all sorts of ideas about the opportunities that are out there. If they achieve them, great. If not, most people come back down to earth.

  5. collapse expand

    “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for
    authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place
    of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their
    households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They
    contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties
    at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers. – Socrates to Plato
    At least we’ll be able to punish theses obnoxious brats with all of our debt. Punk kids today! Give ‘em books and they want to eat them!

  6. collapse expand

    Hmm… I’m not sure that a hostile response to an uncomfortable question from someone who’s the subject of Internet rumors makes someone a narcissist. Both of those things (uncomfortable questions and being gossiped about) tend to make people crabby. Not saying the student was right to be obnoxious, just that being angry or upset is a more simple conclusion.

    Having said that, I don’t think you’re wrong about narcissism, college, and the financial crisis generally. If you’re really interested in the subject, you should check out Karen Ho’s “Liquidated,” an anthropological study of the contemporary Wall Street culture; she draws a similar conclusion.

    It’s especially prevalent in that culture, because Wall Street banks draw from a high-achieving crowd to begin with, and then further really encourage narcissism as part of their recruitment and training.

    Ho is a former Wall Street entry-level banker turned anthropologist (and she returned to Wall Street as part of her study), so she comes to it from an interesting, inside angle. Really worth taking a look at.

    Here’s a bit about it from Time: http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1912085,00.html

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    About Me

    Born and raised in Indianapolis, I've spent my adult life trying to understand where I came from by living in other places. I worked for the International Herald Tribune, in Paris, The New York Times and the Queens Chronicle, in New York, and I studied in Dublin. As a freelancer, I've written about books, cars and travel for those and other publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Sun-Times and Publishers Weekly. I've reported from Dubai, Bahrain, the Philippines and Kentucky. Since October, I've lived in Los Angeles, with several month-long stints in Indianapolis mixed in for good measure. Somewhere along the road I got the Indiana state flag tattooed on my left arm.

    My current project -- a documentary about the horrific 2006 slaying of an Indianapolis family of seven -- is pulling me back home, where the first seeds of my angst-ridden wanderings were planted.

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