From the triumph of Botox to the rise of social networking and soccer teams that give every kid a trophy, we constantly lookout for signs of a narcissism crisis.
Sometimes it gets personal.
“I got a onesie as a gift that I gave away on principle,” said Dr. Twenge, 41, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and a mother of three girls under 7, in an interview at a diner on the West Side of Manhattan.
“It said, ‘One of a Kind,’ ” she said, poking at a fruit salad. “That actually isn’t so bad, because it’s true of any baby. But it’s just not something I want to emphasize.”
At least not at home. In public, Dr. Twenge has used her knack for cultural criticism and an innovative but controversial approach to cross-generational data analysis to propel the narcissism debate into the mainstream. By comparing decades of personality test results, Dr. Twenge has concluded, over and over again, that younger generations are increasingly entitled, self-obsessed and unprepared for the realities of adult life.
And the blame, she says, falls squarely on America’s culture of self-esteem, in which parents praise every child as “special,” and feelings of self-worth are considered a prerequisite to success, rather than a result of it.
“There’s a common perception that self-esteem is key to success, but it turns out it isn’t,” she said. Nonetheless, “young people are just completely convinced that in order to succeed they have to believe in themselves or go all the way to being narcissistic.”
The message has hit a nerve. Since the 2006 publication of her first book on the subject, “Generation Me,” which sold more than 100,000 copies, Dr. Twenge (pronounced TWANG-ee) has become something of a celebrity psychologist, appearing on the “Today” show, “Good Morning America” and MSNBC, among others, to comment on topics as varied as Facebook and the rise in plastic surgery.
In 2009 she published another popular book, “The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement,” with a frequent collaborator, W. Keith Campbell, a psychologist at the University of Georgia. Today, colleges and corporations often hire her as a speaker or consultant to help them better understand how to recruit and work with millennials.
But as her media profile has risen, so has the volume of criticism from her colleagues.
“I think she is vastly misinterpreting or over-interpreting the data, and I think it’s destructive,” said Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a research professor in psychology at Clark University. “She is inviting ridicule for a group of people about which there are already negative stereotypes.”
Critics like Dr. Arnett see a number of problems with Dr. Twenge’s work. They say the test on which much of her research is based, the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, is inherently flawed — better designed to measure feelings of confidence and self-worth than actual narcissism. They also accuse her of focusing too much of her work on students at research universities, who they say are not representative of their generation.
Jean M. Twenge finds fault with the culture of self-esteem in the United States, in which parents praise every child as "special."
Photo by: Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times
And some critics are even more emphatic: they say the data, if collected and read correctly, simply show no generational difference in narcissism. “We calculated self-esteem scores from 1976 all the way up to 2006,” said Brent Donnellan, a psychologist at Michigan State University, referring to his and colleagues’ 2010 study using data from an annual national survey of high school students called Monitoring the Future, “and we didn’t see much difference at all.”
Dr. Twenge, who defends her work fervently, says the only reason she chose to focus on narcissism in the first place was that she followed the data. “The truth is I just started studying generations and tried to get my hands on as many scales and as much data as possible,” she said, “and that’s the theme that emerged.”
A Change Over Time
A Minnesota native and a childhood tomboy, Dr. Twenge had once planned on a career in gender studies. As a senior at the University of Chicago in 1993, she asked some classmates to take the Bem Sex Role Inventory, a 1971 survey that uses gender stereotypes to classify personalities as masculine, feminine or otherwise. What she found was surprising.
“Fifty percent of the women were scoring as masculine,” she said, far higher than the test manual considered normal. After repeating the study at the University of Michigan, where she attended graduate school, and getting similar results, she concluded that the first test wasn’t an anomaly, and looked for a way to further study the phenomenon.
Dr. Twenge decided to dig up as many old studies using the Bem survey that she could find, average out their scores by year and chart them over time. “I found that across all the studies from the ’70s to the ’90s, there was a very clear upward trend in women scoring higher on this measure of stereotypically masculine traits,” she said.
Thus a method was born. By analyzing the results of a survey that had been administered regularly to college students for decades, Dr. Twenge had found a novel way of tracking personality changes across generations — an elusive metric among social psychologists. She would eventually term her method “cross-temporal meta-analysis.”
Intrigued by the approach, she began to focus on studying generational changes in personality. The more research she did, she says, the more the themes of increasing self-focus and individualism began to emerge.
In 2008, she and some colleagues performed such an analysis using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, a questionnaire developed in the 1980s that requires subjects to choose between statements regarding their self-image. (“I don’t particularly like to show off my body”/“I like to show off my body.”) The test is a tool commonly used by psychologists to identify both clinical and borderline narcissism.
Dr. Twenge’s analysis found that narcissism scores among college students had risen significantly, with 30 percent more scoring above the mean from the 1970s. The study was seized upon by the news media, and became the basis of her second book.
“I had absolutely no idea how much press it was going to end up getting,” she said. “It just exploded.” She updated the study in 2010, finding that narcissism scores continued to rise through 2009, though not as sharply. A study she published last month in Social Psychological and Personality Science also found that the number of students who consider themselves above average continued to increase during the recession, even as the focus on materialism has ebbed.
That most recent study did not rely on the narcissism inventory, and neither have several others she has conducted.
Much of the disagreement between Dr. Twenge and her critics comes down to interpretation. She believes that questions like “I am assertive” and “I like to take responsibility for making decisions” are indicators of narcissism; Dr. Arnett calls them “well within the range of normal personality,” and possibly even “desirable traits.”
But critics have also taken issue with her data. In 2008, Dr. Donnellan and Kali Trzesniewski, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, responded to her analysis of Narcissistic Personality Inventory scores with an analysis of their own. They, too, looked at scores from 1979 to 2007, but broke the survey’s questions into subsets to tease out more nuanced results. They concluded that some indicators of narcissism had increased while others had decreased. Over all, they said, there was no significant change.
Dr. Twenge, who grows noticeably irritated at the mention of the paper, calls the analysis invalid because it takes its earliest scores from just two University of California campuses (Berkeley and Santa Cruz) and its most recent scores from a third (Davis). “These are very different college campuses with different cultures and student populations,” she said, adding, “It would be like taking height samples of men from the 1800s and comparing it to recent samples of women and saying, ‘Oh look, height doesn’t change.’ ”
But she does not rely on personality tests alone. In 2010 she performed a study on work attitudes finding that “millennials” (people born roughly after 1982) expressed a weaker work ethic than Generation X, born between 1965 to 1981, and put a higher value on leisure time. In 2012, she published a study finding that book authors’ use of first-person-singular pronouns (I, me) had increased while the plural forms (we, us) had decreased. (In June, Dr. Twenge wrote an article for The Atlantic that gave hope to women over 35 who are trying to conceive. Like her third book, “The Impatient Woman’s Guide to Getting Pregnant,” it had nothing to do with narcissism and was instead based on her experiences conceiving in her 30s. )
It is with this sort of evidence that Dr. Arnett — a passionate defender of the socially networked “iGeneration,” which he says is more thoughtful and civic-minded than its predecessors — raises his loudest opposition. In the March issue of Emerging Adulthood,he used a combination of the Donnellan and Trzesniewski studies and a barrage of cultural statistics to suggest that the dire warnings of a rise in selfishness were baseless.
Crime rates have fallen, he notes, as have incidents of teenage pregnancy and car accidents. “If narcissism is increasing and narcissism leads to selfish behavior,” Dr. Arnett said in a telephone interview, “then you would expect all these things to get worse. But instead they’ve gotten better.”
Dr. Twenge agrees that such statistics might seem to contradict her results. But ultimately she dismisses them. “I know of no study linking narcissism and car accidents,” she said, and “nobody knows why crime goes down.”
Ask Dr. Twenge to defend her conclusions often enough, and you are bound to elicit a reminder. “People think I’m saying all millennials are selfish,” she said. “Of course I’m not saying that. I’m saying here’s on average what the data show. This is a problem that anybody who does research on group differences runs into.”
She will also remind you not to shoot the messenger. “Some people just want to be positive about the future and about young people, and I understand that,” she said. “But that means sometimes they just want to cover their eyes and ears and don’t want to listen to anything negative, and I think that’s misguided.”