Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

Why Is Narcissism Increasing Among Young Americans?

Play deprivation may underlie the increase in narcissism and decline in empathy.

Narcissism is a serious social and psychological problem.  The term refers to an inflated view of the self, coupled with relative indifference to others.  People who are high in this trait fail to help others unless there is immediate gain or recognition to themselves for dong so; often think they are above the law and therefore violate it; and readily trample over others in their efforts to rise to the “top,” which is where they think they belong.  A world full of narcissists would be a sad world indeed.  We humans are, by nature, social animals; we absolutely depend upon one another’s good will and care. Narcissism is bad not just for society as a whole, but also for the individual narcissist.  People high on this trait are often unhappy, angry at the world because of the world’s failure to recognize their superiority. They are generally incapable of forming the kinds of deep, meaningful, lasting relationships with others that we all need in order to live happy, emotionally secure lives.

The characteristic that perhaps most distinguishes non-narcissists from narcissists is empathy.  Empathy refers to a capacity and tendency to experience life not just from one’s own point of view but also from that of others, to feel others’ joy and sorrow, and to care about others’ wellbeing.  Specialists in moral development consider empathy to be the foundation for human compassion and morality.

For the past three decades or a little more, researchers have been assessing both narcissism and empathy using questionnaires developed in the late 1970s.  The questionnaire designed to assess narcissism is the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI).  If you want to see what it’s like, and even test yourself on it, you can find it here.  The questionnaire designed to assess empathy is the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, which you can find here.  As you can see, if you do check these links, the questions are pretty transparent.  If you wanted to, you could easily fake yourself as low in narcissism and high in empathy, or the reverse.  However, most people (even those high in narcissism) apparently answer pretty honestly and accurately.  Many research studies have shown that scores on these questionnaires correlate reliably with real-world behavior and with other people’s ratings of the individuals.  For example, those who score high in narcissism have been found to overrate their own abilities, to lash out angrily in response to criticism, and to commit white-collar crimes at higher rates than the general population.[1]  Those who score low in empathy are more likely than the average person to engage in bullying and less likely to volunteer to help people in need.[2.]

Over the years, these questionnaires have been administered to many samples of college students, and analyses that bring all of the data together reveal that the average narcissism score has been steadily increasing and the average empathy score has been steadily decreasing ever since the questionnaires were developed [3.]  The changes are highly significant statistically and sufficiently large that approximately 70 percent of students today score higher on narcissism and lower on empathy than did the average student thirty years ago.

What accounts for this historical rise in narcissism and decline in empathy?  There is no way to know for sure, based on the data, but there are lots of grounds for speculation.  One possibility that comes easily to mind is that the changes simply have to do with the ways that people respond to questionnaire items.  Maybe students are more honest now than they were thirty years ago in admitting selfish or uncaring tendencies.  That’s perhaps the rosiest possible interpretation, because it suggests that the change is not one of increased narcissism but increased honesty.  Most people who do this research, however, reject that explanation, because other evidence suggests that the tendency to try to look good on questionnaires (which are filled out anonymously in these studies) hasn’t changed over the years and because other means of assessment, which would be harder to fake, also tend to reveal an increase in narcissism and decline in empathy.[3] So, most of the speculation has to do with changes in the world in which young people are growing up.

Some of the speculation has centered on the misguided “self-esteem” movement that began to take shape in the 1980s.[4.]  Parents, teachers, and others involved with children were advised to build up children’s self-esteem through frequent praise.  Many parents, especially, began telling their children how beautiful, smart, and generally wonderful they are, or began bragging about their kids to others in front of them. Television programs for kids featured songs about being “special” and lessons to the effect that “you can be anything you want to be.”  In competitions, everyone got some kind of trophy.  Perhaps some of that actually got incorporated into the thinking of young people growing up in this era. They may to some degree have grown up believing what they were told. To the degree that they did, they would become narcissists, because the things they were told are exactly the kinds of things that narcissists believe about themselves.

Another possible culprit, which makes even more sense to me, is the increased pressure on children and adolescents to achieve, where achievement is defined as beating others in competitions.[5.]  When achievement is defined as getting the best grades in school, getting into the best college, winning individual sporting competitions, and the like, then the focus of thought is on the self and others are seen as obstacles, or as people you must defeat, or as people you must manipulate to serve your ends.  If the purpose of a child’s life is to build a strong résumé, as many parents seem to believe, then, of course, the child is going to grow up “looking out for number one” and not have much time or concern for others.  In these conditions young people might volunteer for causes that will look good on a résumé, but not take time to help others purely out of compassion, where it will not show up on a résumé.

Closely related to the increased pressure to achieve is the decline in play.  Those of you who have been reading this blog regularly know that I have been much concerned by this decline.  Over the past several decades, we have witnessed a continuous and, overall, dramatic decline in children’s freedom and opportunities to play with other children, undirected by adults.  In other essays I have linked this decline to the well-documented rise in depression and anxiety among children and adolescents (here) and to the recently documented decline in creativity (here). Free play is the primary means by which children learn to control their own lives, solve their own problems, and deal effectively with fear and anger—and thereby protect themselves from prolonged anxiety and depression. Free play is also the primary means by which children maintain and expand upon their creative potentials.  Now, I suggest, free social play—that is, play with other kids, undirected by adults--is also the primary means by which children overcome narcissism and build up their capacity for empathy.

Play, by definition, is always voluntary, and that means that players are always free to quit.  If you can’t quit, it’s not play.  All normal children have a strong biological drive to play with other children.  That’s part of human child nature—an extraordinarily important part of it.  In such play, every child knows that the others can quit at any time and will quit if they are not happy.  Therefore, to keep the fun going, each child is motivated to keep the other children happy.  To do that, children must listen to one another, read into what they are saying, and, in general, get into one another’s mind so as to know what the other wants and doesn’t want.  If a child fails at that and consistently bullies others or doesn’t take their views into account, the others will quit, leaving the offending child alone.  This is powerful punishment that leads the offender to try harder next time to see from others’ points of view.  Thus, in their social play, children continuously practice and build upon their abilities to empathize, negotiate, and cooperate.

Moreover, children, unlike adults, are rarely effusive in their praise of one another.  They have little tolerance for anyone who thinks that he or she is “special,” or is in some way above the rules, or is a natural leader who should get his or her way all the time.  Playmates are often highly skilled in deflating one another’s egos, through such means as humor and insults, or through outright rejection if those means fail.

Consistent with this view, correlational studies have revealed that children who engage in more social play with other children demonstrate more empathy, and more ability to understand the perspective of others, than do children who engage in less such play.[6] Moreover, several short-term experiments conducted in preschools have shown that when some children are provided with extra opportunities to engage in social play, those in the extra-play groups later exhibit higher performance on various measures of social perspective-taking and ability to get along with others than do those in the control groups.[7]

Children’s strong drives to play came about, through natural selection, to serve many purposes. As I have explained in previous essays, play is a means by which children practice creativity, practice taking charge of their own lives and solving their own problems, practice rule-following and impulse control, and practice the art of regulating their own emotions.  And, as part of all this, play is also how children learn to live socially, on an equal footing with their fellow human beings.  Nature’s way of insuring that we survive as social beings was to implant in us, as children, a powerful drive to play with other children.  Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, in recent decades we have been making it harder and harder for children to find opportunities to do that without adult interference.  If we want to reverse the trend toward narcissism, we must find new ways to allow children, once again, to spend great amounts of time playing freely with one another.

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What to you think?  What hypotheses might you have to explain the rise in narcissism and decline in empathy in young people, as measured by these questionnaires?  Does the play deprivation hypothesis make sense to you?  How did you yourself learn to get along well with others and not think of yourself as superior?  How are your children learning that? This blog is a forum for discussion, and your stories, comments, and questions are valued and treated with respect by me and other readers. As always, I prefer if you post your comments and questions here rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions, if I feel I have something useful to say. Of course, if you have something to say that truly applies only to you and me, then send me an email.

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For more on the value of play and freedom in children's development, see Free to Learn.

References

[1] Blickle, G., Schlegel, A., Fassbender, P., & Klein, U. (2006). Some personality correlates of white-collar crime. Applied Psychology 55, 220-233. // Judge, T. A., LePine, J. A., & Rich, B. L. (2006). Loving yourself abundantly: Relationship of the narcissistic personality to self- and other perceptions of workplace deviance, leadership, and task and contextual performance. Journal of Applied Psychology. 91, 762-776. // Thomaes, S., Bushman, B. J., DeCastro, B. O., & Stegge, H. (2009). What makes narcissists bloom? A framework for research on the etiology and development of narissism. Development and Psychopathology 21, 1233-1247.

[2] Konrath, S. H., O’Brien, E. H., & Hsing, C. (2011). Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15, 180-198.

[3] Twenge, J. M., & Foster, J. D. (2010). Birth cohort increases in narcissistic personality traits among American college students, 1982-2009,” Social Psychological and Personality Science 1, 99-106. // Konrath, S. H., O’Brien, E. H., & Hsing, C. (2011). Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15, 180-198.

[4] Otway, L. J., & Vignoles, V. L. (2006). Narcissism and childhood recollections: A qualitative test of psychoanalytic predictions,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 32,104–116. // Thomaes, S., Bushman, B. J., DeCastro, B. O., & Stegge, H. (2009). What makes narcissists bloom? A framework for research on the etiology and development of narissism. Development and Psychopathology 21, 1233-1247.

[5] Konrath, S. H., O’Brien, E. H., & Hsing, C. (2011). Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15, 180-198.

[6] Connolly, J. A., & Doyle, A. (1984). Relation of social fantasy play to social competence in preschoolers. Developmental Psychology, 20, 797–806. // Elias, C. L., & Berk, L. E. (2002). Self-regulation in young children: Is there a role for sociodramatic play? Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 17, 216–238. // Jenkins, J. M., & Astington, J. W. (1996). Cognitive factors and family structure associated with theory of mind development in young children. Develop- mental Psychology, 32, 70–78. // Newton, E., & Jenvey, V. (2011). Play and theory of mind: Associations with social competence in young children. Early Child Development and Care, 181, 761–773.

[7] e.g. Burns, S. M., & Brainerd, C. J. (1979). Effects of constructive and dramatic play on perspective taking in very young children. Developmental Psychology, 15, 512–521.

Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).

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