The Narcissism Epidemic

Narcissism is on the rise among individuals and in American culture.

How Dare You Say Narcissism Is Increasing?

All of the evidence that's fit to print

Are today’s young people more narcissistic than previous generations? And how else are they different – or the same?

Last week’s story in the New York Times science section focused largely on the disagreement around these questions. Of course, it’s challenging for a newspaper article to cover all of the issues, especially when covering science, and thus difficult for readers to have all of the information they need to judge for themselves.

So that’s what I thought I’d do here. Interested readers, bloggers, etc. can look at the data and make their own judgments. Reasonable people can disagree, but it is best to do so in the context of all the findings. Even if you can’t read all of the articles, just getting a feel for the scope of the research should provide a better view of what we know about generational changes.

The research findings fall into 5 main areas: 1) narcissism, 2) positive self-views and other traits related to narcissism, 3) cultural products such as language use, 4) positive trends connected to individualism, and 5) the validity of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). 

1. Increases in narcissism: Four cross-sectional, one retrospective, and four over-time datasets are consistent with higher narcissism among those in more recent (younger) generations. These use three different measures of narcissism (the NPI, the California Psychological Inventory, and a clinical interview for Narcissistic Personality disorder) and occur across several age groups and cultures:

Cai, H., Kwan, V. S. Y., & Sedikides, C. (2012). A sociocultural approach to narcissism: The case of modern China. European Journal of Personality, 26, 529-535.

 Foster, J. D., Campbell, W. K., & Twenge, J. M. (2003). Individual differences in narcissism: Inflated self-views across the lifespan and around the world. Journal of Research in Personality, 37, 469-486.

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. 

Stewart, K. D., & Bernhardt, P. C. (2010). Comparing Millennials to pre-1987 students and with one another. North American Journal of Psychology, 12, 579-602.

Stinson, F. S., Dawson, D. A., Goldstein, R. B., Chou, S. P., Huang, B., Smith, S. M (2008). Prevalence, correlates, disability, and comorbidity of personality disorder diagnoses in a DSM-IV narcissistic personality disordered non-patient sample. Results from the wave 2 national epidemiologic survey on alcohol and related conditions. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 69, 1033–1045.

Twenge, J. M., Konrath, S., Foster, J. D., Campbell, W. K., & Bushman, B. J. (2008). Egos inflating over time: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Journal of Personality, 76, 875-902.

Twenge, J. M., & Foster, J. D. (2008). Mapping the scale of the narcissism epidemic: Increases in narcissism 2002-2007 within ethnic groups. Journal of Research in Personality, 42, 1619-1622. (our response to the UC campuses study)

Wilson, M. S., & Sibley, C. G. (2011). ‘Narcissism creep?’ Evidence for age-related differences in narcissism in the New Zealand general populations. New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 40, 89-95.

2. Traits related to narcissism have also increased, such as extrinsic values, unrealistic expectations, materialism, low empathy, agentic (but not communal) self-views, self-esteem, self-focus, choosing more unique names for children, less concern for others, less interest in helping the environment, and low empathy. Studies consistently show increases in these traits, except the data on self-esteem are mixed. Self-esteem increases in elementary school, middle school, and college students, but is unchanged among high school students in 2 out of 3 studies. Many of the studies below use data from Monitoring the Future, the same database of high school students that critics claimed showed no meaningful generational differences.

Gentile, B., Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2010). Birth cohort differences in self-esteem, 1988-2008: A cross-temporal meta-analysis. Review of General Psychology, 14, 261-268.

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.

Lindfors, P., Solantaus, T., & Rimpela, A. (2012). Fears for the future among Finnish adolescents in 1983-2007: From global concerns to ill health and loneliness. Journal of Adolescence.

Park, H., Twenge, J. M., & Greenfield, P. M. (in press). The Great Recession: Implications for adolescent values and behavior. Social Psychological and Personality Science. (uses MtF)

Reynolds, J., Stewart, M., Sischo, L., & MacDonald. R. (2006). Have adolescents become too ambitious? High school seniors’ educational and occupational plans, 1976 to 2000. Social Problems, 53, 186-206. (uses MtF)

 Twenge, J. M., & Kasser, T. (2013). Generational changes in materialism and work centrality, 1976-2007: Associations with temporal changes in societal insecurity and materialistic role-modeling. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 883-897. (uses MtF)

Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2010). Birth cohort differences in the Monitoring the Future dataset and elsewhere: Further evidence for Generation Me. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 81-88. (uses MtF)

 Twenge, J. M., Campbell, S. M., Hoffman, B. R., & Lance, C. E. (2010). Generational differences in work values: Leisure and extrinsic values increasing, social and intrinsic values decreasing. Journal of Management, 36, 1117-1142. (uses MtF)

 Twenge, J. M., Abebe, E. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2010). Fitting in or standing out: Trends in American parents’ choices for children’s names, 1880-2007. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1, 19-25.

Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2001). Age and birth cohort differences in self-esteem: A cross-temporal meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, 321-344.

Twenge, J. M. & Campbell, W. K. (2008). Increases in positive self-views among high school students: Birth cohort changes in anticipated performance, self-satisfaction, self-liking, and self-competence. Psychological Science, 19, 1082-1086. (uses MtF)

Twenge, J.M., Campbell, W. K., & Freeman, E. C. (2012). Generational differences in young adults’ life goals, concern for others, and civic orientation, 1966-2009. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 1045-1062. (uses MtF)

Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W. K., & Gentile, B. (2012). Generational increases in agentic self- evaluations among American college students, 1966-2009. Self and Identity, 11, 409-427.

 3. A wide range of cultural data also suggests growing individualism and waning collectivism, including changes in pronoun use in books and song lyrics, agentic words and phrases, decreasing moral words, and more emphasis on fame in TV shows for children.

DeWall, C. N., Pond, R. S., Campbell, W. K., & Twenge, J. M. (2011). Tuning in to psychological change: Linguistic markers of psychological traits and emotions over time in popular U.S. song lyrics. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 5, 200-207. 

Greenfield, P. M. (2013). The changing psychology of culture from 1800 through 2000. Psychological Science.

Kesebir, P., & Kesebir, S. (2012). The cultural salience of moral character and virtue declined in twentieth century America. Journal of Positive Psychology.

Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W. K., & Gentile, B. (2012-a). Increases in individualistic words and phrases in American books, 1960-2008. PLoS ONE, 7, e40181.

Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W. K., & Gentile, B. (2013). Changes in pronoun use in American books and the rise of individualism, 1960-2008. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 44, 406-415.

 Uhls, Y. T., & Greenfield, P. M. (2011). The rise of fame: An historical content analysis. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 5, 1.

 4. Individualism is also linked to attitudes supporting equality for all regardless of group membership. Plenty of evidence – both from academic journals and from polls -- suggests that younger generations are more tolerant and supportive of equality. Note that supporting equality and empathy are not the same thing.

 Carter, J. S. (2010). A cosmopolitan way of life for all? A reassessment of the impact of urban and region on racial attitudes from 1972 to 2006. Journal of Black Studies, 40, 1075-1093.

 Koenig, A. M., Eagly, A. H., Mitchell, A. A., & Ristikari, T. (2011). Are leader stereotypes masculine? A meta-analysis of three research paradigms. Psychological Bulletin, 137, 616-642.

Pew Research Center (2013). Gay marriage: Key data points from Pew Research.

Thornton, A., & Young-DeMarco, L. (2001). Four decades of trends in attitudes toward family issues in the United States: The 1960s through the 1990s. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 63, 1009-1037.

 Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W. K., & Gentile, B. (2012-c). Male and female pronoun use in U.S. books reflects women’s status, 1900-2008. Sex Roles, 67, 488-493.

 Twenge, J. M. (1997a). Attitudes toward women, 1970-1995: A meta-analysis. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 35-51.

 5. Finally, the NYT article critiqued the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, suggesting it did not measure narcissism but instead measured “desirable traits.” Although some NPI items might seem fine in isolation (e.g., “I am assertive”), the total score predicts narcissistic behaviors, not just a few items. In addition, other items don’t sound quite as desirable (“I can live my life any way I want to,” “I find it easy to manipulate people.”)

The NPI is the most well validated measure of trait narcissism. It is not designed as a clinical measure (contrary to the NYT’s statement that “the NPI is a tool commonly used by psychologists to identify both clinical and borderline narcissism”), but correlates strongly with clinical assessments. Some research suggests narcissism has grandiose and vulnerable forms. The NPI captures grandiose forms. A large body of research has covered these issues. For example:

 Miller, J. D., Gaughan, E. T., Pryor, L. R., Kamen, C., & Campbell, W. K. (2009). Is research using the narcissistic personality inventory relevant for understanding narcissistic personality disorder?. Journal of Research in Personality, 43(3), 482-488.

 Miller, J. D., & Campbell, W. K. (2010). The case for using research on trait narcissism as a building block for understanding narcissistic personality disorder. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 1(3), 180.

 Samuel, D. B., & Widiger, T. A. (2008). Convergence of narcissism measures from the perspective of general personality functioning. Assessment, 15(3), 364-374.

 Miller, J. D. & Campbell, W. K. (2008). Comparing clinical and social-personality conceptualizations of narcissism. Journal of Personality, 76, 449-476.

Miller, J. D., Hoffman, B. J., Gaughan, E. T., Gentile, B., Maples, J., & Campbell, W. K. (2011). Grandiose and vulnerable narcissism: A nomological network analysis. Journal of Personality, 79, 1013-1042.

Miller, J. D., Dir, A., Gentile, B., Wilson, L., Pryor, L. R., & Campbell, W. K. (2010). Searching for a vulnerable dark triad: Comparing factor 2 psychopathy, vulnerable narcissism, and borderline personality disorder. Journal of Personality, 78, 1529-1564.

Miller, J. D., Widiger, T. A., & Campbell, W. K. (2010). Narcissistic Personality Disorder and the DSM-5. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 119, 640-649.

I welcome further thoughts on this topic, including generational differences you’ve observed, possible causes, other papers finding generational differences or similarities, and research to do next.

Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, the author of Generation Me, and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic.

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