It's now emerging that Colorado theater shooter James Holmes failed his graduate school oral exams last month.
Although he graduated from UC Riverside with honors as an undergraduate, leading the chancellor of the university to say "Academically, he was at the top of the top," those who worked with Holmes directly say his research work was often substandard.
In other words, he made good grades in undergraduate classes but struggled with research work and in his graduate program. So after being told for years how smart and brilliant he was, he then found out that he wasn't actually anything special.
It's a real-life example of a lab study conducted by Brad Bushman and Roy Baumeister: Students were told that another partcipant had proclaimed that their essay was "the worst I've ever read." Those who scored high in narcissism then took their revenge by acting aggressively against the person who insulted them. Self-esteem didn't predict who would be more aggressive after an insult, but narcissism did. Keith Campbell and I later found that if the insult was a social rejection, narcissists were also aggressive toward an innocent person—very similar to this shooting and other mass killings such as Columbine and Virginia Tech.
In other words, someone who believes they are brilliant is not going to react well to finding out they're not. Holmes doesn't seem like the prototypical narcissist—he's described as, if anything, shy. But his ego may have been pumped up by a system that rewards A's for mediocre performance. In 1976, only 17% of high school students graduated with an A average. Now it's 34%.
But being an A student, even at the undergraduate level, doesn't necessarily mean one will do well in graduate school or do good research. By inflating grades, we're setting students up for failure. Many will come to the difficult realization that they are not as special as they've been told and will react badly to this news. We don't know if this is the story of what happened to James Holmes, but it's a narrative that plays out for many young people today, though thankfully not with such violent consequences.
It also goes far beyond grades—American culture has become increasingly focused on the illusion of greatness rather than greatness itself. We seem to think that if we give every kid a trophy, every kid is a winner. That's just not true. Yes, we can reward effort early on. But we don't have to overpraise mediocre performance in the hopes it will lead to better results. One study actually shows that self-esteem boosting leads to failure, not success.
When I give talks on narcissism to undergraduates, they often tell me "We have to be narcissistic because the world is so competitive." Yes, things are competitive, but thinking that you're better than you actually are—the definition of narcissism—is a formula for disapointment and bitterness, not for success.