The Myth of the American Narcissist

Age may color the perception of narcissism in today's youth.

By Laura Entis, published March 1, 2018 - last reviewed on May 10, 2018

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Millennials have been deemed the most self-obsessed generation ever to walk the earth—and their successors are growing up in the age of the selfie. Yet all the handwringing may be much ado about nothing. Research by University of Illinois personality psychologist Brent Roberts and colleagues finds little evidence to support the narrative that recent waves of young adults are historically self-absorbed. If anything, college students' narcissism levels may have declined since the '90s. Roberts explains why the myth of a narcissism boom persists anyway. 

There's pathological narcissism, and then there's narcissism as a standard aspect of our personalities. Your research involves the latter. How do you define it? 

In personality psychology, narcissism is being grandiose, vain, and having a more-than-healthy sense of entitlement. The most common measure of the trait is the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, which asks people to choose between statements, one of which is typically characteristic of narcissism. Scores range from zero to 40, with most people falling between 12 and 16. Most young people have a score of around 16 or 17.

So young people are more narcissistic than older people—yet when you studied college students from the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, you found a slight decline across generations. Why is it tempting to think otherwise? 

Narcissism tends to go down quite precipitously with age. Therefore it's reasonable that when older people are asked, "Do you think younger people are more narcissistic?" they answer, "Yes." There is a developmental change that we all see: Younger people are pretty entitled compared to the way we are, or the way our parents are. Then, we make the improper inference that they're more narcissistic than we were when we were young. We fail to acknowledge that we're not really that good at remembering what we were like 20 years ago. 

Your study contradicts research that suggested a rise in narcissism levels into the 2000s. Did your results surprise you?

I was expecting narcissism to be flat over time—I wasn't expecting it to go down. It didn't go down a lot. If you really want to characterize the body of research, not much has changed between generations. Most people aren't narcissistic. But that doesn't usually get a headline.

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