Are We More Narcissistic? Part 2

Read Part 1 on the "epidemic of narcissism" here. .

My sociology 101 professor at Rice, Bill Martin, once told us that his primary goal for the class was to help us develop our "built-in crap detector." (He may have substituted a more colorful word for "crap" but you get the idea.) He hoped that as a result of the class that we would be able to analyze the news and culture and look beyond what seems obvious to what is really going on.

For example, I'm planning to let Caroline walk the half block from her bus stop to our house by herself this year. I will do this because despite widespread parental worries about kidnapping, I know that kid-snatching is NOT more prevalent than it was when I walked the two miles home from school in the 1970s. Human beings are terrible at assessing risk, it seems. But a built-in crap detector  looks at actual rates of kidnapping rather than focusing on the exceptionally rare (though admittedly heartbreaking) stories that make the news.

The built-in crap detector also helps us deal with "trend" articles in which writers for the New York Times style section dig up several egregious examples of something weird and breathlessly announce the latest fad.

Anyway, my built-in crap detector goes off all over the place with this narcissism stuff. Let me say that it is entirely possible that I am wrong, and that there really is an epidemic of narcissism. Or, I am partially wrong, and that there is merely a terrible outbreak of narcissism, plus a generous sprinkling of hysteria and savvy PR to make it look like an epidemic. Could be. It does feel like there is less of an emphasis on the common good than in the past. And the culture of celebrity gets kind of gross.

My skepticism may also be wishful thinking. Maybe I just don't want to believe that my kids are growing up in a world in which narcissism is epidemic... not just because it will be a less pleasant place for them to live, but because if it's true, then our planet is doomed.

With those caveats in place, here we go.

The primary statistical evidence for a rise in narcissism, especially among the young, is a survey called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, studied by Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. Apparently students'  scores have risen steadily since the test was introduced in 1982. By 2006, the researchers said, two-thirds of the students had above-average scores, 30 percent more than in 1982. Twenge says it is the self-esteem movement, among other factors, that have caused this sharp rise in the stats.

So here are some things that cause the crap detector to go PING!

1. There is something psychologically satisfying in the "epidemic of narcissism" narrative. Almost too satisfying. Our intuitions are powerful guides, but they can be duped. It just feels correct to say that we're getting more selfish as a culture and to pine away for a better time when people weren't all about me me me. That doesn't necessarily mean we're right. I'm reading On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not right now, and hoo boy!

A related point: Presbyterians and other Calvinists just looooove to talk about pride as the fundamental sin of humanity. Add a rise in narcissism to that long distinguished tradition and the sermons just write themselves. I'm not saying there isn't truth to it, but I'm wary of the relish with which some of us approach this topic as well as the pat manner in which we talk about it.

2. Cries of narcissism are tailor-made for anecdotal evidence. Everyone knows a story of a sullen twentysomething sitting around in his parents' basement, a parent who inflicts their unholy terror little darling on a poor defenseless group of restaurant patrons, or a boorish driver on the highway. These seem to bolster the claims of the study. But for narcissism to be epidemic, or even widely prevalent, you'd have to know a great many people who exhibit this behavior. Maybe my sampling is off, but I just don't know that many. Carol Merritt has a nice post on this, and she hits other points as well.

3. The fact that Twenge first published her findings in a book called Generation Me, frankly, makes me trust her less. Children learn what they live, and if they've been taught by us to be narcissistic, you'd think a responsible discussion of this matter would focus on where WE have gone wrong and how to change things for the better, rather than on how freakishly entitled "kids today" are. The fact that she decided to point fingers at an entire generation, with lots of juicy and outrageous anecdotes, causes me to doubt whether this is anything more than the "get off my lawn" carping that has been directed at the younger generation forever.

4. As far as I can tell, there's no study of how these college students change as they mature. Many young adults are self-centered. It may even be developmentally normal. I can remember doing some things as a college student that make me cringe now. What we need more than continued studies of college students is to study people as they develop into adults. Are they still narcissistic as they get out into the world? Or are we seeing a larger swing toward narcissism in recent years, but one that will later equalize? (It's also possible that people of all ages are edging toward narcissism, but again, let's see the study and not just anecdata.)

5. Some suggest that the NPI is not a great tool. Check out the quiz yourself. I have no expertise in designing these intruments, and must defer to those who do, but I see a lot of false binaries in these questions, as well as questions that show shifts in cultural norms. The stuff on "showing off" one's body, for example, may not be about narcissism but about a comfort level with one's body that is actually healthy. Many girls in my high school wore big shirts and slouched because they were embarrassed by their developing breasts, and I'm hard pressed to see how that's somehow better than the stylish, confident way that many young women I know carry themselves today. (That said, have the pants with writing across the butt gone out of style yet? Because No. Just No.)

6. Finally, I am certainly not alone in raising questions about Twenge's research. Here are a couple of articles that provide a balanced approach.

Why does all this matter? I started out wanting to comment on an article I read in Relevant magazine about Facebook and its impact on our spiritual lives. In the article, the author talks about narcissism in the same broad terms I have critiqued here. Which is a shame. If we rely too easily on the narcissism trope, then it impacts our ability to talk about technology and social media in any useful or nuanced way. There's nowhere to go from there that's helpful. I hope to inject something useful into the technology discussion later in the week.

Thank you, by the way, to those of you who read my ruminations and hang with me as I play armchair sociologist.