Science Proves There’s No ‘Narcissism Epidemic’ Among College Students

The narcissism of millennials has been exhaustively inventoried by the media. Pick a major outlet and you can find an article about the group that a Time magazine cover story deemed the “Me, Me, Me Generation” in 2013. The primary pieces of evidence forwarded in the court of public opinion are the booming popularity of the selfie and social media, as if those things aren’t popular among people of all ages. Hell, I can think of a 71-year-old narcissist right now who loves himself some Twitter.

Sadly for the hater, there is no compelling evidence that recent generations are significantly more narcissistic than previous ones. At best, today’s young people are equally as self-involved as young people of previous gens have been. A recent study, in fact, showed slightly less narcissism among contemporary college students (yes, a subset of the generation as a whole) than those attending universities in the 1990s.

The study published in the journal Psychological Science performed analysis using data from 1,166 students studying at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1990s and corresponding data from tens of thousands of students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of California, Davis in the 2000s and 2010s. All students completed the Narcissism Personal Inventory (NPI), which is the oldest and most often used method of measuring narcissism.

The NPI is the same test used by San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge and the National Institutes of Health to create the statistics cited in the Time story and other prominent articles that rage over narcissistic millennials. Participants are asked to identify which statement in a pair best mirrors their attitudes and beliefs. One of the two is considered more in line with a narcissistic POV. So, if you were to take it, you would have to choose between “I just want to be reasonably happy” and “I want to amount to something in the eyes of the world.” If you can get past the term “excessive self-love” without devolving into giggles, you can take a sample test online.

Millennials are supposed to be obsessively interested in their own well-being, importance, and comfort. It’s been termed an “epidemic of narcissism,” and the media is pinning the blame on unregulated access to the internet, social media that lauds bragging about yourself, and permissive parenting, according to University of Illinois psychology professor Brent Roberts, who led this recent study. But, Roberts is quick to point out the lack of evidence that undergirds these claims. His study is intended to correct earlier problems in gathering data.

The first focus of the work Robert and colleagues performed was to test whether the NPI was reliable in measuring the same qualities across a span of time and among varied populations. This step is vital, as they discovered.

“For the most part, the measure worked pretty well, but we found a few items that didn’t work consistently across different groups,” Roberts stated. “When you adjust for that, you see decreases in narcissism from the 1990s to the 2000s to the 2010s.”

Next, specific aspects of narcissism were studied. A similar downward trend was observed in traits like entitlement, vanity, and leadership between 1992 and 2015. Though the changes were small, they were statistically significant and occurred across the board. Men, women, Caucasians, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans all saw decreases in narcissism among their group, Roberts reports.

“The average college student scores 15 to 16 on the NPI scale, out of a possible 40,” Roberts asserts. “The average grandparent scores about 12. Based on that, if you use that as a natural metric, most people are not narcissists. And, perhaps most interestingly, narcissism declines with age.”

Roberts posits older people like the narrative of a narcissistic younger generation because it matches their perception of the world. And, seriously, all young people are self-centered. In a 1976 cover story for New York Magazine, Tom Wolfe called the 70s “The Me Decade” because boomers were seen as such a self-obsessed pack of irritants. This is not new.

“We have faulty memories, so we don’t remember that we were rather self-centered when we were that age,” Roberts comments.

It’s offensive to paint young people in a negative light simply for being young people. It builds and then they are being depicted as wholly lacking in values and having terrible personalities.

“But that’s just wrong,” Roberts says. “The kids are all right. There never was a narcissism epidemic, despite what has been claimed.”