Youth Narcissism: Blaming the 1980s? Try the 1960s

A new study  has proclaimed today's college students "more narcissistic than ever."

The study, conducted by five psychologists, examined the responses given by 16,475 college students, between 1982 and 2006, on a written personality test called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.  A quick Google search shows that the NPI was first published in 1979, and consists of several hundred paired statements, one reflecting narcissistic traits and the other reflecting non-narcissistic traits.  The subject is required to choose which of the two statements they agree with.  The results are then tabulated, according to the internal definitions and standards the test employs, to derive the subject's narcissism score.


Whatever the scientific validity of the NPI, the authors of the present study report that in 2006 two-thirds of subjects had "above average" narcissism scores, which was 30% more than in 1982.  Makes you wonder how the test defines "average."  In any event, the authors' point is that there is a significant upward trend in the percentage of college students scoring "above average" on this test.

While as a rule I am deeply skeptical of the scientific validity of paper-and-pencil psych tests done on college students (usually as part of their own psych courses), it is hard to argue with the authors' main conclusion.  Narcissitic Personality Disorder is defined as "a pattern of grandiosity (exaggerated claims to talents, importance, or specialness) in the patient's private fantasies or outward behavior; a need for constant admiration from others; and a lack of empathy for others."  As the study reports, narcissists "are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, [be] at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors."

Surely this captures much of the essence of contemporary youth culture, especially as reflected (indeed created) by the mass media and Hollywood.

But where I do take issue with the authors of this study is where they assert that the roots of this upward trend in narcissism are to be found in the "self esteem movement" of the 1980s.  Yes, the educational establishment's emphasis on an empty and vacuous "self-esteem" is worthy of much criticism. 

But the real source of today's narcissistic personalities, it seems to me, is the "liberation" movement of the 1960s (actually the late 1950s to early 1970s).  The core ideas and values of the cultural revolution that swept across the country during this period emphasized individual "freedom," "personal growth," and utopian dreams of a "new" and "better" world -- which in practice were defined as engaging in promiscuous sex, using mind-altering drugs, rebelling (sometimes violently) against the "bourgeois" lifestyle of family, work, and patriotism, and generally eschewing any sense of individual responsibility beyond "doing what feels good."  (For an outstanding intellectual history of the 1960s, see The Long March  by Roger Kimball.)

It is easy for anyone not enamored with "the Age of Aquarius" to see that today's youth merely reflect the shallow and selfish worldview bequeathed to them by their parents' generation.

Steven M. Warshawsky
A new study  has proclaimed today's college students "more narcissistic than ever."

The study, conducted by five psychologists, examined the responses given by 16,475 college students, between 1982 and 2006, on a written personality test called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.  A quick Google search shows that the NPI was first published in 1979, and consists of several hundred paired statements, one reflecting narcissistic traits and the other reflecting non-narcissistic traits.  The subject is required to choose which of the two statements they agree with.  The results are then tabulated, according to the internal definitions and standards the test employs, to derive the subject's narcissism score.


Whatever the scientific validity of the NPI, the authors of the present study report that in 2006 two-thirds of subjects had "above average" narcissism scores, which was 30% more than in 1982.  Makes you wonder how the test defines "average."  In any event, the authors' point is that there is a significant upward trend in the percentage of college students scoring "above average" on this test.

While as a rule I am deeply skeptical of the scientific validity of paper-and-pencil psych tests done on college students (usually as part of their own psych courses), it is hard to argue with the authors' main conclusion.  Narcissitic Personality Disorder is defined as "a pattern of grandiosity (exaggerated claims to talents, importance, or specialness) in the patient's private fantasies or outward behavior; a need for constant admiration from others; and a lack of empathy for others."  As the study reports, narcissists "are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, [be] at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors."

Surely this captures much of the essence of contemporary youth culture, especially as reflected (indeed created) by the mass media and Hollywood.

But where I do take issue with the authors of this study is where they assert that the roots of this upward trend in narcissism are to be found in the "self esteem movement" of the 1980s.  Yes, the educational establishment's emphasis on an empty and vacuous "self-esteem" is worthy of much criticism. 

But the real source of today's narcissistic personalities, it seems to me, is the "liberation" movement of the 1960s (actually the late 1950s to early 1970s).  The core ideas and values of the cultural revolution that swept across the country during this period emphasized individual "freedom," "personal growth," and utopian dreams of a "new" and "better" world -- which in practice were defined as engaging in promiscuous sex, using mind-altering drugs, rebelling (sometimes violently) against the "bourgeois" lifestyle of family, work, and patriotism, and generally eschewing any sense of individual responsibility beyond "doing what feels good."  (For an outstanding intellectual history of the 1960s, see The Long March  by Roger Kimball.)

It is easy for anyone not enamored with "the Age of Aquarius" to see that today's youth merely reflect the shallow and selfish worldview bequeathed to them by their parents' generation.

Steven M. Warshawsky