According to psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, the “self-esteem movement” and new media are a combination that threatens to undermine the American social fabric. Twenge is the lead author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before, a study that has gotten a lot of attention this week. A team of researchers led by Twenge used what’s called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory to measure changes in the level of self-regard in over 16,000 college students since the early 1980s. The NPI asks students 40 questions, including “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place,” “I think I am a special person” and “I can live my life any way I want to.” From 1982-2006, the results of NPI inquiries suggest that American college students have become much more narcissistic.
I haven’t read the study, nor, really, do I plan to. As I learned in one of my first graduate school courses, it’s much easier to criticize a book you haven’t read than one you have. I have though read a lot of the reporting on the study this week, and while I think there may be something to the notion that Americans have become more self-involved, I wouldn’t put it on the younger generation (narcissistic link: they need help to consume critically), I wouldn’t date it to the 1980s (thank you, Dr. Freud), and I certainly wouldn’t accept on its face Twenge’s simplistic notion that “current technology fuels the increase in narcissism. By its very name, MySpace encourages attention-seeking, as does YouTube.” That is only one of the things these sites do, and to disaggregate that from the other processes at work is to miss the forest for a tree.
Here’s a link to an interview with Twenge, and a response by a certified Generation Me’er (I thought they were Generation Y?). I think the second interview complicates the first a bit. These things are certainly worth talking about, but I don’t think they’re worth getting overwrought about. Kinda like these developments:
One note that may, in fact, contradict what I’ve just written: the AP story on this quoted a young woman from University of Vermont saying most of her contemporaries are politically active and not very self-centered. If a reporter has to go to UVM to get that perspective, maybe we are in trouble.