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Are Today’s College Students too Narcissistic?

What’s New: Today’s college students are more narcissistic and self-centered than their predecessors, according to a comprehensive study being presented today by five psychologists.

The Concern: Researchers worry that the trend could be harmful to personal relationships and American society. “We need to stop endlessly repeating ‘You’re special’ and having children repeat that back,’ said the study’s lead author, Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. ‘Kids are self-centered enough already.’ The study says narcissists ‘are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty and over-controlling and violent behaviors.’

The research: Twenge and her colleagues examined the responses of 16,475 college students nationwide who completed an evaluation called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory between 1982 and 2006. The inventory asks for responses to such statements as ‘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.’

What can be done? W. Keith Campbell, a researcher from the University of Georgia, said that ‘a potential antidote would be more authoritative parenting.’

Student view: Kari Dalane, a University of Vermont sophomore, says most of her contemporaries are politically active and not overly self-centered. ‘People want to look their best, have a good time, but it doesn’t mean they’re not concerned about the rest of the world.’”

A report of the Associated Press which appeared in the Star Tribune on February 27, 2007, page A7.

 

Response to this type of study

 

 

 

The label, “narcissistic”, is a negative one. Psychologists are here attaching it to the current generation of American college students. That is unfair.

If “we” - meaning teachers - are endlessly repeating “You’re special” to their students and having children repeat it back to them, it is more a reflection upon the teachers rather than upon the students. The teachers may have good intentions. So many children today suffer from low self-esteem because of family and other problems that school teachers think it advisable to promote higher self-esteem by use of the mantra, “you’re special,” before focusing on academics. In any event, this practice did not originate with the children.

It’s mistaken to ask survey participants to respond to statements such as “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place” or “I think I am a special person” and interpret affirmative responses as signs of narcissism. Should the students have to disprove their narcissistic tendencies by declaring that putting their ideas into effect would be bad for society or that they have no unique personal characteristics? Most healthy people naturally think they have something special to offer to this world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fact is that today’s college students are paying more for college tuitions and incurring higher levels of personal debt than previous generations of students did; and their job prospects are worse. By labeling today’s students as “narcissistic”, the well-paid college professors who conducted this survey can malign the students before they (the professors’ youthful clients) are economically abused. It is a familiar posture of the powerful wishing to absolve themselves of guilt to stigmatize their victims first.

I suspect that some of these professors, especially in California, are children of the ‘60s who, though they displayed narcissistic behavior in their own youth, managed to convince themselves that they were idealists aiming for a better society. The Baby Boom generation is quite moralistic in its denunciation of younger people whose political values differ from its own.

Besides better parenting, an antidote to narcissism might to for society to provide examples of selfless leaders for young people to admire. Abraham Lincoln, in effect, forfeited his life for his country. In contrast, the current President is a warmonger who evaded the draft during the years of the Vietnam war, as did the current Vice President. Instead of setting examples of unselfish service to the country, today’s political leaders are money-driven careerists who seem to have little regard for their fellow citizens stuck in the lower ranks.

Yes, young people are naturally narcissistic. Those tendencies are enhanced by an entertainment-driven culture that puts a premium on wealth and good looks. If the old generation is worried that its posterity is becoming too self-centered, a solution would be for society to reward service to others - say, parental care of children - and encourage the pursuit of higher ideals.

I would hope that the study of personal identity would not lead to increased narcissistic behavior but to communities of like-minded persons interested in creating a better society. The immediate challenge is to stop the political and social disintegration afflicting America.

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