Ignore The Headline Hype On Generational Narcissism. Here's What the Study Really Says

Ignore The Headline Hype On Generational Narcissism. Here’s What the Study Really Says

First of all, just because a study says your generation is “something” doesn’t mean you are if you belong to that age group. Frankly, there are lots of bad studies out there – ones rushed to press so they could make headlines, ones that could never be replicated, ones in which the scientists set out to prove something rather than test a theory, or poorly designed in other ways – so “a new study” might not end up saying anything of value at all, even if it’s written about over and over again online.

That’s not meant to be a dig at scientists, the majority of whom are brilliant and rigorous in their research. It’s just to say that we’ve failed to really connect scientific realities to the ways in which they are reported. But that’s an article for another time.

Since a new study was published on PLOS One a few days ago on narcissism in younger generations, a few outlets have already popped out headlines describing it and if I had to guess, you’re about to see many more (including this one, of course) about how Millennials and Gen Y now believe they are narcissistic and are ashamed of it (despite the fact that the study steers clear of generational labels and studies “emerging adults” aged 18-25).

Putting aside the headline hype, I think it’s worthwhile to take a look at what the study really says and – more importantly – what it doesn’t.

First, “Emerging adult reactions to labeling regarding age-group differences in narcissism and entitlement” does what all good papers do – it gives you some background into previous research on the topic, citing other well-respected studies and even giving insight into studies that contradict them. That’s your first indication that nothing you read is a done deal – there are few “conclusions” out there that should make you feel like we’ve got this all figured out.

In this case, “studies have shown” (my favorite vague and misleading phrase) – but by no means proved in any definitive way – that:

  • A psychological test called the Narcissism Personality Inventory (NPI) administered to college students in multiple studies often shows an increase in scores for college students after the 1980s. However, some of the tendencies measured have a lot in common with traits parents worked to instill in their children, such as assertiveness, agency, self‐esteem, and extraversion.
  • Younger age-groups also display more individualism.
  • These age groups also took tests that showed they display more tolerance for diversity and display greater egalitarian values than “older” generations.
  • There is plenty of evidence disputing the claim that narcissistic traits are on the rise among Millennials and Generation Y.

In other words, your “scientifically-informed” opinions about generational narcissism are largely going to depend on which study you look at.

The current study is largely set up to further explore findings from a 2014 survey conducted online which reported that perceptions of people aged 18-25 were more negative than those of older people. Subjects, including those as young as 18, rated this age group as more immoral, narcissistic, overconfident, self-centered, lazy and promiscuous, and less agreeable, emotionally stable, hardworking than both older people and younger people in the past.

The researchers of the latest study – who hail from psychology departments at Bowling Green University, Case Western Reserve University, University of Georgia, and San Diego State University – set out “to examine how emerging adults feel when labeled as the most narcissistic and entitled age-group,” since it’s been suggested that even they hold this opinion of themselves. The uniqueness of their study lies in the fact that no one has really asked what “emerging adults” think of being labeled as having narcissistic traits or being entitled.

The researchers “expected to find” that their subjects would identify their age group as narcissistic and entitled, but would generally have a negative reaction to the label, unless they self-identified as entitled narcissists, in which case they would have a more positive view of the label.

To test their expectation, they used both undergraduate students at two Midwestern universities (Case Western and Bowling Green) and a “community” sample of all ages using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The university students were all enrolled in an Introduction to Psychology class – a convenient and specialized group, with sample sizes ranging from 188 students to 567 students. The Mechanical Turk sample consisted of 724 people with a mean age of 36.3 and was designed to see if the researchers could replicate one of the studies of the university students.

Methods of data collection and measurement included the following:

  • The 9-item Psychological Entitlement Scale which asks subjects to rate their agreement on a scale of 1 to 7 with statements such as, “If I were on the Titanic, I would deserve to be on the first lifeboat!”
  • The Narcissistic Personality Inventory 13 (NPI-13) in which participants choose between two statements, one being the narcissistic option (e.g., “I insist upon getting the respect that is due me”) and the other non-narcissistic (e.g., “I usually get the respect I deserve.”).
  • A measure of their stereotypes of different age groups in which they were asked to compare “Adolescents; (12–17),” “Young Adults (18–25),” “Adults (26–40),” “Middle Age (41–60),” and “Older Adults (60+)” in response to the question: “How well do you think the following age groups are described by the word(s) ____?” The words used were “narcissistic,” “entitled,” and “overconfident” and they were asked to rank them on a scale of 1-100.
  • An assessment of their opinions of various personality traits by answering the following question in their own words: “Below, please describe what you think the word “_______” means. Please describe any examples that may come to mind.” Participants were asked about words like “humble,” “individualistic,” “snarky,” “open-minded” in addition to “narcissistic” and “entitled.”
  • A rating of the aforementioned trait words, in which they responded on a scale of 0-100 (100 being completely positive) “What is your opinion of the word _____?”
  • An emoji-based answer to the question “How would you feel if someone called you ____?” with answers ranging from a very sad face to an extremely happy face.

So, what did they find? A couple of things, but keep in mind that these are findings drawn from abstract exercises:

  • Emerging adults (18-25) enrolled in the study were likely to identify their age group as narcissistic and entitled.
  • While it was more common for subjects to think of narcissism and entitlement as negative, it wasn’t always the case since narcissistic traits can include things like assertiveness and self-esteem.
  • Subjects who were less likely to have narcissistic traits were surprised that narcissism could be framed positively, while those who scored higher for narcissism were more shocked when it was described negatively.
  • In the Mechanical Turk study, emerging adults (18–25) and adults (26–40) both showed higher levels of trait narcissism in the tests administered than middle age (41–60) and older adults (over 60). They also had more positive opinions of narcissism than middle age adults.
  • However, emerging adults tended to rate themselves as less narcissistic, entitled, and overconfident than other age groups labeled them. (Of course, we do have a long and storied history of criticizing younger generations, so historically speaking, this should come as no surprise.)
  • While emerging adults found accusations of their age group as narcissistic or entitled generally credible, they often viewed the traits as negative.

The researchers note that the “regular parade of descriptions of their age group” are “likely generally unpleasant for many emerging adults.”

As for how this research will be presented in the press? The researchers express some wariness in their paper:

Whereas much popular literature has framed these differences in sensational terms, almost all researchers agree that any age-group increases in narcissism are small in magnitude with unknown effects.

To top it off, no one really knows what these limited studies mean in the long run, but the researchers suspect that popular labeling of age group traits has permeated cultural awareness at rates that “exceed the evidentiary basis for such differences.”

In short, people seem to believe more strongly in age-group differences in narcissism and entitlement than the current body of literature justifies.

For those who bother to read to the end of the study before proclaiming that young people are embarrassed to be narcissists, you’ll find several important caveats about the limitations of the research design, which the researchers admit “precludes definitive conclusions about how emerging adults might react to this labeling in real-life encounters.”

And while it wasn’t specifically investigated in the study, researchers did see a pattern in the way younger age groups labeled their elders, attributing more narcissism to them than they did to themselves. An equally exaggerated headline might proclaim that older adults are less self-aware of their narcissism than young people.

Despite their findings, the researchers’ parting note is that while emerging adults believe themselves to be more narcissistic, the press reports findings in a way that far surpasses the actual data.

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