Am I a narcissist, or just kind of a bitch?
But is this trend pathological? Is it actually computing to an increase in diagnoses for narcissistic personality disorder, or are we just self-centered assholes?
Well, according to Dr. Jean Twenge, a researcher at San Diego State University, it is. Her controversial study published in 2008 showed a 30% increase in narcissism scores since the 1970s, and it reported that two-thirds of college students tested today rated themselves above the mean score of college students from the 1980s.
Additional studies of hers have shown a steady rise in self-esteem among students over the years, and even an increase in the use of individualistic words and phrases like “unique,” “I’m special,” and “I’m the best” in books since 1960.
Fortunately, other researchers have defended us, arguing that this is less a facet of our generation itself than a reflection of our age and the over-sharing, social media-ing, fomo-ing, yolo-ing era we inhabit. And another study reported that there’s actually been no difference in rates of narcissism over the last 30 years.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, narcissism is defined as having a “grandiose sense of self-importance;” being “preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love;” believing you are “’special’ and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with other special or high-status people;” “require excess admiration;” and have a “sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.”
To be perfectly honest, this sounds pretty par for the course. But the diagnosis also includes traits of being “interpersonally exploitative, i.e., taking advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends;” “lacking empathy: being unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others;” being “envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her;” and “showing arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.”
Ok, so I’ll cop to the some of the first traits, but I don’t think I’m actually a bad person! So I decided to put myself and a couple friends to the test. Are we nice? Normal? Kind of bitchy? Or do we actually have a pathology? (And yes, I realize the irony of writing about narcissism with an anecdotal story of my own narcissistic scores.)
I also wanted to test my theory of whether this was a generational effect or just a condition of our age. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get access to a time machine to take me back to when my parents were in their mid-20s, so I had to go with their responses now.
So how’d we do? Well, according to the quiz on Psych Central based on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, I scored an 11 out of 40; that makes me just 1 point below average. Apparently I am not at all exploitative or believe that I am entitled, but I have a hell of a good opinion of my own authority (perhaps that goes along with being a writer?). Do I think that a biography should be written about my life? Honestly, no. But do I consider myself to be assertive and a good leader? Yeah, I’d say so. I’m also slightly an exhibitionist and a bit vain—i.e. I’ll do almost anything on a dare, and yes, sometimes I like to be the center of attention.
My peers were only slightly higher on the scale with an average score of 14. This places this group of high-achieving Millennial/Generation Y-ers smack dab in the middle of normal.
But what about my parents? Sure enough, the Baby Boomer crowd I solicited was significantly lower in narcissism than my 20-something peers, averaging a measly 6 on the scale. However, I’m still not entirely convinced that this wasn’t more of an age than a generation effect. After all, my own (gorgeous brilliant) mother made the point that she was a lot more confident about her looks and prospects for her future at 20 than at 60. Backing this up, a friend of hers stated, “For what it’s worth, I felt like I’d have answered several of those questions differently when I was younger and sassier.” Another added that coming of age during the 1960s, “My generation thought it could change the world, if that isn’t leaning towards narcissism I don’t know what is!”
Perhaps we have to be narcissistic when we’re young; how else would we have the confidence to strive to advance and succeed, pushing against the current boundaries of politics, science, technology and culture? Progress comes with innovation, but before innovation often comes failure. In order to withstand this, we sometimes have to be blind to our own shortcomings, overly sure of our abilities, ideas and authority. Else we might remain crippled by self-doubt, a lack of confidence masked by humility. After all, if we didn’t think we deserved the best, why would we ever try to make things better?
So should we be worried? Personally, I don’t think so. But then again, I think we’re practically perfect anyway.