• Fri, May 6 2011

Young People Are Narcissists, Say Old People

Do you listen to Britney Spears to reinforce how awesome you think you are? According to some scientists, you do indeed. A recent study of the lyrics of popular music revealed a rise in narcissistic themes and phrases over the past thirty years, as well as an increase in words related to anger. When talking to the New York Times about his findings, University of Kentucky psychologist Dr. Nathan DeWall suggested a correlation with another study–performed over a number of years by two of his co-authors–of narcissism in college-aged subjects:

“For several decades, students have filled out a questionnaire called the Narcissism Personality Inventory, in which they’ve had to choose between two statements like “I try not to be a show-off” and “I will usually show off if I get the chance.” The level of narcissism measured by these questionnaires has been rising since the early 1980s, according to an analysis of campus data by Dr. [Jean] Twenge and Dr. [W. Keith] Campbell.”

For balance, the Times linked to a different study seeking to debunk the pronouncement of a widespread “narcissism epidemic” among young people. (The Narcissism Epidemic, not coincidentally, is also the title of a popular sociology book written by Twenge and Campbell, the second of two such books by Twenge.) The second study argues that Twenge and friends used improper methods of data analysis to magnify their results, and that even under their own rubric, there was only a (small but) statistically significant rise in narcissism among female test subjects, with males showing no significant change at all. Also, the sample they used was too small and specific to make any kind of sweeping diagnosis of “this generation” as a whole.

Let’s pretend for a minute that the second study is correct, and that there was an increase in female narcissism only (even if it was small). What could’ve caused this sudden rise in vanity? Could it be that with improved access to, and treatment within, higher education, female college students are starting to gain some of that cocksure swagger that’s long been a trademark of the collegiate male? But I thought young women had been brainwashed into acting like sex objects by porno culture! Where is all this alleged self-esteem coming from?

Well, some of the measures of narcissism might not necessarily conflict with this idea. For example, some girls who prioritize meeting societal ideals of beauty (in order to nab a dude, ‘natch) might actually feel good about the “look” they’ve worked so hard to achieve (or at least feel like they should, after all those hours at the gym), and rate themselves more highly in looks-related questions like “do you like to look at yourself in the mirror?” while rating themselves no more highly than previous generations in intellect-related areas. I don’t have all the data, but I’m willing to bet this type of question bumped the females’ total score up significantly. If you don’t think it’s super important to be “hot,” you’re not going to be as obsessed with/in love with your own face and body, right?

Or maybe women work harder than men in school (as numerous analyses of test scores and admissions patterns would suggest), hence they believe they’re entitled to more from the world in return? Remember, these relatively privileged young ladies have yet to enter the real world. They still believe in the American dream of hard work being magically rewarded, etc. (Poor rubes.)

I’m not sure how helpful it is in all of this hypothesizing to look at the lyrics of pop songs–how do we know they’re even listening to Top 40? “Indie rock” is synonymous with “college rock” for a reason–but the guy with the PhD did, so I’ll play along. Of the female-sung songs currently in the top ten of Billboard’s “Hot 100,” three are about love (Lady Gaga loves a biblical figure, Katy Perry loves some kind of mysteriously sexy alien-man, and Adele presumably loves a human, though she doesn’t say). Two are about getting your dance on up in the cluuurb (Britney and J Lo, I salute your longstanding commitment to this pursuit). And one, of course, is about S&M, which can be viewed as either an empowering declaration of identity or the BDSM community’s very own “I Kissed a Girl”, depending on the level of sincerity at which you believe Rihanna is operating. With the exception of “S&M” (or maybe not, if you put it in the broad category of “shocking sex stuff”), these seem like the same topics pop music’s always been about. It’s almost as if this snapshot of mainstream culture has no correlation with the first narcissism study at all.

In the end, I think we should be wary of making generalizations based on potentially magnified statistics taken from samples that are somewhat racially and socioeconomically skewed to begin with, no matter how many alarmist books it might sell. And while it’s fun to discuss, the pop music connection is even dicier. (Do they do focus groups now to see what types of lyrics they should write? Maybe tabloid culture is making pop stars themselves vainer and angrier.) But maybe that’s just the defensive know-it-all Millennial in me talking. Now if you will excuse me, I have a date to make love to my own reflection while listening to Lady Gaga.

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  • Tobi

    I’m wondering if people really are more narcissistic than before, or if it’s just that people are more honest about it now. I kind of think that older people and previous generations had a sort of narcissism about them, but it was one of those things that they hid away and instead feigned modesty, etc.