We Need a Vaccine Against Narcissism

January 11, 2013

This seems like a good place to stick my reminder about Live Blogging for Girls this weekend. 

I’ll be here dishing about the Season 2 premiere on Sunday at 9PM EST. Please join me to watch and give your impressions!

Now back to regular HUS programming.


Jean Twenge has completed her analysis of the most recent annual American Freshman Survey, which measures narcissistic tendencies among college students. They continue to rise, though not as dramatically as they once did. Here’s the graphic for the last 50 years:


Twenge believes that the self-esteem movement, known for such slogans as “Believe in yourself” and “Believe in your dream,” has created a culture of self-obsession. 

This year, in response to questions about whether kids might actually be working harder or getting smarter, Twenge and her colleagues looked at a variety of proficiency scores over time, and found that they were flat, and in some cases, down. Kids aren’t getting better, their egos are just getting bigger.

Twenge notes that in 1966, when the survey was first given, the culture used to encourage honesty and humility, and punished bragging or conceit. In the last two decades in particular, we’ve absorbed the message that in order to be successful, one must be highly self-confident at all times. 

This belief is widely held and very deeply held. It is also untrue. Self-esteem doesn’t lead to good outcomes. It doesn’t necessarily hurt, but it doesn’t help either. 

It’s probably the case that good outcomes result in good self-esteem, not vice versa. It’s not just the U.S. that is seeing the relentless rise of narcissism; similar results have been observed in New Zealand and China. Although Twenge focuses on the change being generational in nature, she points out that the culture is culpable as well. Materialism, the widespread use of plastic surgery, social media, and celebrity obsession have all had profound effects on Narcissistic Personality Inventory Scores. Today a full quarter of college students score in the range of a pathological degree of self-esteem. Twenge:

Narcissists put themselves first in every way. They feel so great, they feel better than other people. Other people don’t matter much to them. It’s all about “what can you do for me?”

In the long-term, what tends to happen is that narcissistic people mess up their relationships, at home and at work. Narcissists may say all the right things but their actions eventually reveal them to be self-serving.

As for the narcissists themselves, it often not until middle age that they notice their life has been marked by an unusual number of failed relationships. But it’s not something that is easy to fix – narcissists are notorious for dropping out of therapy.

It’s a personality trait. It’s by definition very difficult to change. It’s rooted in genetics and early environment and culture and things that aren’t all that malleable.

Many more college freshmen today not only have an inflated view of their abilities, they expect to be rewarded accordingly. Half of college freshmen feel sure they will attend graduate school, while that number is actually flat at about 10%. Large numbers expect to be rich and/or famous. This has led to “ambition inflation,” which obviously creates unrealistic expectations. Today, nearly 80% of freshmen rate themselves as above average in the “drive to achieve.” Twenge believes that the rise in depression and anxiety since the 60s and 70s reflects this, as people get out of school and find that just getting a job is a challenge.  

It’s not really possible to live your life while avoiding narcissists. In fact, you’re so vain you probably think this post is about you. 😛  If there’s one piece of advice that comes out of Twenge’s work, it’s this:

Make sure you’re not putting the cart before the horse. Never accept self-confidence at face value. The guy with cocky bluster is more likely to be below average than anything really special, and he almost certainly has an inflated view of his own talents. 


Where there is high self-esteem, there should be evidence of real achievement to back it up. And needless to say, a girl who’s focused most heavily on herself  has a built-in obsolescence feature – expect a full breakdown in less than a year.