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Rachel Ehrenberg, Culture beaker

There’s nothing special about thinking that kids think they’re extra special

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Science News Prime | August 6, 2012 | Vol. 2, No. 30

“You are not special. You are not exceptional.”

Blunt words, delivered in June by English teacher David McCullough Jr. to the graduating class of Wellesley High School in Massachusetts. They quickly went viral. Lauded as an especially fitting message for today’s self-entitled “me generation,” McCullough’s speech garnered praise around the media world, from the Christian Science Monitor to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show.

McCullough’s remarks struck a chord, speaking to a sentiment that’s echoed in popular culture. Children born in recent decades are thought to be narcissistic praise-junkies, raised by over-adulating parents. The constant coddling, meant to boost self-esteem, instead robs these kids of legitimate self-esteem — the kind that is earned.

“Feeling special is narcissism — not self- esteem, not self-confidence, and not something we should be building in our children,” write psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell in their 2010 book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. Recall the original narcissist from the Greek myth: Narcissus, who died when he couldn’t tear himself away from his own reflection. The consequences of today’s narcissism epidemic, manifested in every- thing from Wall Street greed to the pervasiveness of plastic surgery, are seen as similarly dire.

Much of the scholarship documenting the plague of specialness comes out of Twenge’s lab at San Diego State University. She has documented, for example, an increase in test scores of college students on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, which has people choose between narcissistic and non-narcissistic phrases, such as ‘‘I can live my life any way I want to,” or ‘‘People can’t always live their lives in terms of what they want.” For a different study, the researchers surveyed names in the Social Security Administration database and found that American parents today are more inclined to give their kids unusual names. Uniqueness and narcissism often go together, and the researchers suggest that future work examine whether the bearers of unique names — or their parents — have more individualistic/narcissistic personality traits.

Twenge and colleagues now report that the focus on the individual has even seeped into our literature. (The emphasis on “I” has already seeped into our devices, of course — consider Apple’s iMac, iPad and iPhone. Yes, there’s also the Wii, but note that even though it sounds communal, it’s spelled with two i’s.)

The research team surveyed the Google Books corpus for words and phrases in American texts written between 1960 and 2008. There was a gradual increase in the prevalence of individualistic words (such as unique, self, personalized, individuality) and individualistic phrases (things like “all about me,” “looking out for number one,” “I am special”). This trend toward individualism has been increasing in Western culture for centuries, notes Twenge. But the specialness has become even more special today. “There’s this idea that if some self-esteem is good, well, more is better,” she says. “But you can have too much of something.”

Still, many scholars argue that Generation Me is no more narcissistic than previous generations. Some critics take issue with the data and methods that Twenge and her colleagues use to make their case. The Narcissistic Personality Inventory study, for example, compiled many studies, but left others out — ones that would change the effect, Brent Donnellan and others argue in a recent Journal of Personality.

Others argue that narcissism is more of a developmental phenomenon than a generational one. In the classical view of personality development, infants and children are considered naturally narcissistic and self-involved, but that self becomes dismantled as we age, with a gentler remnant of that narcissistic self incorporated in our adult self. As such, every generation of young people is more narcissistic than their elders. It’s a developmental trait that may be influenced by culture, but happens to all of us, psychologist Brent Roberts and colleagues contend in a recent paper titled “It is Developmental Me, Not Generation Me.”

The notion that these are especially narcissistic times is compelling. (And I might add, narcissistic. Studies refuting Twenge’s work actually make a meta-case for her argument: The Me Generation is so narcissistic that it thinks it’s even more narcissistic than other generations.) And other researchers have found similar trends. But perhaps some of the chatter about the narcissism of today could be roughly translated as “kids these days.”

Roberts and colleagues make a similar point. Their paper begins with a quote: “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.” It was supposedly said by the Greek poet Hesiod. In 700 B.C.

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