Sunday, September 16, 2007

Narcissism differs greatly from ambition, confidence

By Jean M. Twenge
Publication Date: 09/10/07
Guest Columnist
The Exponent Online

Just when you were studying for midterms last spring, you might have seen the media coverage of a study showing that today's college students are more narcissistic than previous generations. "Great," you probably thought. "Somebody else who's complaining about us when we're only trying to get ahead."

Well, I'm that somebody I did the research for the study along with four of my psychology colleagues. It was the latest research I've done on how the generations differ, data I expand on in my non-academic book, "Generation Me." I know how competitive things are for young people now ミ there's a whole chapter on stress in the book, based on studies and interviews with college students and twenty-somethings.

For the narcissism study, I gathered data between 1982 and 2006 on 16,475 college students who filled out the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, which has 40 items such as, "If I ruled the world, it would be a better place," "I think I am a special person," "I can live my life any way I want to" and "I like to be the center of attention."

College newspapers around the country carried stories and columns responding to the study. No one really disputed the idea that many of their peers would agree with such questions. Instead, most argued that these traits were necessary. "But we are special," wrote Camille Clasby in The San Diego State University Daily Aztec. "The way we're able to meet and exceed the challenges we face is by believing in ourselves." Wrote the Exponent's own Mike Nolan: "Sure I'm full of myself. ノ I can work hard to attend college and pursue my life's goals. I'm not going to apologize for believing that I can do just fine in my life if I put enough effort into it."

I agree with Mike and the other students ミ to a point. Ambition and effort are extremely useful, especially in today's increasingly competitive world. But the scale we studied doesn't measure ambition, pride, effort or even self-confidence: It measures narcissism, a different beast entirely. It's not a good thing to think you could do a great job ruling the world (hello, Genghis Khan); nor is it good to think you're special (and no, you can't get around it by saying everyone is special ミ look up the word in the dictionary. It is not possible for everyone to be special). People who score high on this scale believe that they deserve special treatment and that they can do whatever they want. In laboratory studies, narcissists are aggressive when insulted, have a hard time seeing someone else's perspective and take more than their share of common resources.

And even with all that, narcissism does not lead to success. Even high self-esteem isn't particularly helpful. Students with an inflated sense of self actually earn lower GPAs and are more likely to drop out of college. Narcissistic business CEOs are less successful than humble leaders who give credit to their team (see the business book "Good to Great" for more on this). Put simply, narcissists are jerks, other people can't stand them, so they end up crashing and burning ミ eventually.

Why do so many believe that narcissism leads to success? Probably because narcissistic and successful people like Donald Trump and Paris Hilton are in the public eye so much. However, there are hundreds of millionaires who are even more successful who aren't narcissists ミ which is exactly why we haven't heard of them.

Nolan asked in his March column, "Does [the study] mean a model society would contain individuals with no confidence, ambition or desire to make the best out of their lives?" Absolutely not. But a model society would have few narcissists ミ people who lack empathy for others, cheat in relationships and dominate every conversation. We need successful and ambitious people, but we don't need people who think they are entitled to a good grade (or a good salary) just for showing up, or who would rather get attention than do the job right.

Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., is the author of "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled -- and More Miserable Than Ever Before" and is an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University.