The Persistent Myth of the Narcissistic Millennial

People are still lobbing the same accusations at Millennials, even though evidence shows they're not any more self-absorbed than their predecessors.

Toby Melville / Reuters

A few months ago, the news went viral that the American Psychiatric Association had classified “taking selfies” as a sign of a mental disorder. It lit up Facebook and Twitter until it was revealed that the article was a hoax.

But still, I doubt I’m the only one that has felt at least a tiny sense of self-loathing after, say, posting a photo of myself on Facebook. Deep down, taking a “selfie” doesn’t just feel like capturing a moment—it also feels like capturing myself at my most vain.

In his pop-psychology book The Narcissist Next Door: Understanding the Monster in Your Family, in Your Office, in Your Bed—in Your World, published in September, author and Time editor at large Jeffrey Kluger argues that the popularity of the “selfie” is just one way that our culture is becoming more narcissistic. In fact, he says, narcissistic behaviors today aren’t just more accepted; they’re celebrated. “We’ve become accustomed to preeners and posers who don’t have anything to offer except themselves and their need to be on the public stage,” he says. The egocentric antics of figures like Donald Trump or Kim Kardashian, for example, make our own narcissistic proclivities seem more palatable by comparison, and social media only instigates the desire for attention. Facebook, to a narcissist, can be like an open bar to a drunk.

But Kluger also devotes a chunk of his book to what’s become a tired argument: The idea that Millennials—the generation that came of age with selfies and Facebook and the Kardashians—are the most self-absorbed generation of all. “Plenty of people are narcissistic in our society,” Kluger says, “but Millennials are doing these things on a pandemic level.”

Of course they are. They’re young and full of themselves, like every other generation that’s come before them was at some point. But are Millennials any more narcissistic than, say, the Baby Boomers, who were once considered the most self-obsessed cohort of their time? Consider the 1976 cover story of New York Magazine, in which Tom Wolfe declared the ‘70s “The Me Decade.”  One could argue that every generation seems a little more narcissistic than the last, puffing out its chest and going out into the world with an overabundance of self-confidence, swagger, even a bit of arrogance. These traits are simply hallmarks of early adulthood—it’s often the first time people are putting themselves out there, applying for first jobs and meeting potential life partners. Overconfidence is how people muscle through the big changes.

Whether it’s Time’s 2013 cover story “The Me, Me, Me Generation” or Kluger’s book, the same statistics are cited as proof of Millennial narcissism. In a 2008 study published in the Journal of Personality, San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge found that narcissistic behaviors among college students studied over a 27-year period had increased significantly from the 1970s. A second study published in 2008 by the National Institutes of Health showed that 9.4 percent of 20- to 29-year-olds exhibit extreme narcissism, compared with 3.2 percent of those older than 65.

But there’s a problem with all of this evidence: The data is unreliable. “It’s incredibly unfair to call Millennials narcissistic, or to say they’re more so than previous generations,” says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a professor of psychology at Clark University and author of Getting to 30: A Parent’s Guide to the Twentysomething Years. Arnett has devoted a significant amount of time and research to disproving the statistics that San Diego State’s Twenge has built a career on. He says that her assertion that narcissistic behaviors among young people have risen 30 percent is flimsy, since she’s basing it around data collected from the 40-question Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), the results of which leave quite a bit up for interpretation. For example, does agreement with statements like “I am assertive” or “I wish I were more assertive” measure narcissism, self-esteem, or leadership?

Culturally, narcissism has become a catchphrase of sorts for traits people deem unpleasant or unlikable in a person, similar to how people will say they have obsessive-compulsive disorder just because they’re fastidious or detail-oriented, rather than because they meet the actual clinical diagnosis. If you love to talk about yourself, but you also show empathy for others, you’re not a narcissist. If you’re extremely confident at work but you’re good at accepting criticism, you’re probably not a narcissist either.

In fact, according to the APA, only about 1 percent of people would meet the textbook definition of narcissism. Instead, many people today exhibit something called “subclinical narcissism,” which Kluger describes as a kind of narcissism lite. It’s the co-worker who loves to talk about herself, the friend at the cocktail party who entertains a crowd with his self-absorbed (but funny) stories, the sibling that consistently shows up empty-handed at holidays. They are people who channel their love of themselves into a kind of infectious self-confidence, leading them to believe that it’s their world and everyone else is living in it.

Part of the problem with diagnosing narcissism is that it’s easy to confuse it with other types of behaviors, as Arnett alluded to. Here’s another ambiguous set of NPI statements: “The thought of ruling the world frightens the hell out of me,” or “If I ruled the world it would be a better place.” Arnett says: “I could see a 19-year-old chuckling at the idea of ruling the world and checking it off on the NPI. On the inventory, there are things that are narcissism, things that are clearly not narcissism, and things that are ridiculous. But altogether, it's uninterpretable.”

Also dubious is the methodology used in the study out of the NIH. To investigate whether twentysomethings were more narcissistic than those over 65, researchers sat down with both age groups and interviewed them about their narcissistic behaviors. But here’s the rub: While the younger people polled were asked about their current lives, those over 65 were asked to remember how they behaved decades ago—not an entirely reliable account of whether or not they acted in a narcissistic manner.

Other studies have directly contradicted the idea that Millennials are the most narcissistic of previous generations. In a large survey of high-school seniors across several decades, psychologist M. Brent Donnellan (now at Texas A&M University) found little change when looking at the Millennial generation’s ideas about self-esteem, individualism, or life satisfaction compared to young people in the past. And when psychology researchers at the University of Illinois compared narcissism rates with age and life stages in another 2010 study, they found that narcissistic behavior was related not to generation, but to age-related developmental stages. “This leads to the conclusion that every generation is Generation Me, as every generation of younger people are more narcissistic than their elders,” the researchers wrote.

Perhaps today’s young people are products, rather than drivers, of the cultural saturation of narcissism that Kluger describes. They’re not leading the charge—they’re simply evolving with the times, just as their parents, siblings, and grandparents are. Maybe Kluger is right: Maybe we’re all just a little more into ourselves than we used to be.

And for those uniquely self-centered, narcissistic Millennials, well, researchers say they’re actually a lot less selfish than popular reports make it seem. While Twenge alleges that the increase in narcissism has promoted a generational trend toward “more extrinsic values (money, image, and fame) and away from intrinsic values (community feeling, affiliation, and self-acceptance),” other researchers, including Arnett, have found the opposite. In a recent survey of 18- to 29-year olds, 80 percent agreed with the statement, “It is more important for me to enjoy my job than to make a lot of money,” while 86 percent agreed that “It is important to me to have a career that does some good in the world.” And a 2010 survey of high school seniors found that from 1976 to 2006, “there were no meaningful changes in egotism, self-enhancement, individualism, self-esteem.”

So they love the selfie? Let them. Says Arnett: “In many other ways, this is an exceptionally generous generation.”