College Students Are Pretty Confident, Is That So Bad?

Study says current students have much higher self-confidence than their parents did

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College students, we keep hearing, are different from prior generations. And not in a good way: In studies they've been branded as overstressed, unsympathetic slackers in comparison to their parents. Today, we can also add that they're "overconfident." The research arrives from Dr. Jean Twenge, who published new findings claiming that self-ratings of freshman confidence has noticeably risen compared with students in the 60's. Twenge explained her latest research to the Associated Press by saying "it's not just confidence. It's overconfidence" that defines the current generation.

The perception isn't new in the slightest. Twenge promoted a similarly-themed study in 2001 by stating in a release that "college students' high self-esteem seems to be built on a foundation of sand." Other researchers have conducted comparable studies that found a precipitous decline in empathy in undergraduates over a 30 year period. In the "empathy" study the culprit was technology--specifically social networks like Facebook--that could lead to more isolation for today's students. In the "overconfident" study the blame was assigned to grade inflation--high schools handing out more A's to today's students--as a probable cause for false confidence.

But there's also research pointing the opposite direction. In 2008, a University of Western Ontario psychologist, Kali Trzesniewski, published a rebuttal study against Twenge's findings and concluded that there was "no evidence that overall levels of narcissism had increased" and that today's students didn't hold any more "unrealistically positive beliefs about the self" than their parents did. The New York Times covered the study as "challenging the prevailing wisdom" that the self-absorbed excesses of the 00's had irreversibly rotted away college students' moral fiber. Other research that cut against the "prevailing wisdom" noted that tolerance and volunteerism levels have been rising in college students.

The "overconfidence" theory may be "a self-fulfilling prophecy," Trzesniewski told the Times in 2008 and echoed today in the Associated Press. It's an interesting (and endlessly debatable) idea, one that Jezebel's Anna North put in perspective pretty well this morning: "there's a difference between preparing young people for the setbacks and general ordinariness of much of adulthood and constantly berating them for being pompous jerks...confidence can have a lot of benefits, and it behooves us as a society to learn how to harness it, not wish it away."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.