There’s a strong case to be made that since the end of World War II, Americans have grown increasingly narcissistic on average – more entitled, with an inflated sense of self-importance.
Psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell are most responsible for collecting data and creating a narrative to support this claim. According to the duo, the rise began with the Baby Boomers, who grew up in an era of relative ease and plenty after their grandparents endured a Great Depression and their parents soldiered and sacrificed through World War II. By the time they were college-aged, Boomers eschewed the collectivist mindset of their elders in favor of individualism.
The trend continued with Boomers’ kids. As Dennis Shen wrote for the London School of Economics’ Phelan United States Centre, “One study comparing teenagers found that while only 12% of those aged 14-16 in the early 1950s agreed with the statement “I am an important person”, 77% of boys and more than 80% of girls of the same cohort by 1989 agreed with it.”
And, of course, the rise in narcissism has persisted since. In 2008, Twenge published a study comparing college students’ scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory scale to scores from students in 1979, finding that levels of narcissism had risen roughly 30 percent.
Additional research has evinced this increase. “59% of American college freshmen rated themselves above average in intellectual self-confidence in 2014, compared with 39% in 1966,” Shen wrote.
Owing to the elevated prevalence of social media services over the past decade, it’s highly likely that the rise in narcissism has only accelerated of late. We see it on Twitter, where users flock to share their ‘brilliant’ opinions. We see it on Instagram and TikTok, where people carefully curate their online personas. We also see it in traditional media sources, where elite-educated journalists often make themselves the story and focus on tending their Twitter profiles. Narcissism also reigns on television news. Gone are the days of humble correspondents and “just the facts” anchors, replaced by talking heads and opinionated hosts more interested in their ratings than the truth.
Of course, while narcissism has risen, that doesn’t mean we are all narcissists. It exists both as a trait, which is on a spectrum, and a personality disorder, which is much more extreme and debilitating. Narcissistic personality disorder has actually remained fairly stable in the U.S. over the past decades. This means that the average American is more self-centered than they used to be, but decidedly not stuck in their own head.
What are the wider effects of this psychological transition? As Shen speculated, partisanship has exploded as people have grown more enamored with their own beliefs and less open to others’. Debt-financed conspicuous consumption “to elevate one’s status in front of others, rather than out of necessity” has risen. And an increasing disdain for government could partly be attributed to a focus on somewhat arrogant self-sufficiency.
There is also another way to look at the rise in narcissism – as a defense mechanism. Narcissism is often driven by low self-esteem and insecurity. Since the 1950s, wealth inequality has risen, cost of living has exploded, especially for housing, and puchasing power has stagnated. Combine these economic pressures with the competitive, pressure-filled media environment since the turn of the century and you have a recipe for a rise in narcissism. And sadly, narcissism is linked to elevated hostility and aggression towards others. One hopes that Americans can find a way to cool their collective narcissism before it boils over.
Originally published by RealClearScience. Republished with permission.