Teachers, you weren't imagining it: Students today really are a little narcissistic—and schools' efforts to boost students' self-esteem may be partially to blame.
So concludes Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University in California, and author of a book on generational difference in empathy, Generation Me. She found University of South Alabama college students scored higher on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory in 2009 compared to students in 1994.
Popular songs, books, and Google searches have all seen increases in self-centered words like "me" and "mine" versus other-centered words. And on the American Freshman Survey of 9 million incoming college students nationwide, freshmen in 2013 were more likely to rate themselves as "above average" in everything from leadership to writing ability than their 1960 Baby Boomer-era peers (opinions with which their professors often beg to differ).
Tellingly, on a 30-item list of empathetic activities, modern high school students participated more frequently than high schoolers in 1960 in only one activity: volunteering. "And it looks like that was because schools are now requiring volunteering," Twenge noted in a keynote address at the American Psychological Association conference here.
Twenge puts part of the blame on the rise in self-centeredness on the psychology field's push for more self-esteem building in K-12 education over the last 20 years. Teachers have become more likely to tell students to focus on their individuality and the traits that make them unique, rather than their civic responsibilities and the importance of caring for others. She pointed to a common preschool and early elementary song called "I Am Special," which ironically is also a belief indicator in the narcissism scale. "This generation didn't wake up and say, 'Hey, I think I'll sing the 'I am special' song. It was another generation that came up with it. It is a cultural thing," she said. Trying to build up students' self-esteem by focusing on individuality, Twenge said, "was a case of good intentions, and it sounded so plausible; it just didn't pan out in the data."
So does this mean American students are little budding sociopaths? Hardly. The same move toward individualism, at least in Twenge's research, has led to more tolerance for minority groups, including students of different genders, races, sexual orientations, and disability statuses.
But greater tolerance and equality doesn't necessarily translate into empathy for those groups, she found; it's more a case of "I'll do my thing and you do yours." After the keynote, Twenge told me she wasn't sure yet how or whether schools can build empathy in students—there is some evidence to suggest requiring volunteerism doesn't really make students more altruistic later on—but she urged researchers to look for ways to help schools keep the tolerance created by individualism without students losing caring for others.