Narcissism increasing in young generation
Narcissism is a serious social and psychological problem. The term refers to an inflated view of the self, coupled with relative indifference to others. People who are high in this trait fail to help others unless there is immediate gain or recognition to themselves for doing so; often think they are above the law and therefore violate it; and readily trample over others in their efforts to rise to the "top," which is where they think they belong. A world full of narcissists would be a sad world indeed. We humans are, by nature, social animals; we absolutely depend upon one another's good will and care. Narcissism is bad not just for society as a whole, but also for the individual narcissist. People high on this trait are often unhappy, angry at the world because of the world's failure to recognize their superiority. They are generally incapable of forming the kinds of deep, meaningful, lasting relationships with others that we all need in order to live happy, emotionally secure lives.
The characteristic that perhaps most distinguishes non-narcissists from narcissists is empathy. Empathy refers to a capacity and tendency to experience life not just from one's own point of view but also from that of others, to feel others' joy and sorrow, and to care about others' wellbeing. Specialists in moral development consider empathy to be the foundation for human compassion and morality.
What accounts for this historical rise in narcissism and decline in empathy? There is no way to know for sure, based on the data, but there are lots of grounds for speculation. One possibility that comes easily to mind is that the changes simply have to do with the ways that people respond to questionnaire items. Maybe students are more honest now than they were thirty years ago in admitting selfish or uncaring tendencies. That's perhaps the rosiest possible interpretation, because it suggests that the change is not one of increased narcissism but increased honesty. Most people who do this research, however, reject that explanation, because other evidence suggests that the tendency to try to look good on questionnaires (which are filled out anonymously in these studies) hasn't changed over the years and because other means of assessment, which would be harder to fake, also tend to reveal an increase in narcissism and decline in empathy. So, most of the speculation has to do with changes in the world in which young people are growing up.
Some of the speculation has centered on the misguided "self-esteem" movement that began to take shape in the 1980s. Parents, teachers, and others involved with children were advised to build up children's self-esteem through frequent praise. Many parents, especially, began telling their children how beautiful, smart, and generally wonderful they are, or began bragging about their kids to others in front of them. Television programs for kids featured songs about being "special" and lessons to the effect that "you can be anything you want to be." In competitions, everyone got some kind of trophy. Perhaps some of that actually got incorporated into the thinking of young people growing up in this era. They may to some degree have grown up believing what they were told. To the degree that they did, they would become narcissists, because the things they were told are exactly the kinds of things that narcissists believe about themselves.
Another possible culprit, which makes even more sense to me, is the increased pressure on children and adolescents to achieve, where achievement is defined as beating others in competitions. When achievement is defined as getting the best grades in school, getting into the best college, winning individual sporting competitions, and the like, then the focus of thought is on the self and others are seen as obstacles, or as people you must defeat, or as people you must manipulate to serve your ends. If the purpose of a child's life is to build a strong résumé, as many parents seem to believe, then, of course, the child is going to grow up "looking out for number one" and not have much time or concern for others. In these conditions young people might volunteer for causes that will look good on a résumé, but not take time to help others purely out of compassion, where it will not show up on a résumé.
Consistent with this view, correlational studies have revealed that children who engage in more social play with other children demonstrate more empathy, and more ability to understand the perspective of others, than do children who engage in less such play. Moreover, several short-term experiments conducted in preschools have shown that when some children are provided with extra opportunities to engage in social play, those in the extra-play groups later exhibit higher performance on various measures of social perspective-taking and ability to get along with others than do those in the control groups.
Younger's strong drives to play came about, through natural selection, to serve many purposes. As I have explained in previous essays, play is a means by which younger practice creativity, practice taking charge of their own lives and solving their own problems, practice rule-following and impulse control, and practice the art of regulating their own emotions. And, as part of all this, play is also how children learn to live socially, on an equal footing with their fellow human beings. Nature's way of insuring that we survive as social beings was to implant in us, as children, a powerful drive to play with other children. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, in recent decades we have been making it harder and harder for children to find opportunities to do that without adult interference. If we want to reverse the trend toward narcissism, we must find new ways to allow children/youth, once again, to spend great amounts of time playing freely with one another.
Research professor at Boston College and author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology.