People love to compare. And this includes looking at the differences between generations. It seems as if ‘millennials‘ are the new scapegoat. However, it’s difficult to define millennials, as different sources use different definitions of the word. Everyone born between approximately 1980 – 2000 are usually dubbed as this ‘new generation’. Thus, we’re talking about people between the ages of ~40-20 roughly. Interestingly, many of the critics often fall between in this age cohort. One of the most recurring critiques includes the supposed increase in selfishness and narcissism. Does taking selfies really indicate narcissism? What is narcissism and did it really increase over the years?
Has narcissism prevalence increased over the years?
Unfortunately, this is difficult to answer. This actually an issue for almost all mental health disorders. Psychology and attributing behaviors to disorders both have been gaining acceptance over the years. This means that we can’t actually accurately compare data from fifty years ago.
First, we lacked valid and reliable measurement tools for each disorder. Second, we lacked knowledge, more research still needs to be done to find out the incidence and implication of a mental disorder. Third, what behaviors are considered to be ‘not normal’ changes through history. Do we still use the same definition of narcissism? Fourth, subgroups of the population have been ignored in terms of mental health. For instance, it seems that more girls suffer from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) than was estimated. This holds true for people with an ethnic background in Western countries as well, these groups are overlooked, their behaviors are more likely to be attributed to their personalities.
So does narcissism increase over the years? Researchers found it is actually a very stable trait and that it didn’t increase(1).
But what exactly is narcissistic personality disorder?
In order to have guidelines in terms of mental health disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was created. This book helps clinicians (e.g. psychologists) make sense of the problems their patients might have. And according to the DSM, the following symptoms are associated with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD):
- Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from others
- Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
- Self-perception of being unique, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions
- Needing constant admiration from others
- Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
- Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain
- Unwilling to empathize with others’ feelings, wishes, or needs
- Intensely envious of others and the belief that others are equally envious of them
- Pompous and arrogant demeanor
So are ‘millennial behaviors’ an indication of increased narcissism?
Younger people are overrepresented in statistics of internet use and social media use(2,3). So in order to successfully carry out ‘impression management,’ these ages might be more inclined to use social media. In real life, all ages engage in impression management. We want people to see us in a certain light, and when we find out they don’t see us they way we want them to, we will adjust our behaviors. If we want people to perceive us as smart, we might do our best to display behaviors that could signal intelligence. Social media can be an interesting environment for impression management. You can upload selfies that display your ‘good sides’. You can effectively tell a large group of people that you engage in charity work, get good grades, get promotions, go to cool parties, go on nice vacations, etc.
Since we have more control in online settings, we get to edit and think about what we post, we naturally show most of the good stuff. Does that make us narcissists? Probably not. Normal individuals engage in impression management in real life situations, just like we do online. Online there is more room for enhancement.
1. Grijalva, E., Newman, D. A., Tay, L., Donnellan, M. B., Harms, P. D., Robins, R. W., & Yan, T. (2015). Gender differences in narcissism: A meta-analytic review. Psychological bulletin, 141(2), 261.
2. Distribution internet use according to age
3. Distribution social media use according to age