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Millennials May Not Be Such Narcissists After All

New research finds recent college students are no more self-absorbed than their predecessors.

With each new generation, Americans are growing more narcissistic. That assertion, which has been backed up by research, has spread widely, presumably because it makes intuitive sense. It's easy to surmise that growing up in a world of selfies and social media would lead kids to worship their own reflections.

However, this narrative has been challenged. And just-published research suggests it may be based on a misreading, or misinterpretation, of some widely cited data.

"There may never have been an epidemic of narcissism," writes a team led by psychologists Eunike Wetzel of the University of Konstanz and Brent Roberts of the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign. "Our study suggests today's college students are less narcissistic than their predecessors."

The study, which will be published later this week in the journal Psychological Science, analyzes data on more than 50,000 students enrolled at three universities. University of California–Berkeley undergraduates were surveyed in the 1990s; those from the University of California–Davis and the University of Illinois were surveyed in the 2000s and 2010s.

Like their predecessors, these researchers assessed narcissism using results from the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. That 40-item survey presents participants with pairs of statements, and asks them to indicate which better defines their attitudes and beliefs. One example: "I just want to be reasonably happy," vs. "I want to amount to something in the eyes of the world."

The problem, as Brooke Lea Foster noted in The Atlantic in 2014, is that the results "leave quite a bit up for interpretation. For example, does agreement with statements like 'I am assertive' or 'I wish I were more assertive' measure narcissism, self-esteem, or leadership?"

Indeed, Roberts and his colleagues concluded that "the meaning of some of the NPI's items changed over time." That means "undergraduates interpreted (certain) items differently across generational cohorts," making decade-to-decade comparisons suspect.

After adjusting for such shifts in meaning, they concluded that "narcissism levels have been slowly declining from the 1990s to the 2010s." What's more, they report this is true of both men and women, and for all major ethic groups.

Moreover, small, gradual declines were found "both for overall narcissism levels, and for the special facets of leadership, vanity, and entitlement."

"The average college student scores 15 to 16 on the NPI scale, out of a possible 40," Roberts said in announcing the findings. "If you use that as a natural metric, most people are not narcissists."

While this new study will not end the debate, Roberts offers a plausible explanation as to why older people were so quick to endorse those initial findings. He notes that the "average grandparent scores about 12," suggesting that narcissistic tendencies tend to decline with age.

"We have faulty memories," he said. "We don't remember that we were rather self-centered when we were that age."