The most recent Time cover story calls the generation of young adults known as millennials “lazy, entitled narcissists.” Writer Joel Stein points out, “The incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that's now 65 or older, according to the National Institutes of Health; 58 percent more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982.” How do you measure narcissism?
By getting people to talk about themselves. In the 2008 NIH study that Stein cites, researchers did face-to-face interviews with more than 30,000 participants to test them for symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. The paper described the disorder as a “pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, interpersonal exploitiveness, and lack of empathy.” To be diagnosed as clinically narcissistic, a respondent had to admit to at least one symptom that "caused social or occupational dysfunction." Among its findings, the study diagnosed 9.4 percent of respondents ages 20 to 29 with NPD, compared with 3.2 percent in respondents ages 65 and older.
Attempting to measure narcissism is a thorny issue because each researcher culls data from different data sets, then applies different algorithms to analyze those data sets, then comes to his own conclusions using the result of his methodology. As an article at the Atlantic pointed out last week, many psychologists have disputed the study Stein cited about millennials being singularly narcissistic. And while the NIH study found incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is inversely related to age, its authors admit "NPD may be more prevalent among young adults due to developmental challenges in the transition from adolescence to adulthood."
There’s debate in psychology over whether narcissism should be considered a clinical disorder at all or whether it’s simply a stop on the continuum of natural human emotion. Some psychologists tried unsuccessfully to remove the disorder from the upcoming fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, due out this month.
But are young adults today actually more narcissistic than their elders, or is young adulthood a generally selfish stage of human development? Some experts say there’s no real way to find a definite measure for NPD among the hazy definitions, shifting cultural norms, and evolving technology.
Explainer thanks Brent Donnellan of Michigan State University, Jeffrey Arnett of Clark University, Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, and Donna Bender of the University of Arizona.*
Correction, May 14, 2013: This article originally misstated that Donna Bender was affiliated with the National Institutes of Health. She is an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona. (Return to the corrected sentence.)