An analysis of freshman surveys that were held in the United States every year since 1996 shows that the modern youth is alarmingly happy with itself. Students nowadays rate their own abilities much higher than their peers did in the past. What does that say about this new generation? Researcher Keith Campbell, co-author of the publication in Self and Identity, explains:
How exceptional are today’s youngsters in their self-confidence?
We found that student’s rating of themselves compared to others increased since 1966 on a wide range of traits. The highest increase we saw in social self-confidence. While in 1966 only 30 percent of the students rated their own social self-confidence as above average, 52 percent did so in 2009. Students perception of leadership-ability rose almost as fast, from 42 percent ‘above-averages’ in 1966 till 62 percent in 2009.
There are also some traits in which today’s students think they perform worse than their former peers thought. Those are traits like ‘spirituality’, ‘understanding others’ and ‘emotional health’.
Of all the abilities the students evaluated, which change in self-perception astonished you the most?
A remarkable change is the way students think about their own writing abilities. In 1966 only 30 percent thought they could write better than their average peer. Now 46 percent of the students think they can write above average.
The funny thing is that when we look at student’s SAT scores (a test you need to take before entering university) the opposite is actually happening. Forty years ago students scored a lot better at writing than nowadays. Writing abilities even decreased more than the students own perception of this skill increased. So while many students now think they write better than their former peers thought, even more of them actually perform worse.
You already expected this increase in self-confidence. Why?
Our culture is becoming more individualistic – even the names we give our children are less common than they were 40 years ago. Part of this growing sense of individualism is an inflating sense of the self. So, we see more positive self-views, greater narcissism and higher self-esteem.
Today we see that schools encourage children to have a sense of specialness and uniqueness as a way of gaining self-esteem. We have seen this pattern more recently in emerging media, like YouTube and Facebook. On the flip side, we see fewer close connections with others, such as less empathy and lower trust.
You say too much self-esteem doesn’t help students achieve their goals and lead a happy life. But doesn’t self-esteem also make people perform better? (See for example psychologist Amy Cuddy’s power-poses)
Not really. In one study, undergraduates who were doing poorly in a class were given self-esteem boosts. These self-esteem boosts backfired, and grades slipped. Self-esteem is certainly not a bad quality to have. However, the pursuit of self-esteem — especially when it involves feeling special and unique without any actual success — is costly.
It could even lead to narcissism. This excessive self-centredness has some benefits, such as performing better in public, on television and in job interviews. But these are typically short term, and often come at a cost for others. (Just ask anyone who has worked for a narcissistic boss.)
Your research only concerns American students. Do you expect European students to also have developed more narcistic traits?
There are data consistent with increasing narcissism from China and New Zealand. There are no data from Europe that I am aware of that directly test this, but I suspect this is a phenomenon seen all around the world to one degree or another.
Keith Campbell is Department Head Professor of the Behavioral and Brain Sciences Program of the University of Georgia. He wrote three books about narcism and was (co) author of various scientific publications on the same subject, the latest being:
Twenge, J., Campbell, W., & Gentile, B. (2012). Generational Increases in Agentic Self-evaluations among American College Students, 1966–2009 Self and Identity, 11 (4), 409-427 DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2011.576820