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Jean Twenge, San Diego State University

2013 Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Keynote Speaker


Jean-Twenge-150x150.jpgProfessional Title: Professor of Psychology

Books: The Narcissism EpidemicLiving in the Age of Entitlement (co-authored with W. Keith Campbell) Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before The Impatient Woman’s Guide to Getting Pregnant


You co-authored The Narcissistic Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (2009) with W. Keith Campbell. How do you, as a “celebrity” in your field who is often quoted and who is frequently in demand for interviews (including this one!), avoid the narcissistic trap?

Having three small children probably helps! They are a constant reminder that much of what’s important in life isn’t very glamorous, and that’s just fine. It’s a matter of not letting work experiences change who you are—you have to be able to do an interview one minute and go change a diaper the next one. Being successful at work shouldn’t make you a less understanding parent, spouse, or friend.

You argue that educators and parents who have focused on increasing the self-esteem of children and young adults have had negative effects on our culture. What would you suggest instead to help disadvantaged students to build confidence so that they will work harder in the face of failure and other limitations in order to achieve in college? Sometimes it is very discouraging to see fellow-classmates obtain academic success so easily!

I would not suggest that disadvantaged students build confidence, but that they build self-control, self-efficacy, and an internal locus of control. That’s a psychology jargon way of saying: Know that working hard will help you succeed. You might have to study for three hours for a test that a more privileged classmate can study one hour for, but it’s worth it if you get the same grade. Also make sure you have the study skills and work habits that will help you succeed—“working hard” does not mean skimming the textbook while listening to music and clicking around Facebook.

Self-absorption is frequently encouraged by social networking sites you also argue. How can we create social media resources to encourage positive behavior in college students such as academic success and personal and social responsibility?

Social media are built around people connecting to each other—and people will use them in a way consistent with their existing tendencies. So encouraging academic success and personal and social responsibility has to start offline. Then social media can be used to coordinate these efforts. And sometimes, it means tuning out of social media for awhile— to sit down and study for a test without being distracted by text messages; to go to a soup kitchen to volunteer.

You suggest that the increase in volunteering among young people today may be due to the perceived advantages to one’s self, such as helping to create an impressive résumé, and getting praise and attention. How can colleges and universities avoid focusing too much on the student and more on those they serve in civic engagement and service-learning programs?

One argument is that students doing service is a good thing no matter what their motivation. The question colleges and universities need to ask is, “What are students learning from this experience?” If it’s just resume-building, it probably doesn’t have a lasting impact. If it teaches something important, however—such as empathy or practical skills—that’s more beneficial.

According to your research, two core values in our culture are at the root of the growing narcissistic problem: (a) self-admiration is highly valued and (b) self-expression is necessary to establish existence. However, with millions blogging, tweeting, and posting on Facebook and commentary sites, the individual voice is likely drowned out by other voices.   Do you think at some point persons will realize that fame can be just as difficult to achieve today—and as a result, this persistent quest for fame via social media and other forms of Internet will pass?

I don’t think it will. With overconfidence so common, many young people will still think they will be the lucky ones who will become famous. If that means they are developing useful skills—say, in music or in video production—that can be good. But too often it replaces more useful pursuits.

Parents and teachers who offer young people too many choices at an early age can help to make them too independent and uncooperative, you write. How can young people acquire the means to make responsible choices if they do not learn how to choose wisely when young? How do you suggest that we teach young people to make wise choices so that they can become responsible adults?

First, have them make age-appropriate choices. A 6-year-old, for example, should not decide when it’s bedtime, but she can decide what to wear among weather-appropriate choices. A 13-year-old should not decide whether he “wants” to go to school, but he can decide if he wants to be friends with someone. At both ages, they can choose to behave appropriately or chose not to and suffer the consequences. The key is for children to learn how to make choices in a limited way and not to overwhelm them with too many choices or choices that they are not mature enough to make.

You write that the spread of narcissism is like the spread of a disease or the spread of religion. In what ways is the spread of narcissism NOT like a disease or religion? What factors make narcissism a unique type of phenomenon and how should we treat it differently?

The main difference is that few people believe that the spread of disease is a good thing. Yet many people believe that narcissism is “adaptive” or beneficial, especially for professional success. Although narcissism does seem to improve public performance, narcissistic people are not any more successful, smarter, or more beautiful than anyone else—they just think they are. That’s a very important point for students to understand.

In many films and books, revenge and jealousy are often prevalent themes. Are there studies that indicate an association between themes in movies/publications and narcissistic culture? Has the number of films/book with these themes increased over the years?

We haven’t been able to study films yet, but we know that both song lyrics and books have become more narcissistic over time. Song lyrics now use more antisocial and aggressive language such as “hit” and “kill,” often in songs about revenge and jealousy. They also use more self-focused language such as “I” and “me” instead of “we” and “us;” American books show the same trends. Books are also now more likely to use individualistic words and phrases such as “unique,” “I am special,” and “I love me.”

We read about rulers in history who murdered their relatives to gain their crowns and created thrones and palaces of gold while their citizens starved. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) agreed with Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) that without law and order to keep us in check, we would steal from and harm others for the smallest advancement for ourselves.

  • Haven’t individuals always had this potential to be narcissistic given the right societal conditions?
  • You write that “before school shootings received extensive media attention in the late 90s, people didn’t think of shooting a group of their fellow students as a way to get fame” (p. 200). But could it be the case that some troubled young people did think of these things before, but weapons that can kill a large number of people in a short time were not as easy to access?
  • As teachers we have certainly encountered an increase in the number of students who complain about their grades and demand makeup work at their convenience. Could this be that young people are not more narcissistic, but are taking advantage of a system that they know has become more lenient?

Yes, narcissists have always existed—but the data suggest that there are now more of them. That’s due to many factors. For example, cultural individualism encourages the belief that everyone can be a winner and everyone can be famous. Although the movement toward equality is a very good thing overall, it’s also encouraged the idea that everyone deserves the best even without any talent or hard work (known as entitlement). Systems and individuals work in tandem—education is a good example of that. A few students ask for higher grades, some faculty give them, and then more students ask. That’s one reason why we have massive grade inflation, and it’s no coincidence it has occurred at the same time as growing narcissism—narcissism leads to demanding higher grades, and getting higher grades for less work may lead to narcissism.

Many educators refer to a student-centerededucational philosophy that is attributed to the thought and works of John Dewey. However a report from the 1931 conference at Rollins College on the college liberal arts curriculum that Dewy chaired emphasized the crucial connection between the self-directed learner, on the one hand, and the self-reliant individual who contributes to the well-being of a democratic society, on the other. Do you think that educators have distorted Dewey’s intent by their emphasizing the students’ interests while de-emphasizing the student’s responsibility to others? Please explain.

Yes. “Student-centered” has come to mean “give the students what they want.” The problem is that what they want and what they need are often opposed to each other. Many want good grades without much effort, but that shortchanges them in the long run. If the students want more interactive learning, however, that will help them. So it’s a matter of figuring out what will serve them best in their future careers—and that will also include relating well with others.

You claim that humility is the opposite of narcissism. What about altruism? How can we educate students not only to be humble but also to be altruistic? Or it is not the business of higher education, at least public universities, to teach students to be good citizens, virtuous people, or caring souls?

Higher education aims to educate students to make them better citizens and better workers. Students who care for others—who (for example) can take someone else’s perspective—will be better citizens and more productive workers. So I think this is the job of universities.

For the cover of your book The Narcissism Epidemic, you chose to include a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle, which, in summary, warned that thinking about oneself puts one at a great disadvantage when competing in the marketplace. Should not the emphasis be on the harm to society and others rather than the potential danger of being a narcissist to oneself?

Of course, but many people will continue to be narcissistic if they believe it benefits them. Once they learn that narcissism does not lead to personal success, they are more interested in reducing their narcissism, which then in turn benefits others.