Is Jean Twenge a Narcissist?

Is Jean Twenge a Narcissist?

February 16, 2010

Twenge’s response to my criticisms and my criticisms are posted on Amazon.

San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge has emerged as a major-media “expert” specializing in relentlessly denigrating modern young people as “narcissists”—that is, suffering inflated egos, overconfident assurance of their rightness, believing they’re better and more entitled than other people, and refusing to recognize views other than their own, among other failings.

Aside from authoring two sloppy books filled with sweeping, undocumented claims, Twenge herself displays the classic narcissistic traits she disparages in others. Indeed, her books (Generation Me, and The Narcissism Epidemic (see below), the latter with another “nationally recognized expert on narcissism,” W. Keith Campbell, provide a constant barrage of invective and condescending lectures to the effect that the authors are morally and intellectually superior to just about everyone else.

For examples, Twenge castigates as narcissistic those who insist that “other people don’t know what they’re talking about, so everyone should listen to me” (Generation Me, p. 69). She then indulges exactly that egotism herself. InNarcissism Epidemic, Twenge pronounces “most people’s” opinions and comments on all topics as “stupid” and “clueless,” representing a “mountain of ignorance” by the large majority who “have no earthly idea what they are talking about” (pp. 117-18). Except those people who sent her some anecdotes upholding her views, whom she eagerly quotes as sage commentary.

The news media, Twenge declares, dispense “unmitigated crap” (Generation Me, pp. 199-200)—except those stories and anecdotes she agrees with, which she quotes willy-nilly as if they were gospel. She berates all service workers: “Narcissists are overly focused on themselves and lack empathy for others, which means they cannot see another person’s perspective,” Twenge writes. “(Sound like the last clerk who served you?).” She berates most Americans as lazy: “In general, Americans have lost the idea that there is value in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay,” Twenge asserts (Narcissism Epidemic, p. 242). She berates all young people: “The 1994 movie Clerks is a pretty accurate illustration of how young people talk, with about two swear words in every line,” she declares (p. 40).

In fact, Twenge berates all of modern society as a nightmare of “aggressive drivers, sullen clerks, and screaming children” characterized by a “breakdown in consideration and loyalty… decline in manners and politeness… the fall in social rules,” etc. (Generation Me, pp. 22, 27, 103). Twenge’s idea of manners, politeness, civility, and social rules is to call nearly everyone else stupid, clueless, aggressive, sullen, inconsiderate, disloyal, unmannerly, impolite, foul-mouthed, hostile, lazy, self-centered, and whatever other insults she decides to hurl. And, just like the “superspreaders” of narcissism she criticizes, Twenge spreads her own brand by inviting her readers and admirers to join in self-awarded moral superiority, and possibly public recognitiion, through easy condemnation of others and “culture” absent the hard work to demonstrate genuinely superior morality.

For all the pages Twenge spends condemning celebrities as narcissism “superspreaders,” there’s a curious omission: Oprah Winfrey, who, among other self-admirations, demands that the cover of every issue of her magazine feature a picture of her, threw a lavish birthday party for herself that shut down a big chunk of Chicago, and sports $10,000 eyelashes. Why on earth would Twenge shrink from attacking such a prominent narcissist? Could it be because Oprah’s endorsement guarantees huge book promotion and sales? Instead, Twenge joins the popular herd taking easy swings at the safe punching bags:  Lindsay, Paris, Britney, teens’ MySpace pages.

Twenge berates MySpace and social networking sites for indulging “look at me” “self-promotion,” the “quest for attention,” and presentation of only their “most attractive and cool” sides (Narcissism Epidemic, Chapter 7, p. 113). So, Twenge maintains multiple webpages for something other than her own “quest for attention”? The intro page ofjeantwenge.com consists almost entirely of an outsized picture of her, other pages on her separate book sites consist entirely of “praise” for her and her work, and others advertise her “every move” and indulge plenty of “self expression” (“one of the precursors of the epidemic of narcissism,” she warns when others do the same). After condemning young people in particular for social networking pages that emphasize “me” and “my” links, it’s no surprise to find Twenge’s own webpage contains the following links: “my journal, my userinfo, my friends, my calendar, my website.”

Of course, narcissists are notorious for inflating their accomplishments, overlooking their own faults, and justifying their hypocrisies. For yet another example, Twenge and Campbell spend several pages decrying the trend toward parents giving children uncommon names as promoting unwarranted individualism. “It used to be a good thing to have a common, popular name,” they lament nostalgically (Narcissism Epidemic, p. 181). They then excuse Campbell’s own daughter’s ultra-unique name (McKinley). In fact, none of their three children’s names come anywhere close to their favored index, which is giving one’s child one of the 10 most common names.

Many more examples of Twenge’s glaring narcissism could be cited. Perhaps her almost comical hypocrisy could be cited as evidence that she’s uncovered a real “narcissism” phenomenon. But as detailed in further reviews, that’s not the case; the best information suggests that “narcissism” as Twenge measures it is meaningless and does not relate to real-world behavior trends, and the modern era is no more aggressive, mean, uncivil, self-centered, etc., than past eras these authors mischaracterize as wonderfully polite and communitarian.

Twenge offers numerous strategies to curb the “epidemic” of narcissism. Likewise, I offer several to curb the epidemic of narcissistic books through tougher discipline:

  1. Publishers, reviewers, news reporters, and academic colleagues should stop rewarding authors and commentators who present themselves as morally and intellectually superior.
  2. There’s no reason to take seriously claims of the sort that, “back in my day, we didn’t do or think those terrible things,” unless the claimant can present solid, mass evidence of such large-scale general changes.
  3. Professionals and academics should strongly criticize authors’ sloppy claims based on mass generalizations from selected anecdotes, news stories, slogans, personal impressions, and quips that do not constitute “evidence.” In fact, they’re the opposite; if commentators had real evidence, they’d present it.
  4. We need tough ethics that apply the same standards to discussion of young people that we apply to other groups in society, such as Jews, African Americans, or Moslems. Most of Twenge’s books indulge demeaning generalizations from rare cases, stereotypical assertions that “teens think…” or “young people do…” bad things based on zero or flimsy evidence, and a raft of nasty asides.

 

The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement By Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, Free Press, 2009

Jean Twenge’s sequel is stuffed with clichéd, nostalgic myths and scores of sweeping claims for which she provides no references or documentation, so it’s impossible to assess their accuracy. She pronounces most people’s opinions “clueless” and “stupid,” so, let’s look at a few of hers. Twenge buys the incredible notion that Sixties kids dropped acid to “help” others:

Although taking a lot of acid and grooving to amazingly long Grateful Dead songs sounds like self-absorption, Wavy Gravy’s description was very different. Acid tests, he said, were about reaching outside yourself to help someone who is in even worse shape than you (p. 59).

Amazing. Twenge’s narcissism radar would have sounded loud alarms if some young person today declared his drug taking was really about enlightening lesser beings. In fact, Twenge brands kids today who actually volunteer to help others as selfish narcissists. And that’s just the beginning.

The gist of Twenge’s books is that just about nothing bad happened in the United States prior to the 1980s “self esteem” movement, which she has now identified as the heretofore unrecognized culprit in the disastrous “cultural shift” toward unwarranted self-admiration, runaway materialism, rampant dishonesty, destructive sexuality, mass shootings, and a whole host of “dangers that were once unknown” and “potential social collapse” (p. 331). This claim approaches complete nonsense in virtually every category she cites.

Twenge claims school shootings were “virtually unheard of before 1996” (wrong; in fact, one of the worst occurred in her own city, San Diego, in 1979, and Twenge overlooks more numerous mass shootings by older Americans). She argues today’s Americans are lazy and entitled, as evidenced by having immigrants do our hard work—as if immigrants doing hard jobs never existed through dozens of past decades of American history, to say nothing of outright slavery. She blasts parents for holding lavish parties for their kids, a rare phenomenon (and does the term “debutantes” tell her anything about the past?). She berates a few Woodstock 1999 concertgoers for vandalism and theft but ignores the tens of thousands of Woodstock 1969 folk who left behind mountainous tons of litter (isn’t “someone will clean up after me” the ultimate narcissism?). True, as she charges, today’s SUV owners’ personal choices create dangers for other drivers, but nothing like the drunken driving epidemics of the Fifties, Sixties, and 1970s. Again and again, Twenge depicts the past as a golden age of “civility” and “social control,” citing selected, brutal modern commentators, as if the past’s Westbrook Pegler, Father Coughlin, Joe McCarthy, and violent racists never existed. Similarly selected news clippings, films, and books of the 1950s depicting juvenile killing sprees (Starkweather), junior high dope and sex orgies, Little Rock’s racist riots, Klan lynchings, widespread barbiturate abuse, family violence, drunken driving, and troubled Hollywood stars could have been assembled to brand the Twenge-idolized Fifties as a debauched time.

Twenge’s double standard indulgently and ignorantly excuses the past’s failings while wildly exaggerating the present’s. Her books represent a triumph of unreality, in which real-world trends are distorted to fit the authors’ paper-and-pencil surveys and pet psychological theories. Twenge and co-author spend great effort comparing a few random, non-representative, inconsistent psychological and attitude surveys they selected of young Americans today with those of the past. The authors ignore better surveys that show the opposite. They then claim that questionnaires showing more narcissism and related attitudes must be producing terrible real-life consequences such as crime, aggression, exploitative sex, meanness, civic detachment, school dropout, and a host of other “destructive behaviors.”

But here’s the interesting problem: Twenge nowhere shows the terrible things she predicts actually are happening. Instead, she parades some selected news stories, quips, anecdotes, and internet raunch, as if evidence is the plural of anecdote. Of course, you can fill file folders with negative press clippings and quotes for any era and group you want to trash, from Thirties or Fifties or Sixties youth to Jews or immigrants or psychologists.

But when you study the horrors Twenge’s books predict from today’s “Narcissism Epidemic,” you see why she avoids scholarly analysis (see review of Generation Me for detailed citations). For example:

–FBI Uniform Crime Reports, National Crime Victimization Survey, and similarly solid measures show crime and violence, including murder and rape, particularly by young people, stand at ALL-TIME LOWS.

–National Center for Health Statistics tabulations show suicide and self-destructive deaths among young people are at ALL-TIME LOWS.

–Digest of Education Statistics reports show school dropout is at an ALL-TIME LOW. Meanwhile, student diversity, the proportions of students taking harder math and science courses, achievement on constant criterion-referenced tests, enrolling in and graduating from college, and working at jobs to pay for education are at ALL-TIME HIGHS.

–Before we swallow Twenge’s (and others) absurd myth that past generations were chaste models of true love, romance, and marriage, remember: it was today’s parents and grandparents who doubled the divorce rate, tripled the proportion of unwed births, and more than tripled the sexually transmitted disease rate from 1950 to 1975.

–The latest cosmetic surgery tabulations flatly contradict Twenge’s claim that “younger people seem to be catching the plastic surgery bug.” In fact, fewer than 2% of cosmetic medical procedures involve persons under age 19; 77% involve persons 35 and older, and the average makeover patient is older today, not younger.

–The best, long term surveys such as Monitoring the Future and The American Freshman generally show that teens today are happier, more connected to others, less lonely, less depressed, less likely to use prescribed or illegal drugs, less likely to perpetrate or suffer violence, more optimistic about the future, express greater desire to contribute to society, anticipate long-term relationships, are more tolerant of diversity, and are slightly less likely to express high self-esteem than youth 30 years ago—all countering claims of narcissistic doom.

–In fact, Monitoring the Future shows the percentage of high school seniors who say they are satisfied with themselves, feel they are persons of worth, and feel they can do things as well as most people (all measures of self esteem) are somewhat LOWER today than in the 1970s. Twenge’s misuse of surveys has been criticized in journal studies, which may be why she now paradoxically admits, “total self esteem has not increased among high school seniors” (p. 13)… before returning to efforts to imply the opposite.

Given these positive real-world trends, maybe we need more narcissism! Scholars confront contradictions; they don’t evade them. Yet, Twenge ignores serious general findings and instead pulls out selective trends, such as: youth today want to make more money instead of indulging loftier spiritual concerns. Perhaps if Twenge suffered undergraduates’ average $20,000 student loan debts imposed by the six-fold increase in real-dollar education costs over the last 30 years at the same time real incomes among 18-24 year-olds stagnated, she’d see practical rather than narcissistic reasons why young people need more money.

Of course Twenge can find many grownups eager to brand young people and modern society worse. Adults always say that; pronouncing ourselves superior to “kids today” is adults’ own self-esteem entitlement. (Nothing is funnier than hearing professors complain that “today’s” students are narcissistic… aside from being pot-kettle, that’s about as new as Socrates.) For every objectionable internet site Twenge can ferret (out of hundreds of millions available), one can find similarly hateful books, bigoted commentaries, and malicious gossip in past eras designed to flatter and elevate oneself at the expense of demeaning others—which, come to think of it, is exactly what Twenge’s books do. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Twenge’s own multiple websites feature the same “self promotion,” “quest for attention,” and “self praise” (a whole page of it, in fact) she castigates in the young.

Twenge’s books—founded in a meaningless narcissism concept Twenge strives to validate by distorting real-world trends and behaviors to conform to it—is one more in the epidemic of bad scholarship on young people. You can find such books in any generation. Charles Derber’s Wilding of America used identical tactics to claim consumerist 1980s Americans were lost to self-worshipping, anti-community individualism, as did Vance Packard in the ‘60s, Frederic Wertham in the ‘50s, the Payne Commission in the 1930s, on and on. Nothing new here, other than the label for the “disease.” I apologize for the length of this review, but it would take another book to point out all the factual mistakes and inconsistencies in book like these.