For more than two millenniums, older adults have claimed that their younger counterparts are uniquely self-absorbed. Young people today, it seems, agree.
That’s according to new research published Wednesday, which found that adults between the ages of 18 and 25 believe theirs is the most narcissistic and entitled living generation.
“They genuinely believe that,” said Josh Grubbs, a psychology professor at Bowling Green State University and the lead author of the paper, published in the journal PLOS One. “And they’re offended by it.”
But just because they believe it doesn’t make it true, he said. Young millennials and members of the generation that follows may just be buying into a stereotype that is perpetuated by the news media, and for which scholars carry some blame.
“That narrative, in part, started with us,” Grubbs said. “Psychologists were the ones that talked about the narcissism epidemic to begin with.”
That idea began gaining traction about two decades ago as a few psychologists argued that historical data stretching back a generation showed that young adults had grown increasingly self-absorbed.
The news media picked up on the findings but not on the pushback. Further research suggests that the claims may have been overblown, Grubbs said. But he and his colleagues weren’t interested in joining that back-and-forth, anyway. They wanted to focus on a part of the discussion that they felt had been otherwise ignored.
“There’s this huge debate in psychology and there has been for years,” he said. “But no one had taken the time just to basically say, ‘Well, how do these kids feel about that?’”
So they set out six years ago to conduct the research outlined in Wednesday’s paper.
In one round of questioning, researchers asked hundreds of college students about their personality traits, age-group stereotypes and their opinions of narcissism and entitlement both as traits and as labels for their generation.
In an experiment, the researchers also collected student reactions to various insulting generational labels, including that they are overly sensitive, easily offended, narcissistic or entitled. In another, the researchers collected reactions to the narcissist and entitled labels, when couched in positive or negative terms.
Grubbs said he was surprised to find that young adults had come to accept the label. “I expected more denialism or skepticism, if you will,” he said.
And whether or not they are more narcissistic than other generations, the findings suggest that, at the very least, young adults are not universally narcissistic.
Generally, people with such tendencies are more inclined to view narcissism positively. That was also true of individuals with narcissistic traits in the study. But the fact that young adults were broadly distressed by the label — and that they were unlikely to be swayed when researchers framed narcissism positively — suggests that the generation is generally not especially self-absorbed.
“Maybe the whole generation isn’t more narcissistic, there’s just variability between folks,” he said.
The widespread belief that young adults are more self-absorbed may have been fueled by the fact that social media has made today’s narcissists much easier to find, Grubbs said.
And while the findings don’t answer how the egos of young adults compare with those of other generations, Grubbs hopes that they will at least encourage people to be more thoughtful about being so quick to label broad groups in the first place.
“Maybe being a little more cautious and kind could be one implication,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.