A new study has found that “millennials” (adults born between 1980 and 1994) consider their own generation to be the most narcissistic ever. Older generations agree with this assessment, but go even further to say that the millennials’ levels of narcissism are even greater than what millennials will admit, according to the new findings based on a series of studies led by Joshua Grubbs, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Case Western Reserve University.
“Millennials and older generations agree that millennials are the most narcissistic,” Grubbs said. “They just disagree to the extent of the narcissism.”
In recent years, millennials have been overwhelmingly portrayed in the media as exceptionally self-centered, creating a prevailing narrative that has become accepted as fact, to a degree, due to its repetition, Grubbs said, who is a millennial himself.
“This is the first generation where there’s such a prevalent exposure to the message (that) they’re narcissistic, mainly through the Internet,” said Grubbs. “We’d like to know, over time, what effect that has. This is the first step.”
Grubbs set out to measure this phenomenon, which, until now, had been mostly based on anecdotal evidence, such as witnessing the self-centered behavior of some young people on social media and the overload of “selfies.”
In one experiment, study participants were asked to choose between emojis — cartoon faces often used in texting and social media — that best matched their feelings after being called “narcissistic.” While most participants chose the saddest emoji face, participants with the highest tendencies toward narcissism (as measured by self-surveys) were more likely to choose indifferent or happy emoji faces.
In another experiment, millennials were given fake personality tests that told them they were narcissistic, while researchers recorded their reactions.
“Millennials generally object when the ‘narcissistic’ label is applied to them — it feels like a putdown,” said Grubbs, noting that study participants associated the term with arrogance, self-centeredness, and a penchant for vanity. “The only people that found the label acceptable were people who are actually narcissistic — and research shows there are very few of them.”
“Still, millennials experience more anger, frustration, and sadness over the label than other generations,” Grubbs said. “Even if they agree with it to some extent, it still bothers them.”
Another key distinction emerged in the research: What may seem like signs of narcissism or self-obsession to one person may be seen by another as signs of “individualism,” a trait highly valued by millennials.
“This research doesn’t mean every single millennial is narcissistic,” said Grubbs. “But on the whole, people of my generation probably are more narcissistic than in past generations.”
“Over time, the ‘narcissistic’ label could impact how millennials feel, their mental health (and) their attitudes about themselves and general generation,” said Grubbs, also a pre-doctoral intern in professional psychology at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center. “This provides us with a broad picture we can use in further research.”
The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in San Diego.