Matthew McConaughey’s 2014 Oscar Speech for best actor summarizes Generation Me’s narcissism perfectly. In his acceptance speech, he recounted how a very important person, whose name was never mentioned, asked him at 15 who his hero was? After several weeks of mulling over the question, he came to the profound realization that it was him in 10 years! He continued with his teaching moment by saying: “So you see, every day, every week, every month, and every year of my life, my hero is always ten years away.” It is a bit like a kitten looking into the mirror and seeing the reflection of a lion, believing what matters most is how he sees himself. It isn’t. Believing that self-esteem is necessary to live a successful and meaningful life is completely false. It is one of the causes of the growing narcissism found in our generation.
Before we get to the data on what makes Generation Me more narcissistic than previous generations, it is important to understand where the word narcissism comes from. By doing so, we can better see why Matthew McConaughey’s speech missed the inspiration that it aspired to bring, and instead reinforces the self-absorption that is so counterproductive to living a meaningful life. The term narcissism comes from the mythology of Narcissus who was a beautiful young man who fell in love with himself. The story is told that Narcissus was walking in the forest when he met Echo. As her name would have you guess, she was beautiful and echoed Narcissus in every way. She was deeply in love with him. One could say she was his soul mate. However, Narcissus would have nothing to do with her and kept telling her to leave him alone. Echo, upon hearing this, became deeply depressed and died of loneliness. Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, when she heard the news, put a curse on Narcissus making him fall in love with his own reflection while he was resting near a pool of water. After some time, enamored with himself, he realized that his love object could never materialize. In anguish, he committed suicide. Narcissus’s self-love drove him to suicide. The problem I am presenting in this blog is that as a generation, we may be so focused on the self that we don’t realize its negative impact. We are like fish in water, we cannot change if we don’t perceive that how we see ourselves negatively impacts what we do.
Dr. Jean M. Twenge is a social psychologist at the University of San Diego, her research focuses on how personality traits have changed through generations. From her research, we now have convincing evidence showing that narcissistic personality traits have risen as fast as the rate of obesity in North America. Narcissism comes from the belief that you are special, unique, and here is the clincher, more important than others. It can be simply defined as an inflated sense of self that is not grounded in reality. When Dr. Twenge analyzed questionnaires evaluating narcissism, she found that more than three-quarters of Generation Me had higher self-esteem than their same aged peers growing up in the 1960’s. For example, only 12% of teens in the 60’s agreed with the statement: “I am an important person” compared to 80% of teenagers from Generation Me. Generation Me’s belief that they are above average in academic ability, their intellectual self-confidence, and drive to achieve has doubled when compared to the Baby Boomers. Interestingly enough, it is not because we are more competent, it is the opposite. Generation Me spends half as much time doing homework and have lower academic scores on objectives tests than their Baby Boomer counterparts. The truth about self-esteem is it’s an empty vessel that only encourages self-absorption when it is not tethered to performance.
So what do you do when reality does not match your high expectations about yourself? Cognitive psychologists explain this type of decision-making as attributions based on locus of control. Were you the main cause of what happened or was it controlled by outside forces? Those who believe that their effort controls their fate have an internal locus of control while those who have tendency to blame outside forces for their misfortune have an external locus of control. With an internal locus of control, you take the hit; you will hurt, and most likely feel some humiliation. But hopefully, you will learn in the process to have more realistic expectations of yourself and others. With an external locus of control, you may hold on to the need to feel good about yourself and do whatever it takes to save face. The only way to do this is to blame others for what has happened. If you keep blaming others, whether it is society, the media, parents, bosses, teachers, or a partner, you will, in time, become more cynical.
Now, if you have an external locus of control, two things can happen. On one hand, you take up a warrior mentality as you come to believe that it is your god given right to take what you need and profit from others. If you don’t, they’ll do it to you because it is a dog eat dog world. On the other, you’ll adopt a victim mentality not being able to muster the courage to the fight. This can, in time, turn into depression as this type of decision-making promotes passivity and helplessness. In both cases, you become progressively more alienated to a world that doesn’t give a damn about you.
Dr. Twenge’s research on the topic of how locus of control has changed through generations is very clear. Generation Me has more external locus control than 80% of Baby Boomers of the same age. Generation Me will more likely endorse statements like “the people running this country don’t care what happens to people like me,” and “what you think doesn’t count very much.” And as Generation Me gets more lonely and cut off from others, we find that communal traits such as cooperativeness, empathy, and spirituality are actually declining.
As we’ve come to see, this tendency towards self-centeredness at the expense of others is one of the hallmarks of narcissism. Generation Me are less likely to want a job that serves society or change their spending habits so that others more in need can benefit. We are more focused on materialism and money, which feeds more unrealistic expectations because we want money, but don’t necessarily want to do the work that goes into making it. The problem is, when your focus is on fame, image, and power rather than community, you end up in a culture of superficiality. A culture in which four times as many Americans describe themselves as lonelier now than in the 1950’s. You now have the possibility of having fake friends through social media. You can also be superficially rich by having all the latest gadgets, cars, and hip clothes but people are more in debt than ever before. Youthful beauty is not age related anymore, as cosmetic surgery will fix that for you. We eat processed food that comforts us but does not nourish our body. And don’t forget entertainment through fake art. Pop music now relies mostly on ghostwriters; artists barely need to sing with the help of auto-tune and lip synch in concert. What they are good at is being attractive and selling brands.
It is not a pretty picture that I am drawing of our generation, but as I did the research, it felt to me like a necessary cold shower. As Dr. Twenge writes: “Our society has so many critical problems that it desperately needs as many active participating internal minded members as possible. If feelings of external control, alienation, and powerlessness continue to grow, we may be heading for a society of dropouts. Each person sitting back, watching the world go by.” Nonetheless, it is at this point unfair to conclude that Generation Me has no redeeming qualities. If that was the case, I wouldn’t be so excited to share these ideas with you. In future articles, I will write about how Generation Me’s challenges are part of an evolutionary process that will need to transcend its fascination with the self in order to truly find itself. But as of right now, lets concentrate on our warts because one cannot really find his way out of the forest until he stops, looks around, and finds his bearings.
In the end, I would like you to look at the picture that Timo drew of Generation Me. It is a three-headed man in a two-part body. On the left side is McConaughey’s hero: he is strong, confidant, and most of all, important. On the right side is the puppet: he is weak, depressed, and controlled by others. The middle head represents the confusion that we may feel, as we experience the inner tension of both sides pulling us in opposing directions. The experience I would like to draw upon you, is the dualities that I have drawn in this article are conflicts that are within each one of us. Coming to terms with them is what it means to become a mature adult in the 21st century.
Twenge J. M. (2006). Generation Me: Why today’s young Americans are more confident, Assertive, Entitled – And more miserable than ever before. New York: Atria Papeback.
Twenge J. M. & Campbell K. W. (2008). Increase in positive self-views among high school students: Birth cohort changes in anticipated performance, Self-satisfaction, self-liking, and self-competence. Psychological Science, 19:11 1082-1086.
Twenge J. M. & Campbell, K. W. (2009). The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement. New York: Atria Paperback.
Twenge J. M. , Campbell, K. W., Gentile, B. (2012). Generational increases in agentic self-evaluations among american college students, 1966-2009. Self and Identity, 11: 409-427.
Twenge. J. M., Konrath, S., Campbell, K. W., Bushman, B. J. (2008). Further evidence of an increase in narcissism among college students. Journal of Personality, 76:4, 919-930.
Twenge, J. M., Konrath, S., Foster, J. D., Campbell, K.W., Bushman, B.J. (2008). Egos inflating over time: A cross-temporal meta-Analysis of the narcissistic personality inventory. Journal of Personality 76:4, 875-904.