The Real Science of Narcissism and Baby Boomers
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“Baby Boomers Are More Sensitive Than Millennials, According To The Largest-Ever Study On Narcissism!” So says a post on the Reddit front page with 22.5 thousand upvotes that links to…touzafair.com? Which appears to be a WordPress blog whose front page is just entirely ads. This bodes well, let’s dive in!
“A new study, the largest-ever conducted narcissism, looked specifically at hypersensitivity, a trait that helps determine how narcissistic people are.
“Its findings suggests that, contrary to popular belief, millennials aren’t more sensitive than the baby boomer generation. In fact, it’s the other way around.”
Oh good, it’s also full of typos and formatting mistakes.
Let’s jump back quickly to the top posts on Reddit and see what they have to say:
“Challenge one piece of their worldview and they’ll take it as a personal attack.”
“I’m (sic) other news: water is wet!”
“It’s been an obvious projection from them from the start.”
“the people constantly complaining about everything and everyone are the most sensitive, who da thought?”
My friends. My pals. My homies. What are we doing, here? Are we ignoring really obvious red flags because a headline is saying something we want to believe? And then instead of just nodding our heads and scrolling down to the next cute cat picture, we leave a comment to express our agreement? And give it an upvote? Which spreads it to more people? To people who will also uncritically accept it? And more importantly to people like me, who are on Reddit to see cute cat pics and NOT to get irrationally angry at people uncritically accepting headlines that agree with their worldviews?
Okay, let’s dive in. To “touzafair.com’s” credit, they actually DO link to the study. Well, actually they don’t but they do link to a ScienceDaily SUMMARY of the study, which then links to the study. But I’m just saying, to touzafair.com’s credit, a study exists? Not THEE study, but A study. So.
The first thing I notice is that while touzafair.com’s article came out last month, the ScienceDaily summary came out in December of 2019. If you’re like me and you still think 2019 was last year, let me inform you that in fact it was four years ago. But okay, that’s fine! Maybe not much has changed since then. I scroll down to the bottom of ScienceDaily, find the DOI number, copy that and paste it into Google Scholar, and voila! I have the full paper (or at least the preprint version of it, close enough for now).
And the first thing I do once I have that is control+F “millennial” and that returns 0 results. Not a great start! But okay, “millennial” may not be a precise-enough term. Maybe these researchers just used birth years. Oh, look at that, they did! “The current study…included data from individuals born throughout a 46-year period (from 1923 to 1969).”
Here are the generations according to Pew Research (who I picked more or less at random because there are no precise years scientifically assigned to various generations, just a general consensus, and Pew does consensuses):
Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996
Gen X were born between 1965 and 1980
Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964
And the Silent Generation were born between 1928 and 1945
Prior to 1928 would be “the Greatest Generation,” so named because unlike the Boomers they weren’t afraid to stand up to Nazis.
So, this study covered the last few years of the Greatest Generation all the way up to the first few years of Gen X. So not only did the researchers not separate subjects based on “generation,” but no “millennials” were even included at all.
Therefore, we can already do away with the headline: this study did not, in fact, find that boomers are “more sensitive” than millennials.
What DID it find? Well, the good news is that it’s still interesting. This study examined six different datasets of people to gauge their narcissism over time. There are many different traits that go into what sociologists call “narcissism” but this study focused on just three of them:
hypersensitivity (“thin-skinned; sensitive to anything that can be construed
as criticism or an interpersonal slight” and “concerned with own adequacy as a person, either at
conscious or unconscious levels”
willfulness (“self-indulgent” and “shows condescending behavior in relations with others”)
and autonomy (“values independence and autonomy” and “has high aspiration level for self”)
You may immediately notice that the first two of those, hypersensitivity and willfulness, are pretty negative, while the third, autonomy, is pretty positive. Just because we think of “narcissistic” people as awful people, that doesn’t necessarily mean all the traits that define them as narcissists are bad. But those first two negative traits are considered “maladaptive,” meaning that they interfere with the individual’s ability to coexist peacefully in their environment. Autonomy is considered the opposite of that: adaptive.
The researchers’ hypothesis when looking at this data was that as an individual ages, their OVERALL narcissistic tendencies will remain the same, but their maladaptive narcissistic traits will decrease as their adaptive trait increases.
And that’s exactly what they found: as all the cohorts aged, they seemed to become LESS hypersensitive, less willful, and more autonomous. The researchers hypothesize that this is because we all start out, basically, as narcissistic little pricks who think the entire fucking universe revolves around us, but as we grow up, we meet new people, experience new things, get jobs where we are criticized, and learn that there’s a whole world outside of our own wants and needs. We adapt those negative traits or we drop out of society.
That was the primary finding, but there WAS another thing they noticed that led to this stupid clickbait: they found that in general, the later someone was born, the less hypersensitive and more autonomous they tended to be. There was no change in willfulness.
But that doesn’t mean that that trend will apply if we compare Boomers to Millennials. If you look at the actual figure they came up with, it’s kind of all over the map: yes, a “Boomer” born in 1943 was more likely to be more hypersensitive than a Gen X born in 1969, but their levels of autonomy are about the same. And someone born in 1923 (the Greatest Generation) showed less autonomy than someone born in 1936 (the Silent Generation), but they were also way less hypersensitive. As far as this data goes, the Boomers were the first generation to REVERSE the narcissistic trend and show less hypersensitivity AND willfulness than their parents.
The researchers point out that this part of their paper is very unreliable, urging “caution when
drawing conclusions” from it as it compares people from completely different datasets in ways they can’t really control for:
“Just as it is important to examine predictors of lifespan changes in narcissism, it is also important to examine whether changes in narcissism can be attributable to changes in parenting behaviors, shifting demographics and the relative risk of exposure to life events, some broader cultural changes, or another explanation entirely (Konrath et al., 2011; Twenge et al., 2008). “Because the studies did not have consistent or, in some cases, any variables to operationalize changes in these variables, we are left with merely descriptive data on how narcissism might change over historical time. We view this as a major limitation to the current report and hope that future researchers can more seriously conceptualize and test why birth-cohorts might be changing in narcissism. That two of the samples were comprised entirely of women is also a considerable limitation, particularly for the birth-cohort analyses. Worth noting, because of the gender differences found in narcissism facets, it is likely that the birth cohort differences cannot be entirely attributable to the gender composition of the sample. In other words, samples comprising entirely of women were often still higher than samples containing both men and women. Of course, the differences we observed in the current study are likely the combination of substantive changes in psychological and demographic variables.
“Future research can have more balanced gender designs with respect to gender and other
Does each subsequent generation get less narcissistic than the previous one? Maybe, for some generations and for some facets of narcissism. But this study doesn’t really offer that much evidence for it–only a suggestion that future research should figure that out.
That said, this study DOES still provide some convincing evidence that allows us to respond to Boomers (or other older adults) who complain that Millennials (or other younger adults or even “Gen Z” teenagers) are too narcissistic, or hypersensitive, or willful: yeah, they should be, compared to you! This study suggests that we’re all pretty narcissistic when we start out, but the good news is that as we grow, we are likely to become better people. Yes, even Boomers! If you think Boomers are hypersensitive brats right now, you should have seen them 40 years ago!
Now, I have to point out that all of this is from a study done in 2019. A whole lot has happened in the past few years, and I myself have seen a few Boomers go through a sudden increase in hypersensitivity and willfulness, due to Fox News and MAGA poisoning. So maybe things are worse now, but this study does give me some hope that if we can put down the alt-right propaganda machine, we can go back to that trend that seems to be quite natural for humans outside of nefarious influences: we age, we learn, we become better people. And I DO hope that future research will show solid evidence for the idea that each generation starts out a little better than the one before it, so that by the time I’m 80 years old and complaining about those damn kids and their hypersensitivity, I’ll know deep down that they’re still less narcissistic than I was at the same age.
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