Occasionally, we are treated to a piece of news from the scientific community that makes us feel just ever so slightly better about ourselves, not because of our own betterment, but because it makes someone else look even worse than ourselves. A concept that is so obvious in its existence and acknowledged by society at large is validated by the highly anticipated scientific study, and experts from all sides fall over themselves to comment their enthusiastic agreement. In this case, experts are falling over themselves about people who fall all over themselves.
A new study finds that many college-age students have become increasingly narcissistic in their worldview, believing that much of the accomplishments in their life are due to their own innate abilities rather than the happy accident of mundane existence that most of us encounter with heady dissatisfaction. College-age people today apparently go through life as if beating your ten-year-old nephew at beer pong is the cultural equivalent of D-Day.
This can hardly be surprising. There is apparently something called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (the developer of which no doubt is a pantsload of fun on blind dates) that tracks how important people feel they are. It has been on a meteoric rise lately, reflecting a general trend of self-centeredness. This, of course, is a great scientific finding, in that it displays a fundamental shift in psychological thinking about interpersonal relationships.
By which of course I mean there is no change at all. Having the oldest people in the room call everyone who has ever been young a bunch of self-centered jacklegs is not exactly the Bolivarian revolution or anything. Calling college punks egotistical is one a few steps away from having fourteen cats and complaining to pretty grocery store clerks about how they just keep on changing how money looks back and forth and you just don’t know what’s what anymore.
The survey that determines this ranking asks the recipients a series of questions that hopefully peg their level of conceitedness. It asks rather standard questions, from “Do you believe you deserve all the good fortune that comes to you?” to the more telling “If you controlled the world, would you make the production and airing of those Safe Auto commercials a crime?” and “Are you the father of Anna Nicole’s baby?”
Most researchers attribute it to the incredible increase of self-esteem programs in the past few decades, such as getting schoolchildren to chant in unison “I am different!” and making them sing songs of empowerment, such as “Mary Had A Little Lamb, But If She Was As Good As Me She Would Own The Entire Flock” and “The Wheels On The Bus Go Round And Round For Those Not As Rich As Me To Own A Lexus.” Even in high school, teachers are encouraged (presumably because parents cannot) to advise their students that everyone is special, a statistical impossibility that only exists within the confines of the guidance counselor’s office.
The cult of self-importance has its occasional anecdotal evidence everywhere. New York City has recently toyed with the idea of banning iPods, cell phones, and other distracting devices for pedestrians crossing the street. Apparently, it’s become an issue where people are so involved in their own little world that they fail to see a large yellow cab the size of most middle-aged bears moving roughly the speed of a Patriot missile come towards them. To me, it’s a case of to the victor goes the spoils, but there are a few bleeding hearts out there, mostly insurance actuaries, who object, so I guess I’ll have to take the untenable position of opposing hit-and-runs on selfish technophiles.
The meteoric rise in popularity of euphemistically detailed “social networking” sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, that allow users to create electronic shrines devoted to themselves. This should be a humbling pursuit for many, but it seems slightly creepy that most people tend to be proud to proclaim that the single greatest cultural achivement of Western culture in the last century is manifested in Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion.
What the really interesting part of all this is that most of the people involved in the study and the reporting of its findings are largely from the Baby Boomber generation. This is the generation that upon given the same things as the generation did before them (an economy waiting to explode, a universal culture waiting to be exploited, a war in southeast Asia) and managed to turn them into vanity projects of their own (A Social Security pyramid scheme, Wavy Gravy, and Platoon, respectively). They at least can blame most of this on their parents, who bought by truckloads a Scouting manual on child care written by one Dr. Spock, who imparted such parental guidelines as “Give your children everything they want, for any reason whatsoever” and “Never object to anything your child does that detracts from themselves in the slightest bit, including but not limited to most forms of manslaughter.” In response, many iconic members of the generation grew up with a misallocated sense of entitlement, engaging in a relatively libertine lifestyle, avoiding the consequences, and then reaping what they sowed by either becoming President or initiating a study as to how much worse the next generation is, both of which accomplish the task of engaging in self-indulgence while simultaneously deflecting blame onto others, either in the form of college-age freeloaders or Scooter Libby.
Still, you can’t really blame today’s young adults for feeling how they do. When the world comes crashing down and they’re the ones that have to deal with it, they will have no one to blame but themselves. And how could you ever be more important than that?