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The Increase in Narcissism in College Students

Natalie Frank, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, specializes in pediatric psychology and behavioral health.


Enough About Me – What Do You Think About Me?

Increasing Narcissism

Narcissism has been increasing in our society for a long time. Authors Twenge and Campbell (2009) reported that research indicates that all the major characteristics that define narcissism increased significantly in adults in the U.S. between the 1950s and the 1990s with the increase accelerating since 2002. These traits include assertiveness, extroversion, dominance, self-esteem, and individualistic focus.

Moreover, these authors cited a study conducted by Stinson, Dawson and Goldstein et al., (2008) which showed that within a large sample surveyed from 2006-2007, 1 out of 10 individuals in their 20’s displayed narcissistic personality disorder. In fact, it was the more extreme forms of these traits that were being exhibited. This compared with only 1 in 30 individuals over the age of 64 evidencing the symptoms of NPD although it might be predicted that older adults had longer to develop an overly positive self-image based on their sense of having more experience and knowledge than younger adults.

According to the empirical evidence, today’s new adults, in particular Milennials and GenY, born after 1980, seem to be more “Generation Me” than “Generation We” compared to previous generations. Five data sets have been used to demonstrate this generational increase in narcissism. While it has been known that college-age young adults, teens, and children have been showing increased self-esteem over the generations, narcissism is not just confidence. It is exaggerated overconfidence which is linked to negative interpersonal relationships.

Narcissistic traits correlate positively with such characteristics as vanity, materialism, attention seeking, unrealistic expectations for the future, anger and aggression. Those with narcissistic tendencies take more resources than their share while leaving inadequate amounts for others, and value money, fame, and image above family, altruism, and being supportive of their community (Twenge & Campbell, 2009).

Narcissism Increasing on College Campuses

In a meta-analysis examining many studies together, Twenge, Konrath, Foster, Campbell and Bushman (2008), showed that this narcissism appeared to be increasing even faster in college students compared to other age groups. By 2006, college students scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) increased by 30% over the average scores obtained for those in the original sample who were evaluated from 1979 to 1985.

This surge toward narcissism appeared to be speeding up, with the years 2000-2006 showing an especially steep increase. Twenge and Campbell (2009) analyzed data gathered from college students in 2008-2009 on the NPI which showed that a full third of college students sampled rated the majority of the questions in the narcissistic direction with two-thirds scoring above average on narcissism traits. This compares with a fifth of students in 1994.

The Characteristics of Narcissistic Personality Disorder

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (2013), the main characteristic of this disorder is “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy that begins in early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts.” The DSM goes on to state that individuals with the disorder display “a grandiose sense of self-importance, a preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love.

These individuals also display characteristic views of how others are to relate to them. They “believe that they are superior, special or unique and expect others to recognize them as such and generally require excessive admiration.” Their sense of entitlement is displayed by their “unreasonable expectation of especially favorable treatment, and resulting in the conscious or unwitting exploitation of others.” Due to seeing only their own needs, they are oblivious to the needs or feelings of others. Yet despite problems in social relationships, they possess the delusional belief that others envy them.

Expectations: Professors' vs. Students' Expectations

Based on numerous interviews with professors and students in colleges across the country, Cox (2009) has concluded that professors and college students view education differently. Professors see college in terms of education. They value teaching students how to learn, think analytically, form opinions that are adequately supported, and express themselves professionally both in writing and speaking in addition as well as learn a body of knowledge.

College students, on the other hand, see their degrees as a means to an end and only care about the final verdict of the class: the grade. Thus, college students are intolerant of professors' attempts to promote active engagement, as they see these strategies as getting in the way of their ultimate goal, a degree, only necessary as a requirement on the way to obtaining a choice job.

College students' sense of entitlement is evidenced in a number of ways. As a result of the increase in self-confidence and narcissism, there is an associated increase in college students’ sense of entitlement. For example, it has been found that over 65 percent of students endorsed the statement, ‘‘If I explain to a professor that I’m trying hard, he/she should increase my grade.’’ A third of college students also agreed with the statement, ‘‘If I attend most of the classes, I deserve at least a B.’’ These expectations occur even when the syllabus clearly and firmly explains how grades are calculated including that the above statements are not accurate and will not result in altered grades (Twenge, 2013).

The Customer Mentality of College Students

Administration supports the narcissistic intolerance of students against faculty due to colleges now having a ”customer mentality,”(Bauerlein, 2010). In other words, professors' primary objective should be to keep the customers, the students, happy. Faculty members soon learn that to maintain employment they need to assign little to no homework and lower expectations of student learning, and raise grades so that everyone passes, no one complains, and everyone’s happy.

Administration supports this approach because colleges need students in order to stay in business and they need to attract good students that remain until graduation. As today’s Generation Me is used to getting what they want, easy As and more time to spend, using upscale amenities is attractive. They expect coursework not to interfere. They have no difficulty reporting a faculty member to a chair or dean, knowing they will be backed.

The marketization of higher education has resulted in a focus on student satisfaction rather than skill and knowledge. As student satisfaction is largely linked to getting good grades without doing much work to move quickly towards graduation, these values are reinforced by administrators.

In the United States, student satisfaction is now the central message communicated in university marketing, and it also forms the primary promise made in marketing materials. The degree to which the university is successful in fulfilling this promise goes a long way toward establishing the school's image and reputation. This puts much of the control regarding what occurs in the classroom in the students’ hands and professor retention now relies in large part upon the students' perception that professors teach and assign grades the way they want them to (Hall, 2018). This system only reinforces student narcissism.

Babcock (2011), noted in a large study of college students and professors, that professors receive lower scores on evaluations from students during terms when they graded more rigorously or required more. Student evaluations are increasingly important for professors maintaining positions, obtaining promotions, and increasing salary. College professors soon learn it’s against their best interests to fight what students want. This further reinforces the students’ belief that they can control everything related to their education, further increasing narcissistic characteristics. Babcock states these beliefs and values have resulted in a free fall in standards at U.S. Colleges and Universities.

In his book, The Dumbest Generation (2008), Bauerlein asserts that such narcissism is the result of overindulgent and permissive, parents, teachers, and other adult role models. He predicts that these characteristics will lead this self-absorbed generation to become “dull-witted” to the point they will only feel satisfied when their newest power grab has been successful. He asserts that digital innovations are not expanding the social world of the younger generations. Instead, Bauerlein states it is narrowing it into a self-absorbed environment that blocks out almost everything else.

Conclusions and Implications: Are There Solutions?

Twenge has stated that the increase in narcissistic college students is concerning, a sentiment echoed by many of us. The more narcissistic college students become the more likely they will lack empathy, value self-promotion over helping others and react aggressively to constructive criticism. In the book The Narcissistic Epidemic, Twenge and Campbell add that these students are also at risk for the inability to maintain positive relationship, lack warmth, and exhibit game playing, dishonesty and controlling and violent behavior. In other words they are manipulative and will stop at nothing even potentially violence to get what they want.

Twenge and Campbell (2010), state that given how drastic the upsurge in narcissism is in college students, and how prevalent these characteristics have become, they are unsure if there are remedies to the problem. However, they add decreasing permissiveness and indulgence and more authoritative parenting from the start and carrying throughout young adulthood might help stem this trend. However, while individual families might believe in putting such boundaries in place it is unlikely until there is a general consensus that the younger generation is in trouble that society will change. Thus, these kids will eventually be exposed to and likely pick up the narcissistic attitude of other children and the society around them.


American Psychiatric Association, (2013). Narcissistic Personality Disorders. In The DSM-5, APA: Washington.

Babcock, P., (2011, January 21). Falling standards in universities. The New York Times. Retrieved July 25, 2011.

Bauerlein, M., (2008, May). The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30). Penguin: New York.

Bauerlein, M., (2010, October 13). Keeping customer’s happy. The New York Times. Retrieved July 25, 2010.

Cox, R., (2009). The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand Each Other. Harvard University Press: Boston.

Hall, H. (2018). The marketisation of higher education: symptoms, controversies, trends. Ekonomia i Prawo. Economics and Law, 17(1), 33-42.

Stinson, F. S., Dawson, D. A., Goldstein, R. B., et al., (2008). Prevalence, correlates, diability, and comorbidity of DSM IV-TR Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Results from the Wave 2 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 69, 1033- 1045.

Twenge, J. M., (2006 ). Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – And More Miserable Than Ever Before. Free Press (Simon and Schuster): New York.

Twenge, J. M. (2013). Teaching generation me. Teaching of Psychology, 40(1), 66-69.

Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K., (2010). The Narcissistic Epidemic. Free Press: New York.

Twenge, J. M., Konrath, S., Foster, J., & ., Campbell, W. K., Bushman, B., (2008), Egos inflating over time: A cross temporal meta-analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Journal of Personality, 76, 875-901.

© 2018 Natalie Frank


Bee on May 03, 2019:

Interesting article. The only fuzzy area for me here was the reference at the end to "over indulgent and permissive" parents and teachers. In what ways over indulgent and permissive? In many ways, relaxing authoritarianism in certain areas leads to positive progress, especially in regards to social awareness. For example: recognising differences in individual learning styles ( especially where non-neurotypical students are concerned), and recognising that differences between cultural and socio economic backgrounds means that young people ( indeed, people in general) are not on a level playing field. Allowing young people a healthy degree of self expression is also a positive insofar as confidence and self esteem go. Surely we want young people to be able to believe in themselves. This generally does not equate to narcissism unless the "permissiveness" is extreme ( and fairly constant).

Personally, I feel that technology has played a huge role in this rise in narcissistic behaviour. The digital age has provided a level of convenience and instant gratification that past generations did not experience. Thus, kids are not growing up having to experience certain challenges/ perform tasks that cultivate patience, focus, and self discipline in the way that older generations might have. Add to that the rise in social media platforms -which not only normalise narcissistic behaviour, but actively encourage it- then it becomes more and more likely that we will encounter such behaviour.

(Let us also not assume that young people are the only ones affected by this, however! Older people are not immune. I have encountered plenty of self obsessed facebook addicts in their 40's and 50's. Narcissism has existed for ages, but never before has it been given so many socially accepted avenues in which to flourish.).

In defence of the young people, in most cases they haven't exactly been given a choice as to their level of involvement in aforementioned technologies. They grew up surrounded with it; most schools ( and many parents) are fairly gung-ho regarding keeping up with technological advancements; new, enticing tech and devices are invented every few months ( or so it seems to me!), and we are viewed as being "behind the times" or "old school" if we do not keep up. ( for instance, I do not use facebook, and although I am in my 40's, I am very much in the minority in this choice not to use it. At times I feel quite frustrated by the fact so many people seem to have forgotten that other avenues of communication exist. I can only imagine the pressure younger generations- for whom social media use is the norm- would face).

I absolutely agree that universities are indeed playing a role in this rise in narcissism. The practices and attitudes you mention here regarding this I have witnessed. I even recall a billboard at a train station a few years ago advertising a business course offered by one of the local universities. "Fast track a 2 year course into a 1 year course", it proclaimed. Essentially the message there is " why do something thoroughly when you can just do it quickly?". I cringe at such notions. Unfortunately however, it is simply a reflection of a larger mentality that pervades almost every aspect of human existence now. I feel this is a problem that has MANY causes; the economy; politics, to name a few. Placing the blame on parents and teachers wanting to accomodate the individual needs of children ( NEEDS as opposed to individual ego-based WANTS) is over-simplistic. Boundaries are certainly healthy and necessary, but not to the point where they become excessive and /or oppressive. A balance is needed. Unfortunately, there are extremes on both sides of the coin. There is certainly no quick-fix for this problem; we cannot afford to apply over-simplistic, reductive "black and white" thinking to something as complex as human psychology/ behaviour.

What is the answer? I don't know. As technology continues to play an increasingly dominant role in our lives, I do worry that it will become increasingly difficult to combat the negative psychologic effects that come with it. Engaging in dialogue about the issue; trying to maintain an awareness of it is undoubtedly a start. Articles like yours seek to do this, so I am thankful to have come across it.

Rachele Hollingsworth on April 26, 2019:

I am in my second year as a part time adjunct English professor at my alma mater. This is my dream job....after years of teach high school, I imagined getting my PhD and teaching college full time. After experiencing it, though, I am completely disillusioned by the level of apathy from these kids. It’s so disheartening!

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on November 04, 2018:

Thanks Ken. You are right on all counts. While teaching to the test has largely died a painful and too lengthy death in grades below the college level, there are still the Federal tests that existed before the No Child Left Behind movement and similar tests for college students in public universities which determine such things as student funding, University federal funding and student promotion to the next year. This means that college students often have a focus on passing exams and these tests exclusively rather than on the learning process or acquiring knowledge or skills. Many now a days seem to not much care whether they earned a grade or not, just whether they received a high enough grade when all is said and done. Thanks for stopping by and for the comment.

Ken Burgess from Florida on November 01, 2018:

Great article. Its hard to be a good parent these days, probably harder to be a good teacher, especially for college students that have had years of 'learning' which focuses them on passing the fed tests at the end of the year, more than anything else.

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on October 31, 2018:

I had the same experience especially in more recent years. It often felt like the patients were running the asylum. When a student can complain against a professor, making up whatever they choose as revenge for bad grades or the refusal of a professor to change a valid and often even curved grade and the professor is the one in trouble we've got a problem. A main issue is that while these students may get away with manipulating the system in their favor so that they don't have to do much work, when they get in the working world they will learn this is no longer tolerated and have a bunch of problems trying to keep a job. They can't go to the boss with a host of excuses or blame others. They don't get that the boss really doesn't care and just needs the job done. Thanks for stopping by and for commenting.

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on October 31, 2018:

Angel - I couldn't agree with you more. It's almost as if not putting yourself first 100% of the time no matter what the consequences are on others is thought of as weak-willed while narcissistic self-interest is not only tolerated but sometimes even expected. Some people who aren't necessarily narcissists then buy into this mentality because it seems to be the way to success, acceptance and happiness so you have others who may not be narcissists still acting in accordance with the way a narcissist does. This just adds insult to injury. Thanks for stopping by and for the comment.

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on October 31, 2018:

Hey Gregory - glad you enjoyed the article. Your definition is right on the money. Narcissists often act the way they do because they are covering up and inferiority complex. Thanks for stopping by and for the comment.

Larry Slawson from North Carolina on October 31, 2018:

I think you are definitely on to something here. As a former college instructor, I certainly noticed this trend in some of my classes (particularly in the last few years that I taught). It was also apparent in a lot of the graduate students that I attended graduate school with.

Angel Harper on October 30, 2018:

I think this is a very serious problem because in today's society self-interest and narcissism seem to be encouraged and even rewarded. It feels like you have to be selfish to be successful.

Gregory DeVictor from Pittsburgh, PA on October 28, 2018:

Natalie, the title of your article really caught my attention when I saw it in the feed. Therefore, I decided to read it and to digest what you had to say.

Like others, I completely agree with your findings and research. I have particularly seen displays of narcissism at HP, when newbies request “tips and advice” for their articles, and then “act out” accordingly when we give them “constructive criticism.”

Another definition of a narcissistic person is “an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.”

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on October 28, 2018:

Yep, Bill, you and me both. My parents never got involved in what was going on in terms of my college grades. It was my responsibility to do what it took to get good grades and if there was something that needed to be dealt with with a professor it was up to me to take care of it. They never would have called to tell a professor he or she wasn't treating me fairly or ask how dare they give me something below an A when I had told them I deserved one. Yet when I was teaching the number of calls I got from parents who gave me hell because their angel hadn't received an A. It didn't matter that they hadn't hardly come to class, failed two of three tests and turned in less than half of the assignments. They still should have gotten an A! Thanks for stopping by!

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on October 28, 2018:

Yep, Bill, you and me both. My parents never got involved in what was going on in terms of my college grades. It was my responsibility to do what it took to get good grades and if there was something that needed to be dealt with with a professor it was up to me to take care of it. They never would have called to tell a professor he or she wasn't treating me fairly or ask how dare they give me something below an A when I had told them I deserved one. Yet when I was teaching the number of calls I got from parents who gave me hell because their angel hadn't received an A. It didn't matter that they hadn't hardly come to class, failed two of three tests and turned in less than half of the assignments. They still should have gotten an A! Thanks for stopping by!

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on October 28, 2018:

Yes Flourish, I agree. When we raise and educate children to believe if they want something they should be able to get it no matter what, they end up entitled. Unfortunately, when they get into the working world they will have to realize that bosses need certain things done and done properly and they don't care about how hard you tried they just care about the outcome. There's no such thing as A for Effort in word environments, there's only F for Fired. Thanks for stopping by and for commenting.

Liz Westwood from UK on October 28, 2018:

This is quite a depressing phenomenon. Does it point to an increasing 'me first' attitude of a selfie obsessed generation?

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 28, 2018:

It saddens me to agree with you. I've seen the evidence of this over the years. It seems so foreign to me, completely opposite how I was raised.

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 27, 2018:

Sadly, I agree with everything you’ve put forth here because I’ve seen it. We’ve created a real problem with being so indulgent and permissive and ultimately employers will reap what parents and educators have sown.