Dead Aim: A Reflection on Our Image Obsession
“Today’s college students are more narcissistic and self-centered than their predecessors, according to a comprehensive new study by five psychologists who worry that the trend could be harmful to personal relationships and American society.”
That was the lead to a recent Associated Press story. As I read it, sitting in Mudd, I looked up from my computer and surveyed the scene around me. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I wondered.
But then I read further.
The study, based on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, concluded that two thirds of today’s college students suffer from an above average level of narcissism, up thirty percent from 1982. Jean Twenge, one of the researchers (as well as author of the book Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable Than Ever Before) was quoted as saying that this increase in self-centeredness is a direct result of trends in parenting. “We need to stop endlessly repeating ‘You’re special’ and having children repeat that back,” Twenge told the AP. She also identified the Internet as a component in this surge in self-love.
I looked around the library again. Maybe this isn’t as far off as it sounds.
The American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology defines the narcissistic personality as “a pattern of traits and behavior characterized by excessive self-concern and over-valuation of the self.”
So okay. Looking around campus, I see plenty of self-concern and more than enough over-valuation. Our generation seem to be characterized, more than anything else, by image consciousness and ambition, both of which fit into that definition of narcissism.
Take Facebook, for example. While voyeurism is a driving force behind Facebook, there is an equal importance on the virtue of Being Seen. Students spend hours constructing and re-constructing Facebook profiles, carefully putting forth an image of themselves that they find to be perfect, the virtual equivalent of hours spent in front of a mirror meticulously arranging their hair and clothes. We do not express this image-consciousness only online, of course. It can be seen in our clothes and our styles, our willful associations with images and brands. But the Internet gives us a new opportunity.
Another one of our characteristics is our ambition. We are a generation who can’t move ahead quickly enough. We are focused on our futures, on our careers. This drive has been bred into us from the time we started high school and were forced to ceaselessly think about college applications. When we graduate from Oberlin, many of us aspire to work for the White House or at the New York Times or to have our art displayed in the Met or to discover the cure for cancer. A lot of us truly believe that we can.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Maybe if we think that we are great we will be more likely to do great things. That is what we have learned since pre-school, after all. Besides, this is America, the land of the individual, the nation of endless opportunity.
But the other side of the coin is less positive. Vanity is rarely a productive force. Hours spent admiring ourselves in front of the mirror or on Facebook are hours that we are not being productive. And more importantly, this obsession with ourselves leads us on to a path of selfishness. We end up thinking as much about our image or our personal rewards as we do about any larger societal good. Furthermore, as the study points out narcissists “are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty and over-controlling and violent behaviors.”
I have no idea if there is more game-playing, infidelity or violent behavior on the Oberlin campus now than there was twenty five years ago. That is for another study to decide. I also cannot say definitively whether this increase in narcissism is inherently bad or if it contributes to our society in some positive way. I do know that I find it all immensely interesting — and nowhere near as crazy as I initially thought.