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Today’s college entrants are feeling more superior about themselves

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

The question is one sure to touch off a passionate debate – are today’s young people more self-centered and entitled than those of past generations? Doubtless many older people would affirm that yes, they are, while the younger ones are sure to feel defensive about that generalization. The standoff between the generations is probably as long-standing as the human race, documented as far back as ancient Greece. While young people tend to push change and innovation, those over 40 see more value in tradition and a slower pace of change. Whether either side wants to admit it or not, they both need each other to balance out the world – to prevent complete stasis and stagnation or runaway chaos in the wake of uncontrollable change.

Jean Twenge’s research, however, focuses on a more nuanced and psychologically-focused aspect of the debate. Author of “Generation Me,” Twenge has made a career out of finding data that she says shows that college students and others their age are more self-centered, narcissistic even, than past generations. She now has turned up data that suggests that they also feel more superior about themselves than the older generation did when they were their age. What this translates into is a large bump up the self-regard quotient.

"There are some advantages and some disadvantages to self-esteem, so having some degree of confidence is often a good thing," says Twenge. But as she sees it, there is a growing disconnect between self-perception and reality.

"It's not just confidence. It's overconfidence."

And that, she says, can pose problems, in relationships and the workplace.

Her point is not without merit. Numerous data from various sociological and psychological research studies point to young people being increasingly challenged by a lack of intimacy and relationship skills. They are also increasingly seen as more passive in the workplace, waiting for an authority figure to tell them “what to do next.” An entitled or superior attitude goes a long way to promote such habits. Someone who feels overconfident in his or her skills and abilities is simply not going to feel the need to try harder, to consider the value of another’s point of view, or to even see the need to re-evaluate one’s actions or attitude.

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Among other things, Twenge and her colleagues found that a growing percentage of incoming college freshmen rated themselves as "above average" in several categories, compared with college freshmen who were surveyed in the 1960s.

When it came to social self-confidence, about half of freshmen questioned in 2009 said they were above average, compared to fewer than a third in 1966. Meanwhile, 60 percent in 2009 rated their intellectual self-confidence as above average, compared with 39 percent in 1966, the first year the survey was taken.

In the study, the authors also argue that intellectual confidence may have been bolstered by grade inflation, noting that, in 1966, only 19 percent of college students who were surveyed earned an "A" or "A-minus" average in high school, compared with 48 percent in 2009.

"So students might be more likely to think they're superior because they've been given better grades," Twenge says.

Another source of superior self-confidence may be rooted in parenting styles, which, while admirably less punitive and shaming than some standard practices in the past, have also swung into material over-indulgence, over-protectiveness, and an unprecedented focus on children’s self-esteem.

The secret to self-esteem is not an inflated sense of self-importance, but a realistic, down-to-earth assessment of one’s strengths and weaknesses, which exist side by side.

John Pryor, director of UCLA's Cooperative Institutional Research program, says that one needs to view Twnege’s findings with caution and refrain from oversimplifications. You can't look at factors such as self-confidence and feelings of superiority without considering other findings that balance out those traits, says Pryor. Studies also suggest that younger people are, for example, more engaged in community service.

And psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, a research professor in the psychology department at Clark University in Massachusetts, says that if you look at the patterns in young people's behavior, a lot of the news is good. Crime is down and rates of substance abuse are down, way down. Rates of all kinds of sexual risk-taking, from abortion to sexually transmitted diseases, are also down.