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Is Perception Of Success More Important Than Actual Success Nowadays?

San Diego State University Psychology Professor Jean Twenge is pictured in this undated photo.
San Diego State University Psychology Professor Jean Twenge is pictured in this undated photo.
Is Perception Of Sucess More Important Than Actual Success Nowadays?
Why are today's teenagers and young adults more arrogant and conceited than previous generations? We speak to SDSU psychology professor Jean Twenge about her new study that looked at how self-perception among young people has changed over the last 45 years.

Why are today's teenagers and young adults more arrogant and conceited than previous generations? We speak to SDSU psychology professor Jean Twenge about her new study that looked at how self-perception among young people has changed over the last 45 years.


Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at SDSU, and author of "Generation Me" and "The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement"


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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Is feeling good about yourself a bad thing? Most people would say no, but when a large number of young people feel extremely good about themselves for no good reason, some social observers see trouble brewing. A new study by SDSU psychologist professor Jean Twenge compares the self perceptions and academic performance of college aged students over the last 45†years. Twangy's book, generation me, and the narcissism epidemic have made the case that the current generation has a bad case of inflated self worth. Hi professor Twenge, welcome back.

TWENGE: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Tell me what this data -- what data this new study, which is published in the on line journal, self and identity, is based on.

TWENGE: It's based on a very large survey called the American freshman of entering college students at four-year schools that goes all the way back to 1966. From then to the present there's all these survey questions, going from the baby boomers back then, through gen X, through this new generation no one knows what to call. And it's huge. It's a database of nine million students who filled out this survey going all the way back.

CAVANAUGH: When you and your coauthors, Brittany genteel, and Keith Campbell, started to look through this research, what statistics popped out?


TWENGE: I was flipping through the data book one day to see if there were some interesting survey questions in there and found a list of abilities. And these students are asked to say if they think they are above average compared to their peers on certain abilities. So basically, are you smarter that are your friends? Do you have better leadership ability? Are you higher in drive to achieve? Are you higher in understanding others? So if you follow the line across, as I did in this book, in 1966 and the 1970s, the responses of the students were fairly modest. Not many said they were above average in these traits. But then those numbers continuously went up until you get to, say, the most aren't data, 2009, 2010, where as much as 75% were saying they were above average in things like drive to achieve.

CAVANAUGH: Sounds like Lake Wobegon.

TWENGE: Where everyone is above average.

CAVANAUGH: Don't today's students come into college with higher grades? Don't they have to backing that say, frankly we are a little bit better and above average?

TWENGE: That was the other question we really wanted to answer because they do say they're more above average in academic ability. So we looked at two things: Objective tests and subjective feedback like grades. We found for things like SAT scores over this time having down, particularly on the verbal section. And other objective tests of performance of high school students are about the same. And compared from the 1970s to now. Objective performance hasn't changed at all. There's not really any basis for them to say, yes, I actually am smarter. Except their grades have gone up. So we have had massive grade inflation. You look at high school students back in the mid-70s, only about 17†percent graduated with an A average from high school. It's now 33†percent. One out of three are graduating with an A average. When you keep in mind that performance hasn't changed, that means they're getting inflated feedback from their teaches, and that may be one of the reasons why they have this more inflated sense of self.

CAVANAUGH: You've been tracking this a long time. What evidence have you compiled that there is actual grade inflation going on?

TWENGE: You can see it from two different databases. One from high school students and one from college students. And in both cases, there's -- they report getting better grades. So you see it there. Then when you see that the objective performance hasn't changed, that suggests maybe there's this disconnect. We wanted to be fair and say, okay, maybe their smarts are the same, but maybe they're working harder, studying more hours. We looked at that. In both databases, that has gone down. The number of hours they report studying per week. With less effort, the same amount of smarts and better grades, that suggests that the grades are inflated.

CAVANAUGH: Of course there's that evidence that the SAT scores have gone down.

TWENGE: Exactly right.

CAVANAUGH: You've written about inflated self perceptions among young people in a couple of books. What are the causes that you've been able to figure out that might lead to this inflated self perception?

TWENGE: This is really a reflection of a much larger cultural trend. Generations are really about culture, and young people reflect the culture of their upbringing. We have this general movement going on toward focussing on the individual. Lots of great things about that, tolerance, less prejudice, more opportunities for more people. But we've arguably, I think, taken it too far in that we've moved to we're not gonna treat everybody as an individual and equal, but everybody is a winner. So for example, in children's sports leagues, everybody gets a trophy. You don't have to win. You just have to show up. Everybody's special, everybody's a winner. We're gonna have people try to feel good about themselves all the time. The problem is, if that good feeling isn't based on anything, that could potentially lead to problems.

CAVANAUGH: Aren't there some studies that show that today's generation actually does things like volunteer more, is more focused toward public service? Do you take that into consideration?

TWENGE: Yeah. That's not tremendously related because thinking you're above average --I don't know how that relates to community service. But we have been looking at that data to get a full picture of this generation. Of and yes, they do volunteer more in high school and do more community service. But on every other variable about community service or civic orientation, this group, generation me, is less interested in politics, participates in politics less, is less involved in civic issues compared to the baby boomers or even the Gen-Xers.

CAVANAUGH: And one of the things that you note is that the idea of being involved in volunteer activities has taken on increased importance in actually applying for college.

TWENGE: That's part of it. Probably the even bigger role is that many high schools now require community service for graduation. That was not the case in the '70s and '80s. At exactly the same time high school students are saying I'm doing more community service, that became required to graduate high school. Some people call it involuntary volunteering.

CAVANAUGH: You noted those areas in which today's students score much higher in the sense of having more confidence and a greater estimation of their own abilities. Is there any way some attributes that today's students score lower than previous generations?

TWENGE: That was the really interesting thing about this data set. It's a pretty long list of abilities and traits. Not all of them went up. The traits that are about the individual self, almost all of those went up. But attributes like being cooperative, understanding other people, being spiritual. Being spiritual went down in terms of do you think you're above average in spirituality. And the other two didn't change. Things that are related to getting along with other people, caring for other people, for the most part across a bunch of data sets including this one, they tend not to change much. That again really reflects the culture that, yeah, we still tell kids you need to get along with other people, understand other people, but we've really pushed you gotta feel good about yourself in terms of why abilities, in that you should feel great and think that you're better than everybody else in these areas.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with SDSU professor Jean Twenge about a new study published in the on line journal, self and identity. Isn't this evidence though that all of this stuff that they tried to do back in the '80s and 90s has worked? Children's self esteem has improved? That their confidence that they can take on a task and do it has improved? So in some terms isn't this a success?

TWENGE: In terms of the self feeling. Yeah, that movement toward encouraging children to have high self esteem has clearly worked because young people now are more likely to say I think I'm really good and have high self esteem. What we have not seen is about effect on actual performance or actual outcomes.

CAVANAUGH: How would you measure that in any other terms but a test?

TWENGE: In the objective tests measures are the easiest things to get ahold of the numbers. You could certainly look at other things like graduation rates. And over all, I think what this trend really shows is we have become a culture that places more importance on the appearance of success than actual success.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I don't think you're gonna get a lot of people to argue that point with you. There have been some critics of this whole theory and they point to instances where young this generation, substance abuse is down, crime among young people is down.

TWENGE: Crime is down. The substance abuse part is debatable. It's higher now than it was in the early 1990s. Lower than it was in the toking '70s, but it's higher now than the early 90s. And the types of drugs that people are using have changed. Now it's maybe not as in to do cocaine, but it's become more prevalent to steal your parents' prescription drugs. So in terms of the over all, how is this group doing in terms of safety and crime and things like that, yeah, we've got good outcomes in some of those ways. But that's not particularly related to self esteem or narcissism. It's unconnected.

CAVANAUGH: You must hear a lot of feedback from people in classroom settings, etc. You yourself have been teaching for 13†years. Have you noticed an increase in inflated self esteem since you started teaching in the classroom?

TWENGE: Yeah, I have. My caveat is most of my students are great. And I don't see this from most of my students. From most of them, they're involved, they don't have this unrealistic sense. But there is an increasing minority that does, that is flabbergasted when they get even an A-minus instead of an A, when their grade -- they explain, but I tried hard. Shouldn't that be enough? And I have to say no. I get a lot of requests for -- I really wanted this grade. Can you bump up my grade a little bit? And my answer is why? And how would that be fair to anyone else? And the first time I got an e-mail like that, I was flabbergasted. And I'm not anymore because now I get dozens.

CAVANAUGH: Do you see this as something that is across demographic lines? For instance, you kind of have the feeling that this is a white middle class phenomenon?

TWENGE: It's not. Definitely not. This college database is obviously more white and middle class than the rest of the country. If you look at the high school database, it's similar that has some questions on positive self views as well. If you look there, you get pretty much the same results whether you're looking at high socioeconomic status or low, white, black, or Hispanic, you get the same basic generational trends across the board. Universal.

CAVANAUGH: What happens to kids who are on the high end of this scoring? What happens when they finish high school and get into the real world? What do you hear from businesses and corporations about young people?

TWENGE: Right. I give a lot of talks on generations to corporations and to universities. What you hear is that the adjustment to the real world, and adjustment to adulthood, is very tough for this group. That was true even before there was session. Managers will tell me the story of I get so many people who want to be promoted after three months, and they want to be CEO of the company in five years. These things never used to happen. And they don't want to pay their dues, and they want to start at the top. A lot of young people say that's the problem with my generation, we were told we could do anything, and we find out we can't. And that's really tough. This isn't necessarily all their fault. This is a big cultural change that affected them.

CAVANAUGH: I understand your point. When I look at this, it seems I wish that I had had more self confidence when I was younger. And I'm wondering, are there benefits to kind of getting into the work force or getting into class and really feeling that you can just do anything that's asked of you, and that you're really gonna sale through this thing?

TWENGE: There are benefits to what's called self efficacy, which is different from self esteem, and it's different from thinking that you're above average. Self efficacy means you think you can do it. Yes, there are big benefits to that. That and self control. So persevering through difficulty. Those are the things we should be building, the belief that you can do something, that you could keep going. But thinking this you're better than everybody else, basically that tends to back fire. There are studies of college students who have this inflated sense of self, sometimes it's measured by a narcissism scale, sometimes by another measure. But very closely related to this idea of thinking that you're better. They tend to drop out of college more often. They get lower grades because they don't have a realistic sense of their own abilities, they often are overconfident and think I don't really need to study. I already know this stuff. And, well, no, you do need to study.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you go so far as to offer any suggestions for creating a more balanced view within family structure about what young people -- how to make them feel good about themselves and also not have an inflated sense of self worth?

TWENGE: I have two young kids, one of whelm is a preschool and going to kindergarten in the fall. This is something I think about every day. What I try to do, and this is a struggle for me as well as any other parent, and yes, you want to build that self efficacy, you want to tell your child, you can do this. But then when she comes back at you, oh, I already know this, which I've heard, or I'm the best at this, then you have to have the very difficult conversation of, well, no. You're gonna have to work at this more. But that's good. If you work at it, then you're gonna get better. So that's what I try to emphasize. And I think that's kind of a good general principle is -- I think for many people what they didn't realize as kids is just how hard you actually have to work to end up being good at something.

CAVANAUGH: And yet you're bumping a gen racial trend.


CAVANAUGH: Doing your best. I've been speaking with SDSU professor Jean Twenge, author of generation me and the narcissism epidemic. Thank you so much.

TWENGE: Thank you.