You're So Vain You Probably Think This Article is About You

Dr. Jean M. Twenge is famous for talking about how millennials are narcissistic. She's also written some cool stuff about how you shouldn't be that worried about your uterus drying up the moment you turn 30. But all that writing about narcissism has made the narcisstic world a little skeptical of her findings.

According to a New York Times profile of Dr. Twenge, her research methods have been called into question because, in her words, "people just want to be positive about the future and about young people." That being said, some of her work does sound bizarre. For instance, in one of her early studies, she used the Bem Sex Role Inventory – a test that tells you if your personality is stereotypically masculine, feminine or other – to see if those traits had become more or less prominent in men and women in the past several decades.

“Fifty percent of the women were scoring as masculine,” she said, far higher than the test manual considered normal.

...

Dr. Twenge decided to dig up as many old studies using the Bem survey that she could find, average out their scores by year and chart them over time. “I found that across all the studies from the ’70s to the ’90s, there was a very clear upward trend in women scoring higher on this measure of stereotypically masculine traits,” she said.

Thus a method was born. By analyzing the results of a survey that had been administered regularly to college students for decades, Dr. Twenge had found a novel way of tracking personality changes across generations — an elusive metric among social psychologists. She would eventually term her method “cross-temporal meta-analysis.”

There are a couple things to be skeptical of, at least in this one study being exalted as Dr. Twenge's big break. First of all, using a model that uses "stereotypically" masculine and feminine traits is using something with really loose, undefined terms you can't control for and secondly, looking at lots of different old studies that were done under different circumstances doesn't sound particularly accurate either.

That being said, Twenge stands by her methods, arguing that her later claims of millennial selfishness have been grossly overexaggerated:

“People think I’m saying all millennials are selfish. Of course I’m not saying that. I’m saying here’s on average what the data show. This is a problem that anybody who does research on group differences runs into.”

In any case, it's very possible Dr. Twenge is right about all her young people are narcissistic talk, mostly because a guy I know posted this article on my Facebook and at first I thought he was implying that I was a narcissist, when in fact he just thought I should read it and maybe write about it, thus indicating that I narcissistically thought someone thought I was a narcissist. A low moment, but at least I'm not alone.

Seeing Narcissists Everywhere [NYT]