Date Published: May 15, 2019
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Joshua B. Grubbs, Julie J. Exline, Jessica McCain, W. Keith Campbell, Jean M. Twenge, Eldad Yechiam.
Both academic and popular literatures have repeatedly contended that emerging adults are the most narcissistic and entitled age-group in modern times. Although this contention is fiercely debated, the message that emerging adults are narcissistic and entitled has saturated popular culture. Despite this saturation, relatively little empirical work has examined how emerging adults might react to such labels. Across three studies in five samples in the U.S., the present work sought to address this deficit in research. Results from cross-sectional samples of university students at two universities, as well as an online convenience sample of web-using adults (Study 1), indicated that emerging adults believe their age-group and the one following them (e.g., adolescents) to be the most narcissistic and entitled age-groups, that they have generally negative opinions of narcissism and entitlement, and that they respond negatively to being labeled as narcissistic and entitled. Additionally, results from adult web-users revealed that, while all age groups tend to view adolescents and emerging adults as more narcissistic and entitled than older age-groups, these opinions are more exaggerated among members of older age-groups. Finally, across two experimental studies (Studies 2 & 3), results indicated that emerging adults react negatively to labeling of their age-group as narcissistic and entitled, but no more negatively than they do to potentially related undesirable labels (e.g., oversensitive). Collectively, these results indicate that emerging adults are aware of and somewhat distressed by messaging that casts their age-group as the most narcissistic and entitled age-group ever.
The above quote was the featured lede into the 2013 Time magazine cover story, “The Me, Me, Me, Generation” . Although sensational in its wording, those few sentences illustrate the pervasiveness of public perceptions regarding younger age-groups. These perceptions are not without foundation. Generational differences in various personality traits have been described in empirical literature extensively, with various reports indicating that younger age-groups display more individualism [2,3] and less empathy , but also more tolerance for diversity  and greater egalitarian values  than those which preceded them. Similarly, there are a number of studies that report that narcissism has also risen significantly over recent generations [7–10], although this claim has not been without particularly intense dispute [11–14].
To test hypotheses one through three, we collected three samples as detailed below. We did not conduct a-priori power analyses to determine sample sizes, instead aiming to collect as many participants as possible within the given time or monetary constraints associated with each data collection effort. However, post-hoc power analyses are reported in our analytic plan.
Study 1 demonstrated that younger adults have generally negative opinions of narcissism and entitlement, that they have generally negative responses to being personally labeled as having such traits, that they think their age-group and the age-group younger than them are more narcissistic and entitled relative to older age-groups, and that they have generally negative but credulous reactions to descriptions of their age-group as narcissistic and entitled. To further examine how emerging adults react to their age-group being called narcissistic and entitled, relative to other descriptors commonly attributed to their age-group, we constructed an experiment, as detailed below.
Analyses of variance revealed no significant differences between conditions on ratings of the believability of the excerpt (Narcissistic: M = 5.6, SD = 2.7; Oversensitive: M = 5.7, SD = 2.6; Optimistic: M = 5.7, SD = 2.5; F(2, 192) = 0.06, p = .944) or subjective feelings of surprise/confusion at the contents of the excerpt (Narcissistic: M = 2.8, SD = 2.1; Oversensitive: M = 3.1, SD = 2.3; Optimistic: M = 3.2, SD = 1.9; F(2, 192) = 0.57, p = .569). In short, participants in all three conditions did not feel surprised by the content of the excerpt they read and were slightly above the midpoint for agreeing with the believability of its content. Taken together, these findings suggest that participants had been exposed to descriptions of their age-group as narcissistic, oversensitive, and optimistic before, although they were only moderately trusting of each description.
Building on Study 2, Study 3 used an expanded experimental design to examine positive and negative descriptions of the same traits (i.e., the traits described were the same across conditions, although the valence of the description varied). Consistent with prior studies, sample sized was determined by maximizing participation over the course of the study.
Results of independent-sample t-tests are summarized in Table 9. Results revealed that participants in the positively valenced condition were more surprised and less likely to describe the message as negative than participants in the negatively-valenced condition. Results also indicated a significant but unreliable difference in ratings of the excerpt as positive (Cohen’s d = .27), with those in the negative condition rating the excerpt as less positive. No differences were observed for credulity or emotional responses to the excerpt.
How do emerging adults feel about stereotypes regarding their age group, particularly those that suggest they are more narcissistic than older adults? Using a variety of samples and both cross-sectional and experimental methods, the present work sought to answer that question. Below, we summarize our findings and discuss the implications and limitations of the present work.
Popular and academic literatures are full of messages regarding age-group differences, with some of the most popular attention on this topic being focused on casting emerging adults as the most narcissistic and entitled of all age-groups. Although this contention is hotly debated in academic literatures, popular media has propagated this conclusion quite efficiently. The findings of the present work suggest that emerging adults are likely aware of these messages and that they believe these messages, although to a lesser degree than older adults might. However, in both cases, it appears that popular belief in such differences might exceed the evidentiary basis for such differences. Furthermore, the present work also suggests that emerging adults find these labels unpleasant and somewhat distressing. Finally, our results do suggest that emerging adults do not believe that being narcissistic and entitled is a good thing, instead being more creduluous of messages that casts these traits in a negative light. Although future research is needed, these findings suggest that popular messages regarding age-group differences are not without consequence for the generations being described.