A new study out of SDSU found an increase in self-rating despite a decrease in grades and scores.
Overconfidence and an inflated sense of self can cause narcissism in college students, according to Twenge.
Though SAT scores and other measures of academic success have decreased over time, more college students rate themselves as above average on academic ability, drive to achieve and other attributes than previous generations. The findings were published online in the journal Self & Identity this month.
“With grades and self-perceptions going up and actual ability unchanged or down, we've become a society that favors the appearance of success rather than actual success,” said Jean Twenge, San Diego State University psychology professor and lead researcher.
Increased social self-confidence
The study examined results from 6.5 million entering college students across the U.S., between 1966 and 2009. The data come from the American Freshman survey, administered by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.
The largest changes appear in social self-confidence (30% saying they were above average in 1966, compared to 52% in 2009), leadership ability (41% vs. 62%), public speaking ability (25% vs. 37%), intellectual self-confidence (39% vs. 60%), writing ability (30% vs. 46%) and drive to achieve (60% vs. 76%).
These increases in self-ratings occurred at the same time as major grade inflation (only 19% of college students earned an A or A- average in high school in 1966, compared to 48% in 2009). Thus students might be more likely to think of themselves as above average because they have been given better grades.
The increases did not occur due to changes in actual ability, as SAT verbal scores and college selectivity have both declined over this time, and other measures of objective ability are unchanged. The better grades and higher self-ratings also did not occur due to more effort, as the number of students who studied more than 11 hours a week declined from 21% in 1987 to 13% in 2009.
Generation of narcissism
Despite the increase in self-ratings, recent students were not more likely to rate themselves higher on attributes related to getting along with others, such as cooperativeness and understanding others. Thus the increases were limited to attributes focusing on the individual self.
“It's tempting to believe that more self-confidence is a good thing,” added Twenge, who is also the author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before. “But when it crosses over into overconfidence and an inflated sense of self, negative consequences such as narcissism can follow. We've clearly been successful in boosting young people's self-esteem. The problem is that it is possible to have too much of a good thing when self-perceptions become inflated out of proportion to reality.”
Twenge added that the study responds to previous critics who suggested that generational changes in self-importance did not appear in large, nationally-representative databases. She co-authored the study with W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile of the University of Georgia.
Study in the news
USA Today - New data on college students and overconfidence