College Students Overconfident

Ranting geriatrics might just be onto something: a study published by a prominent psychologist has empirical evidence linking Kids These Days to being Ain’t What They Used to Be.

Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University professor of psychology who has studied the psyche of college students, recently found that the ego of incoming college freshmen has become acutely inflated over the past four decades.

According to an AP report on her study, a 2009 survey found that around half of freshies rated themselves as having “above average” social self-confidence, and 60% rated their intellectual self-confidence similarly. In 1966, the proportion of those who answered the questionnaire and rated their social self-confidence as “above average” was under a third, and those who considered themselves to have “above average” intellectual self-confidence was 39%.

Twenge, who has released earlier studies that show contemporary students are more self-centered than their predecessors, claimed that her latest study reveals a somewhat disconcerting rift between expectations and reality.

“Its not just confidence. Its over-confidence,” she said about the recent revelation, published in the British journal Self and Identity.

Still, others aren’t quite so sure that this tidbit is an indication of delusions of grandeur.

“If every freshman said she was a genius, we might have a problem on our hands,” wrote Anna North on Jezebel. “But if students are just saying they’re confident about their intellects, that’s a different thing entirely.”

However, she added, “growing up believing you’re exceptional can make a simply satisfactory life feel like a disappointment”.

Whatever the significance of the study is, it would be foolhardy to use it as stick with which to beat the young’uns. While American kids are far from perfect, this supposed inflated sense of self-worth didn’t come from the womb. How Mommy and Daddy have changed since the ‘70s (and how kiddies have been raised by Madison Avenue) may have helped contribute to this sentiment, particularly as executive pay has risen despite a decline in the long-run performance of corporate America (a report in Sunday’s Washington Post discussed this in detail). If Twenge’s hypothesis turns out to be true and incoming college students aren’t quite as impressive as they fancy themselves to be, questions should be asked about the old folks first. And, ironically, those that moan about kids not being as great as they once were might be some of these overconfident kids’ most prominent role models.

Samuel Knight

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.