Data 1, NPR 0

Jay “should replace the Brooks brothers on the NYT op-ed page” Livingston writes:

There it was again, the panic about the narcissism of millennialas as evidenced by selfies. This time it was NPR’s podcast Hidden Brain. The show’s host Shankar Vedantam chose to speak with only one researcher on the topic – psychologist Jean Twenge, whose even-handed and calm approach is clear from the titles of her books, Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic. . . .

What’s the evidence that so impressed National Public Radio? Livingston explains:

There are serious problems with the narcissism trope. One is that people use the word in many different ways. For the most part, we are not talking about what the DSM-IV calls Narcissistic Personality Disorder. That diagnosis fits only a relatively few (a lifetime prevalence of about 6% ). For the rest, the hand-wringers use a variety of terms. Twenge, in the Hidden Brain episode, uses individualism and narcissism as though they were interchangeable. She refers to her data on the increase in “individualistic” pronouns and language, even though linguists have shown this idea to be wrong (see Mark Liberman at Language log here and here). . . .

Then there’s the generational question. Are millennials more narcissistic than were their parents or grandparents? . . . if you’re old enough, when you read the title The Narcissism Epidemic, you heard a faint echo of a book by Christopher Lasch published thirty years earlier.

And now on to the data:

We have better evidence than book titles. Since 1975, Monitoring the Future (here) has surveyed large samples of US youth. It wasn’t designed to measure narcissism, but it does include two relevant questions:
Compared with others your age around the country, how do you rate yourself on school ability?
How intelligent do you think you are compared with others your age?
It also has self-esteem items including
I take a positive attitude towards myself
On the whole, I am satisfied with myself
I feel I do not have much to be proud of (reverse scored)
A 2008 study compared 5-year age groupings and found absolutely no increase in “egotism” (those two “compared with others” questions). The millennials surveyed in 2001-2006 were almost identical to those surveyed twenty-five years earlier. The self-esteem questions too showed little change.

Another study by Brent Roberts, et al., tracked two sources for narcissism: data from Twenge’s own studies; and data from a meta-analysis that included other research, often with larger samples. The test of narcissism in all cases was the Narcissism Personality Inventory – 40 questions designed to tap narcissistic ideas.

Their results look like this:

Narc graph 2

Twenge’s sources justify her conclusion that narcissism is on the rise. But include the other data and you wonder if all the fuss about kids today is a bit overblown. You might not like participation trophies or selfie sticks or Instagram, but it does not seem likely that these have created an epidemic of narcissism.

Oooh—ugly ugly ugly Excel graph. Still, Livingston has a point.

Ahhhh, NPR!

14 thoughts on “Data 1, NPR 0

  1. It’s unfortunate, but I have very strong prior on anything Shankar Vedantem reports on as being at least 90% bullshit. My built-in reaction is to mentally tune out whenever he comes on the air. I am probably being unfair to him, but it’s the only way I can protect myself and other drivers from the slim possibility that my NPR rage will morph into road rage.

    Maybe that would make a good priming study? Do statisticians primed to annoyance by shitty science reporting respond more aggressively to heavy traffic?

    • Dalton:

      See here.

      It really is a shame. NPR has so much circulation and gets so much respect, it would be good if they could up their game when it comes to science reporting. Unfortunately, I get the impression that NPR correspondents have the functional equivalent of “tenure,” and they can keep doing what they’re doing indefinitely without anyone ever checking on the quality of their work.

      See also this, for example, which I found in a quick web search. With this sort of positive feedback, it’s gonna take a long time, if ever, before Vedantam has any motivation to reflect upon whether the stuff he’s been reporting on is all wrong.

  2. Sorry about the excel graph….

    There is also the more recent meta-analysis done by Grijalva et al (2015) showing that Narcissism as assessed by the NPI has not increased over the same time period that Twenge studied using a much more defensible sampling of the research. Here’s the paper.

    It has much better graphs….Unfortunately, the finding is buried in a paper focusing on gender differences, where unsurprisingly, men score higher on narcissism.

  3. NPR has stories like this (sloppy pandering to the older generation’s view that the younger generation isn’t as good as them), and then NPR wonders why their audience trends older, and they have problems with younger people.

  4. I find it refreshing NPR feeds its grey haired audience’s beliefs about the trend toward degeneracy. This age-old complaint is revealing in so many ways: Latin just ain’t what it used to be, the Empire ain’t what it used to be, by which I mean stuff like this identifies the need for and the reality of contra-trends, contra-beliefs – or simply ideas with a different sign in the probability space. That is, as technology advances, as the bounds of our Rome expand into Gaul, then of course we’re becoming more narcissistic and the Latin that distinguishes our vigorous Romanity from Grecian torpor is growing weaker. We can learn from such stuff a) no one can stop change, all the way back to concepts of fire and the impossibility of stepping into the same river twice, b) the sign of change across dimensions is not consistent and c) importance is contextual. As to the last, Guderian could see the towers of Moscow in December, 1941 and all the omens, the literal signs of change treated as priors used to generate a posterior would not have Berlin in rubble less than 4 years later. The last of course is similar to points you’ve made about large trials that thus appear persuasive but which actually exist in a probability space in which what you’ve seen is, well, I would now say that Operation Barbarossa was an error.

    You expect too much of NPR because they are trying to appeal to the greyheads. They sell their newspapers, their fish and chips, to their customers and they feel a strong need to do that because they need those customers to pay. I’d say your criticism is a means of identifying an extent to which posterior need – i.e., money counted – affects priors: they choose stories which appeal to whitecaps and they present those stories in a manner which appeals to that crowd and you can see explicitly that they’re identifying other signed information, that which contrasts with pace of change, extent to which youth drives the economy and culture, and they’re presenting that with less than solid accuracy. If we assume the first part is fine, that identification of potentially other signed information is at least neither good nor bad, then you’ve narrowed some ways in on the extent to which their perceptions of their posterior needs influences their priors.

    By contrast, I’m not sure what to make of the NYT. They’re no longer a reliable news organization because they edit the facts by leaving out what doesn’t fit the narrative. NPR does the same thing – omit the objections to the barely noticeable, highly arguable counter-trends of narcissism and the like – but I can see why. I can’t see why the NYT has chosen to slant so much of its “coverage”. Or rather, I think that somehow and someway they’ve decided that in this era they need to seize the opinion making role, the “setting the agenda” role in which they create story narratives and write article to fit their narratives. That’s hubris! It’s also more troubling statements: they don’t want to present a full picture of facts because a) you might disagree and b) that would cost them in this quest to set your agenda in your head for what they perceive as your benefit and c) they either are or believe they’re better at this kind of distortion than at high quality reporting. Maybe the last references resources: it’s easier to report what fits than to gather data and some version of the more data you gather the harder it is to create a gripping narrative. After all, narrative by its nature excludes other versions because we are what we are and aren’t what might have been. My ultimate problem with this is I don’t like the idea that people feel they are the ones who need to tell other intelligent people what to think while withholding from them the information those people need to question what they’re being told. They’re putting themselves forward as a sort of government of the mind and we know that governments lie, that they evade and omit and sometimes outright lie and suppress to get you to agree with them, and it disturbs me the NYT thinks this is the role they covet. Advocacy is not the problem, but rather advocacy that pretends to be objective. The left and right wing news aggregators and tripe generators speak to audiences predisposed to buy their offal, but what I see the NYT doing is lying to intelligent people who are predisposed to believe the NYT checks facts and tells complete stories, who don’t imagine the NYT leaves out whatever doesn’t fit the narrative they’re imposing on this story, who believe there is a less distorted truth when they are being sold a very distorted truth masquerading as objective. Do they think this is where the money is over time? I wonder. But I tend to think their actions are bound tightly to hubris. It’s either that or they’re more influenced by the way tripe is peddled than they imagine.

    • ” … or they’re more influenced by the way tripe is peddled than they imagine.”

      My guess is that this is the case — most journalists don’t have the training to detect tripe.

    • Jonathan: Outstanding comment, thank you for taking the time!

      >I can’t see why the NYT has chosen to slant so much of its “coverage”

      Hmm, why are you confused? You answered this yourself: “They sell their newspapers, their fish and chips, to their customers and they feel a strong need to do that because they need those customers to pay.”

      >Do they think this is where the money is over time?”

      I’m pretty confident the answer is Yes, because audiences themselves desire slanted, simplified coverage. I infer this as follows:

      a) Just like all other businesses subject to free-market selection pressure, each and every media business will make key choices to try to stay in business.
      b) Media businesses must target and reach addressable audiences, that will pay subscriptions and/or view the advertising that the businesses have sold to sponsors.
      c) As audiences continue to fragment, media businesses will continue to tailor and narrow-cast their content to target demographics defined via (b).
      d) Most people, and therefore most audiences, live busy and very often stressful lives.
      e) Audiences/people are basically looking for entertaining news and opinion, as a distraction from (d).
      f) Culture wars, competing cultural narratives, and cognitive dissonance are major features of adult society, in America at least.
      g) Journalistic standards are just another set of specialized business practices. Those standards and practices are subject to the same intense selection pressure via (a), to promote readership feelings of (e) and accommodate (f), in ways that facilitate (b).
      h) Management’s role is to maximize readership, consistent with above constraints.
      i) Audience preferences are the “environment” which drives evolution of journalism practices. Distinctive journalism in an individual media outlet is like an adaptive specialization. I.e., it’s perceived and instituted by management to produce positive business results.

      With respect, it’s easy to blame media owners for making their disturbing choices. But to offer my own analogy with ancient Rome, people continue to be simple creatures, wanting their bread and circuses. Thus the reflexive, one-stop choices to tune into NPR, NYT, CNN, FOX, etc. In circus terms, it’s Ringling Bros for some, Cirque de Soleil for others ;)

    • Jonathon,

      “That public men publish falsehoods
      Is nothing new. That America must accept
      Like the historical republics corruption and empire
      Has been known for years.

      Be angry at the sun for setting
      If these things anger you. Watch the wheel slope and turn,
      They are all bound on the wheel, these people, those warriors.
      This republic, Europe, Asia.

      Observe them gesticulating,
      Observe them going down. The gang serves lies, the passionate
      Man plays his part; the cold passion for truth
      Hunts in no pack.

      You are not Catullus, you know,
      To lampoon these crude sketches of Caesar. You are far
      From Dante’s feet, but even farther from his dirty
      Political hatreds.

      Let boys want pleasure, and men
      Struggle for power, and women perhaps for fame,
      And the servile to serve a Leader and the dupes to be duped.
      Yours is not theirs.”

      Seems like Robinson Jeffers’ prior from 1941 was pretty good.

  5. I tend to tune out (or tune to another station) when Vedantam comes on NPR — so much of what he says seems to be the TED talk type stuff.

    But I’m also not convinced with the quality of the “data” you cite — in particular, I am dubious about the quality of the measures of “narcissism”. Specific points in what you cited:

    1. The two “compare” questions from the Monitoring the Future survey don’t seem like good measures of narcissism — you would need to compare the respondent’s answers with some more objective measure of school ability and intelligence in order to have a measure of narcissism.

    2. I looked up the Narcissism Personality Inventory. The questions are all of the sort “Pick the one of these two that best fits you.” I am generally skeptical of dichotomous questions like these. They seem to require a definition of what is being measured as “that which is measured by the inventory” — i.e., a circular definition.

    So to me, whether or not millennials are more narcissistic than previous generations has not been adequately answered one way or the other (and perhaps can’t be adequately answered, because the concept itself is so fuzzy and difficult to measure).

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