In the recent New York Times Bestseller, “The Road to Character,” David Brooks criticizes western culture for its ever increasing emphasis on individual success and self-advancement over more collectivist virtues, such as humility, empathy, and compassion for others. Brooks contends that this “culture of the Big Me” has led many of us to become obsessed with superficial “résumé virtues”—achieving wealth, fame, and status – at the expense of core “eulogy virtues” – kindness, bravery, honesty, and faithfulness.
Brooks further suggests that our modern self-obsessed culture has contributed to an increase in the prevalence of narcissism.
Between 1948 and 1954, psychologists asked more than 10,000 adolescents whether they considered themselves to be a very important person. At that point, 12 percent said yes. The same question was revisited in 1989, and this time it wasn’t 12 percent who considered themselves very important, it was 80 percent of boys and 77 percent of girls.
He goes on to say:
The median narcissism score has risen 30 percent in the last two decades. Ninety-three percent of young people score higher than the middle score just twenty years ago. The largest gains have been in the number of people who agree with the statements “I am an extraordinary person” and “I like to look at my body.”
The idea that narcissism is on the rise is a fairly controversial topic in the field of personality psychology. Some psychologists argue that because personality traits are largely genetically determined, they do not vary considerably from one generation to the next or from one culture to another. Yet, other psychologists point to data such as that cited by Brooks, as well as data suggesting that empathy for others has declined during the past 30 years.
I’m only part of the way through Brooks’ book, but after reading the first few chapters, I got to wondering whether we might be able to track the supposed rise of narcissism in western society by looking for trends in word usage in American and English literature.
For instance, if society truly has become more self-centered and narcissistic in recent decades, then we might predict that certain pronouns, such as “I,” “my,” and “mine,” are more frequently used today than several years ago.
To figure out whether this is the case, I turned to Google Ngram to determine the frequency of usage over the last 200 years for common pronouns (I, you, she, he, they, etc.) and their possessive counterparts (my, mine, your, yours, her, hers, etc.).
The results are displayed below in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Relative Usage of Common Pronouns between 1800 and 2008, according to Google Ngram.
Note: I converted the raw frequencies provided by Google Ngram into proportions for easier interpretation. Thus, for any given year a data point represents the frequency of a particular pronoun category divided by the combined frequency of all other pronouns for that year. For each year, the proportions for all pronouns sum to 1.
As you can see in the top panel of Figure 1, there has been a steady increase since around 1965 in usage of individualistic pronouns – “I, my, and mine,” as well as “you, your, and yours.” Meanwhile, during the same time frame, there has been a decline in usage of more collectivist pronouns, such as “they, their, and theirs” and “we, our, and ours.”
Table 1 below presents a more detailed comparison of the specific numbers from 2008 and 1965.
Table 1: Comparison of Pronoun Usage in the Google Ngram English Corpus between 1965 and 2008.
From 1965 to 2008, usage of individualistic pronouns (I, my, mine, you, your, and yours) increased, on average, by a factor of 1.74, whereas usage of more collectivist pronouns (they, their, theirs, we, our, and ours) decreased by about 25%.
Furthermore, usage of collectivist pronouns peaked much earlier than usage of individualistic pronouns. “You, your, yours” peaked at 0.13 in 2002, and “I, my, mine” peaked at 0.19 in 2008.* Meanwhile, “we, our, ours” peaked at 0.10 in 1844, and “they, their, theirs” peaked at 0.19 in 1802. In fact, 2008 marked the time of lowest usage for both sets of collectivist pronouns – 0.08 for “we, our, ours” and 0.13 for “they, their, theirs.”
*Given that the Google Ngram English Corpus only provides frequency data up to the year 2008, it’s unclear whether this is the actual peak usage. It’s possible that usage of “I, my, mine” has continued to increase since 2008.
So does all of this mean that society has, in fact, become more narcissistic over the past 40-50 years?
Maybe. And it’s worth pointing out that similar findings have been obtained from computer analyses of popular music.
But it’s also important to point out that there are different types of narcissism. At a minimum, we can distinguish between so-called “normal narcissism,” which is characterized by the type of self-centeredness we all exhibit from time to time, and “pathological narcissism,” which is the kind recognized by psychologists and psychiatrists as a full-blown disorder that genuinely interferes with a person’s ability to form relationships and hold down a steady job.
Although the data I’ve presented here might point to an increase in the prevalence of “normal narcissism” in recent years, they say absolutely nothing about whether the prevalence of “pathological narcissism” is similarly on the rise.
Alternatively, the increased usage of self-related pronouns might have nothing at all to do with narcissism.
Notice that in the top panel of Figure 1 the increase in usage of “you, your, and yours” is actually a bit steeper than that of “I, my, and mine.” If society had indeed become more narcissistic since 1965, one might have expected to see the opposite – a more rapid increase in usage of “I, my, and mine” compared to “you, your, and yours.”
Perhaps this means that society has not necessarily become more narcissistic in recent decades, but rather that it has become much more individualistic. Nonetheless, a shift toward greater individualism and less collectivism will still carry important economic and social ramifications.
For now, I leave it to you and to future research to decide whether this continuing cultural shift will ultimately benefit our society. And if you believe that it will, whether this benefit to society will come at the cost of our humanity and our sense of responsibility to our fellow citizens.
Have something to add? Feel free to leave a comment below.
Brian Kurilla is a psychological scientist with a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology. You can follow Brian on Twitter @briankurilla