Has The Apprentice come to life?

24 January 2013

A recent US survey has suggested college students think they’re better than ever; but the test results don’t agree. Is this rise in narcissism the result of social media and television – the growth of ‘Brand Me?’ In Cambridge in particular it can be all too easy to believe our own hype.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young person in possession of privilege, talent, and the wrinkle-free smile of youth, must be in want of more Facebook photos.

In new analysis of the American Freshman Survey by US psychologist Jean Twenge and his colleagues, it has emerged that over the past four decades, there has been a notable rise in the number of students who rate their self-confidence, along with their academic and arithmetic abilities, as ‘above average.’ As a student environment with a particular passion for excellence and achievement, Cambridge is seemingly a most productive petri-dish for similar analysis.

Cambridge is full of bright, loquacious, high-achieving young people, defined by the knowledge that they have been chosen to join one of the world’s most outstanding educational establishments. As such, it is quite natural that students, when presented with such privilege (often affirmed over and over as the just desserts of a talented and diligent pupil) do not fight the positive effects of such achievement on their self-esteem. Indeed, such effects are by no means intrinsically undesirable; no one would dispute that the terribly Disneyfied yet nonetheless useful term ‘belief in oneself’ is an integral part of a person’s key to success. However, in too potent a quantity, such inflations of self-esteem can give rise to a less agreeable outcome. Narcissism, or the extreme absorption in and consistently high estimation of one’s own personality, looks and abilities, is not difficult to find among the body of undergraduates, postgraduates and (importantly) beyond. With this in mind, it is hardly surprising the survey, which began in 1966, has also revealed a recent decrease in self-appraisals of traits such as co-operativeness and understanding others. It is at this point that one is left to wonder, when did it became socially acceptable to estimate oneself so highly that traits involving one’s relation to others are coolly dismissed as less worthy of cultivation?

Naturally one cannot give a clearcut answer; the complexities of the human soul are manifold, and, without surveys such as these to indicate trends, largely imperceptible to the untrained eye – probably because that eye is turned inwards, more often than not: whether that be through extensive introspection, one-way conversations, or the voracious scanning of the Facebook newsfeed. However, one may have good cause to appeal to the role of the media (televisual, audial and social) as standard-setter and subtle dictator of which values society deems worthy of preservation. It only requires a minor dalliance with the series ‘The Apprentice’ or ‘The X Factor’ to unveil the delusions of grandeur both simultaneously mocked and encouraged by such programming. In both these shows, contestants are not participants, they are products; and, thanks to slick editing and lazy spectatorship, they present themselves as a widely accepted package that is all style and no substance. It is particularly striking that along with the observation that students are increasingly likely to credit themselves as particularly capable writers, there has been an indication from objective test scores that writing ability has in fact decreased since the 1960s. As such, it is clear to see that one’s sense of self-esteem as based on intelligence and/or performance can be formed entirely independently of its natural indicators, allowing young people to be fooled by their self-congratulation into estimating their talents above their capabilities.

Let it be said that decent self-image is by no means to be decried; in fact, from personal experience I would suggest it is far more preferable to avoid the handicap of low self-esteem than it is to rank oneself a bit beyond one’s station. However, in a city where the mass populous is remarkably gifted, quick-witted, and attractive, the spectre of Narcissism looms ever large, threatening to create a culture in which interpersonal skills are left by the wayside, and meaningful interaction with others is reduced to a vehicle for one’s own wit and opinion. As such, one can see on both ends of the spectrum the danger to a person’s mental health and wellbeing which could be caused by unrealistic self-estimation. For those still cocooned in The Bubble, it is even more important to keep one’s feet firmly on the ground; and one’s Facebook page firmly tucked away in a minimised window at the bottom of the screen.

Rosalind Peters is a second-year Theology student from Magdalene.