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Study finds students confident

More freshmen in college say they are ‘above average’

Students at San Diego State University, where professor Jean Twenge argues that college freshmen may be overconfident. Students at San Diego State University, where professor Jean Twenge argues that college freshmen may be overconfident. (Gregory Bull/Associated Press)
By Martha Irvine
Associated Press / June 17, 2011

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Among academics who track the behavior of young adults and teens, there’s a touchy debate: Should the word “entitled’’ be used when talking about today’s younger people? Are they overconfident in themselves?

Jean Twenge, author of the book “Generation Me,’’ is in the middle of the discussion. The San Diego State University psychology professor has made a career out of finding data that she says show that college students and others their age are more self-centered — narcissistic, even — than past generations. Now she’s turned up data showing that they also feel more superior about themselves than their elders did.

“There are some advantages and some disadvantages to self-esteem, so having some degree of confidence is often a good thing,’’ says Twenge. But as she sees it, there’s a growing disconnect between self-perception and reality.

“It’s not just confidence. It’s overconfidence.’’

And that, she says, can pose problems, in relationships and the workplace — though others argue that it’s not so easy to generalize.

“If you actually look at the data, you can’t just condense it into a sound bite. It’s more nuanced than that,’’ says John Pryor, director of the UCLA Cooperative Institutional Research program, which produces an annual national survey of hundreds of thousands of college freshmen on which Twenge and her colleagues based their latest study.

That study was recently published online in the British journal Self and Identity.

Among other things, Twenge and her colleagues found that a larger percentage of incoming college freshmen rated themselves as “above average’’ in several categories compared with college freshmen who were surveyed in the 1960s.

When it came to social self-confidence, about half of freshmen questioned in 2009 said they were above average, compared with fewer than a third in 1966. Meanwhile, 60 percent in 2009 rated their intellectual self-confidence as above average, compared with 39 percent in 1966, the first year the survey was given.

In the study, the authors also assert that intellectual confidence may have been bolstered by grade inflation, noting that in 1966, only 19 percent of college students who were surveyed earned an A or A-minus average in high school, compared with 48 percent in 2009.

“So students might be more likely to think they’re superior because they have been given better grades,’’ Twenge says.

Statements like that can set off the generational firestorm.

Young people are quick to feel picked on — and rightly so, says Kali Trzesniewski, an associate professor at the University of California, Davis.

“People have been saying for generations that the next generation is crumbling the world,’’ Trzesniewski says.

In her research, she says, she’s been hard-pressed to find many differences when comparing generations — and little evidence that an increase in confidence has had a negative effect.

Many bosses and others in the workplace have long asserted that recent college students often arrive with unreasonably high expectations for salary and an unwillingness to take criticism or to pay their dues.

“But a lot of them have a confidence that we wished we had,’’ says psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, a research professor in the psychology department at Clark University in Massachusetts.

He doesn’t object to Twenge’s findings. But he adds: “I disagree with using those findings as a way to promote these negative stereotypes of young people.’’

He says those stereotypes also overshadow positive trends related to young people.

“If you look at the patterns in young people’s behavior, all the news is good, pretty much. Crime is down and rates of substance abuse are down, way down. Rates of all kinds of sexual risk-taking . . . are down.’’

You also can’t look at factors such as self-confidence and feelings of superiority without considering other findings that balance out those traits, says Pryor from UCLA. Look, for instance, at community service, he says.

In 1990, when the question was first asked in the survey, about 17 percent of college freshmen said there was a very good chance that they would participate in public service in college. In 2010, nearly a third of freshmen said the same.

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