One of the most important trends of the past half-century was the self-esteem movement in education. The idea was that students learn more if they are told that they’re smart and capable of learning more.

In theory, it made sense to a lot of people. Unfortunately, test scores tumbled, and students are doing more poorly than ever on standardized tests, even though the tests have been made easier than before. Meanwhile, U.S. students have rated themselves as doing just great academically. Students in Japan and Korea have been scoring much higher than U.S. students yet do not rate their achievment as high as Americans ratethemselves.

Now we find that this wonderful self-esteem movement has been fostering a narcissistic culture, a society in which people increasingly feel aggressive, unsympathetic, and disconnected from one another. Anyone looking at contemporary American culture, especially that part of it which is geared toward and inhabited by the young, could easily see a rising tide of narcissism, of course, and now there is scientific evidence to back it up. The Associated Press reports

Today’s college students are more narcissistic and self-centered than their predecessors, according to a comprehensive new study by five psychologists who worry that the trend could be harmful to personal relationships and American society. . . .

[The study’s lead author, Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University] and her colleagues, in findings to be presented at a workshop today in San Diego on the generation gap, examined the responses of 16,475 college students nationwide who completed an evaluation called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory between 1982 and 2006.

The standardized inventory, known as the NPI, asks for responses to such statements as "If I ruled the world, it would be a better place," "I think I am a special person" and "I can live my life any way I want to."

The researchers describe their study as the largest ever of its type and say students’ NPI scores have risen steadily since the current test was introduced in 1982. By 2006, they said, two-thirds of the students had above-average scores, 30 percent more than in 1982.

This is a very bad trend for the society, the study’s authors note. Narcissism has numerous awful consequences, says study co-author W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia, according to the AP story:

"Unfortunately, narcissism can also have very negative consequences for society, including the breakdown of close relationships with others," he said.

The study asserts that narcissists "are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors."

Twenge, the author of "Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before," said narcissists tend to lack empathy, react aggressively to criticism and favor self-promotion over helping others.

The study’s authors say that this trend is traceble directly to the self-esteem movement:

The researchers traced the phenomenon back to what they called the "self-esteem movement" that emerged in the 1980s, asserting that the effort to build self-confidence had gone too far.

As an example, Twenge cited a song commonly sung to the tune of "Frere Jacques" in preschool: "I am special, I am special. Look at me."

"Current technology fuels the increase in narcissism," Twenge said. "By its very name, MySpace encourages attention-seeking, as does YouTube." . . .

"Permissiveness seems to be a component," he said. "A potential antidote would be more authoritative parenting. Less indulgence might be called for."

The article notes that the authors do not have any prescription for turning things around quickly: "Campbell said the narcissism upsurge seemed so pronounced that he was unsure if there were obvious remedies."

Obviously, rethinking our national obsession with building kids’ self-esteem through artificial measures—and returning to the common-sense habit of praising them for real achievements and simply treating them both kindly and fairly—is the most likely remedy for the long term. That is Twenge’s conclusion too, the story notes:

"We need to stop endlessly repeating ‘You’re special’ and having children repeat that back," said the study’s lead author, Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. "Kids are self-centered enough already."