Narcissism tends to decline as we age, along with vanity, leadership, and entitlement, a new study suggests.
Researchers focused on Generation X college students in 1992 and revisited them when they were around age 41. The research, which will appear in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, surveyed 237 of the original 486 participants and found out how the lives of narcissistic people turned out as they got older.
“Past work has supported the argument that people tend to mature over time by showing that they generally become more conscientious, agreeable, and emotionally stable—less anxious and depressed—from young adulthood to middle age. Our findings are relevant because narcissism is really the antithesis of maturity,” says Emily Grijalva, professor of organizational behavior at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Maturity here is considered in social terms—a more pleasant and productive citizen in a society,” Grijalva says.
Among other findings from the survey: Narcissism overall, and vanity, leadership, and entitlement in particular, all saw a decline over the roughly quarter-century between the first examination and the re-examination 23 years later. Only 3% actually showed an increase in narcissism over that span, says Eunike Wetzel of Otto-von-Guericke University in Magdeburg, Germany, and “some remained just as narcissistic at age 41 as they had been when they were 18 years old.”
A drop in leadership
One result surprised researchers, who had expected to see an increase in the leadership component of narcissism, but found a decrease.
“In fairness to my coauthors, that hypothesis was mine, and it turns out I was wrong,” says Brent Roberts, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois who worked on the study while a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley. Roberts notes how leadership is considered one of the least pathological elements of narcissism.
“We know from past research that another component of personality, assertiveness, tends to increase during this time of life,” Roberts says. “So, I thought it was reasonable to hypothesize a similar increase in the leadership facet. This either means the past research is wrong, or our read of the leadership component of narcissism is wrong—it may actually be more negative than we thought. We have to figure this out in future research.”
Narcissism, jobs, and relationships
The researchers also examined the types of life events people experienced. Participants who were vain at age 18 were more likely to divorce, had fewer children, and had more unstable relationships. On the other hand, they also reported better health after 40. One interpretation is that vanity may promote a concern with physical attractiveness, and, in turn, healthy habits such as going to the gym and eating healthy. In this way, vanity has mixed outcomes—it is associated with better physical health, but less successful romantic relationships, Grijalva says.
Personality not only predicts the occurrence of life events, but life events can affect the trajectory of change in personality. “We found, for example, that having children and being in an intimate relationship were related to stronger decreases in vanity,” Grijalva says. But when relationships failed, vanity levels tended to decrease less.
When considering work-related outcomes, “Narcissistic young adults were more likely to end up in supervisory jobs 23 years later, suggesting that selfish, arrogant individuals are rewarded with more powerful organizational roles,” adds Grijalva, who completed the project while working at the University at Buffalo.
“Further, individuals who supervised others decreased less in narcissism from young adulthood to middle age—meaning that supervisory roles helped to maintain prior levels of narcissism,” she says.
“Interestingly, people often presume millennials are more entitled and narcissistic than previous generations, but there is a lot of research evidence showing that this simply is not the case,” Grijalva says. “It appears that older generations assume young people are more narcissistic because their own narcissism levels naturally declined over time—leaving them currently less narcissistic than young people—and they have forgotten how narcissistic they used to be when they were young.”
Wetzel adds that she, Roberts, and Richard Robins of the University of California, Davis, worked on the generational aspect in a previous project. “We already published a paper together showing that the popular perception that young adults today are more narcissistic than young adults of prior generations is incorrect,” Wetzel says. “The current study showing that, on average, people decrease in narcissism from young adulthood to middle age is kind of a follow-up study.”
The entitled folks of Gen X, the study reveals, were more prone than the vanity or leadership segments to endure what they ranked as negative life events and to grow into people with lower life satisfaction and well-being—and those with higher entitlement tended to have larger body mass index.
Even though the study group came from students at the University of California, Berkeley—who earned twice the national average and went on to earn a terminal degree 64% of the time—the coauthors expect that the tendency for narcissism to decrease from young adulthood to middle age is relatively robust.