While most of our personality traits remain relatively stable over the course of our lives, reliable changes in personality do occur. Fortunately, we tend to show increased maturity in our personality as we age, becoming more agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable over time.
But what about narcissism? Narcissism is a continuous personality trait– we are all at least a little bit narcissistic– that encompasses multiple facets, including a grandiose self-concept, feelings of superiority (including superior leadership ability,) entitlement, exploitativeness, and a lack of empathy. Does narcissism show the same stability as other personality traits? On the face of it, narcissism is the opposite of maturity, so one might expect a decline in narcissism over time. However, no longitudinal study had tracked changes in narcissism from young adulthood to midlife.
Until now. In a new paper, Eunike Wetzel and colleagues report on the longest longitudinal investigation of continuity and change in narcissism reported to date. They followed up a sample of UC Berkeley undergraduates over a 23-year period after the students completed a measure of narcissism during their first year in college. The researchers focused on three facets of narcissism: entitlement, vanity, and leadership.
Entitlement is the narcissism facet most toxic for maintaining satisfying relationships and is associated with expecting special treatment, devaluing others, and being disagreeable. Vanity reflects the tendency to take excessive pride in one’s own appearance and achievements and is associated with an incessant need to be the center of attention and a high prevalence of grandiose fantasies of success. Leadership is considered the most adaptive facet of narcissism and is associated with a desire to lead, high self-esteem, and goal persistence.
So what did they found? Do narcissists ever grow up? Here are some of their results:
- Narcissism showed high levels of relative stability similar to that found for other personality traits and self-esteem during the same stage of life. Vanity showed the weakest relative consistency over time while entitlement showed the strongest relative consistency.
- While there was relative stability of narcissism, there was a tendency for increased maturity over time. In particular, the researchers found moderate to large average decreases in narcissism. The results suggest that as young adults grow older, they do tend to become less self-focused.
- More entitled people tended to experience more negative life events over time.
- College students who saw themselves as a superior leader tended to grow up to be in jobs that allowed them opportunities to control subordinates through supervising or hiring decisions. As the researchers note, “given the interpersonal propensity to engage in selfish and unethical behavior and risk-taking, the fact that narcissists end up in powerful positions that control the material resources and potentially even the well-being of their subordinates deserves greater attention in organizational research… Selection processes may inadvertently reward these people with positions that then cause difficulty for others.”
- Vanity was a mixed bag when it came to life paths from young adulthood to midlife. Those who were more vain in college were more likely to be in unstable relationships and marriages, were more likely to divorce, and were less likely to stay in relationships as long as their peers. They also tended to have fewer children by midlife. On the other hand, highly vain college students were more likely to report better health for themselves, perhaps because really vain people are more likely to take care of themselves and engage in health-related behaviors such as exercise and diet.
- Highly entitled students reported lower well-being and life satisfaction.
- While very few people actually increased in narcissism over time (3% for overall narcissism), there was considerable individual variability in the degree to which narcissism scores decreased. Vanity levels seemed to be a particularly important protective factor preventing the ill health and life satisfaction effects of narcissism over time. Failing at stereotypical accomplishments of young adulthood– such as being in a relationship and having children– were associated with maintaining higher levels of vanity. The researchers suggest that perceptions of failure may lead highly vain people to put even more energy into their physical appearance in order to attract new potential partners. Indeed, having children and being in an intimate relationship was related to stronger decreases in vanity. These results mirror findings on other personality traits showing that conforming to age-related social roles that promote shifting one’s focus from the self to others is related to developing into a more mature adult.
- Those who supervised others and handled a budget decreased less on overall narcissism (particularly the leadership facet of narcissism), perhaps because those positions reinforced and continued to feed their narcissistic hunger.
Looking at the total pattern of results, it seems as though people on average tend to become less narcissistic from young adulthood to middle age with the magnitude of this decline being related to the particular career and family pathways a person pursues during this stage of life.
Vanity and leadership appear to be the facets of narcissism that change the most in response to life events and experiences. However, one limitation of the study is that higher prestige jobs and higher salaries were overrepresented in this sample of UC Berkeley graduates, so these findings should be replicated in samples with a wider range of life outcomes before we conclude that these results apply to the general population.
These findings add to a growing literature on personality that suggests that the type of life events we experience are not completely random, but result in part from differences in our personality. Life experiences are partially due to people choosing experiences that fit their temperament or having their experiences chosen by others based on their personality.
These results are also consistent with research showing that significant life events– such as becoming more invested in a job, or investing in a long-term relationship, family, religion, or prosocial volunteering— can also cause significant personality change. This seems to apply to narcissism as well. While narcissism predicts the likelihood of certain outcomes, commitments to things that take us outside of ourselves can also curb our narcissism.
Older adults are always complaining that today’s youth are so darn self-focused and narcissistic. However, recent studies have cast doubt on this intuition, instead suggesting that today’s youth are actually no more narcissistic than the youth of prior generations. The current findings offer the intriguing possibility that every generation of adults may view the youth of their day as so much more vain and entitled than they were as kids not because that is the case, but simply because the adults grew up.