Beautiful Minds

Musings on the many paths to greatness.

Why is Narcissism Adaptive in Youth?

A new, developmental study of narcissism reveals benefits in youth.

Everyone loves to bash narcissists (except narcissists). They do make easy targets. Their inflated sense of self makes others feel inferior, so putting them down a peg makes others feel better about themselves. Also, their outlandish, over-the-top displays of grandiosity can serve as good fodder for parody.

Nevertheless, in recent years, psychologists have documented the potential benefits of narcissism, highlighting the fact that narcissism is multifaceted and is normally distributed in the general population (i.e., everyone is a little bit narcissistic). A new developmental study conducted by Patrick Hill and Brent Roberts make an important contribution to this literature. In a large sample of 807 undergraduates and their family members, narcissism and all its components were related to age: the older the participant, the less they reported engaging in narcissistic behaviors.

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Narcissism was also more strongly related to life satisfaction among the students in their sample (aged 18-25) than among their adult participants. Their findings were particularly informative when narcissism was broken down. The relation between life satisfaction and the facets Leadership/Authority (the extent to which people enjoy being a leader and being seen as an authority) and Grandiose Exhibitionism (the extent to which people display their real or imagined superior abilities) were more positive for younger than older participants whereas Entitlement/Exploitativeness (the extent to which people enjoy manipulating and exploiting others and expect favors from others) was associated with lower levels of life satisfaction regardless of age. Narcissism is clearly a multifaceted construct, and some components are more adaptive than others.

How were narcissists perceived across the lifespan? Among neither the students nor the mothers, was narcissism correlated with perceptions of Openness to Experience. Narcissists just aren't seen as very open, no matter the age. Those scoring high in Leadership/Authority and Grandiose Exhibitionism were perceived as more extroverted across the lifespan, however. Since Extroversion is associated with social potency, self-esteem, and goal persistence, this further speaks to the potentially adaptive benefits of some facets of narcissism. In terms of differences between students and mothers, adult mothers scoring high in narcissism were perceived as less agreeable and conscientious, and more neurotic, whereas these correlations weren't significant among the students. The differences between the students and mothers were particularly strong when looking at neuroticism.

Why might narcissistic traits be more adaptive among the young? Hill and Roberts interpret their findings as follows:

"It appears that during those developmental periods for which narcissism is more prominent, it may in fact provide greater benefits, with respect to both life satisfaction and observer perceptions of neuroticism."

They speculate that an inflated sense of self may be beneficial, and in some respects, necessary for the transition into adulthood, since in emerging adulthood individuals are just beginning to form their own, unique identities. Therefore, young adults might benefit from holding an inflated sense of self as a coping mechanism to get them through this rocky period. As one becomes an adult though, it becomes more expected by society that the person will give up his or her narcissistic grandiosity of the past in order to promote social well-being and become a positive contributor to society.

Fair enough, at least from a proximal, psychological perspective. But why, in a deeper sense, is narcissism so prevalent, and potentially adaptive among the young? There has to be an evolutionary reason why narcissistic traits remain in the gene pool and peek in adolescence. According to an emerging hypothesis by Nicholas S. Holtzman and Michael J. Strube, narcissistic traits may have emerged as a particular form of dominance around 1.5 million years ago when variation in mating strategies emerged. In particular, narcissism may have evolved for short-term mating. In support of their hypothesis, they note narcissism's link to attractive behaviors (in the short-term), coercive and manipulative tendencies, and adolescent peaks.

If their hypothesis is correct, you would expect narcissism to peak at the age in development when short term mating is most likely to provide a reproductive payoff. As people age, they acquire resources so that they can take care of their young. Most adolescents, however, can't make such provisions, so short term mating is a more efficient route to reproduction. Also, most adolescents don't have the money, power, and fame to attract lots of mates, so they figure out early on that adopting narcissistic displays is their most direct route to short-term mating success. The findings of Hill and Roberts are consistent with this emerging hypothesis, since developmental specificity is the gold standard for inferring a trait's evolutionary adaptive function. According to Holtzman and Strube,

"Because nature should have optimally tailored genetic structure to meet mating goals (e.g., through genes that control the expression of other genes), it would be consistent with our evolutionary perspective if narcissism peaked at adolescence."

This doesn't mean culture is off the hook. An important future line of research will be to investigate both the genetic and societal factors that impact on narcissism and the contextual factors that determine whether the traits and behaviors associated with narcissism are more or less likely to display themselves. As Holtzman and Strube point out, even though narcissism does show some heritability, the influence of learning and contextual factors in the development of mating strategies are crucial. We can structure society in ways that bring out narcissistic traits in our youth, or keeps them at bay. Also, there are still very active debates in the field as to how narcissism develops, which are far from settled.

At any rate, Holtzman and Strube’s hypothesis is intriguing, and requires further research. They admit the speculative nature of their hypothesis, but their theory does point to potentially fruitful avenues for further research, including research on olfactory abilities, reproductive morphology, sex hormones, and unadorned physical attractiveness. According to the researchers, “An evolutionary approach can complement the narcissism literature by articulating where narcissism comes from, by explaining why narcissists do what they do, and by providing means to generating testable hypotheses.”

To truly understand narcissism, and its potentially adaptive benefits as well as detriments across the lifespan, requires multiple levels of analysis. Narcissism is clearly a multifaceted construct, and some components may be helpful for certain age groups and professions. I'm happy to see such integration has already begun.


© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman

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Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. is a cognitive psychologist at NYU interested in intelligence and creativity development. He is the author of forthcoming Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.


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