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It's Hard to Be a Narcissist in a Recession

Young people who come of age in tough economies might be less narcissistic.

The press and some psychologists love ragging on Millennials for their narcissistic tendencies. This has always bugged me, a member of the so-called "Me Generation," since the young people I come in contact with aren't especially self-centered, at least not more so than most twentysomethings of any previous time. Isn't it the job of young people to think about themselves—their goals, their dreams, their place in the world, the things that make a life worth living—to a greater degree than they will later on, after they think they've figured it all out?

Now new research shows that this group of young people might not be so self-centered after all—especially those who graduated into the really crappy economic climate of the late 2000s.

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According to a press release issued by the Association for Psychological Science, which published a report of the research in a recent issue of Psychological Science, researchers at Emory University found that young people who came of age during economic hard times are less likely to be narcissistic than those who matured when times were flush. As lead author Emily Bianchi said in the press release, "economic conditions during this formative period of life not only affect how people think about finances and politics, but also how they think about themselves and their importance relative to others."

Bianchi's team analyzed two large-scale surveys to get to this conclusion. The first looked at more than 1,500 adults in the US, and found that those who entered adulthood in the worst economic climate (when the average unemployment rate was 7.7%) scored, on average, 2.35 points lower on a 40-point narcissism scale than participants who came of age in the best economic climate (when average unemployment was 4.3%). This link persisted even after the researchers controlled for gender, education level, and measurements of self-esteem.

A second study looked at the relative compensation of CEOs, which has been associated with narcissism in the expected direction: the more narcisstic CEOs tend to pay themselves much more than other senior executives. And why not—narcissism is defined in part as an inflated sense of self-worth, and CEOs are often in a position to translate that pumped-up self-regard into dollars and cents.

Looking at the pay scales of more than 2,000 CEOs of publicly-traded companies in 2007, Bianchi and her colleagues found that those who entered the job market in rough economies paid themselves less—in relation to the next-highest-paid executive at the company—than those who entered the job market when the economy was healthier. Again, this held true even after correcting for many of the variables that might have accounted for these differences: age, gender, company revenues, assets, and industry.

What's most interesting about this work is the timing of the relationship between macroeconomics and personality. The Emory researchers found no clear link for people who encountered high unemployment rates at later stages of their adulthood. This might be in part because they were more settled in their careers and thus relatively immune to economic trends, and in part because they were more settled in their own skins and thus relatively immune to environmental influences on their personalities.

“There seems to be widespread concern that young adults have become more self-absorbed and egotistical in the last several decades,” Bianchi said in the press release. “These new findings suggest that part of this rise could be due in part to the terrific prosperity this country has enjoyed since the mid 1980s."

Bianchi said that the Great Recession encountered by this current crop of twentysomethings "may produce a cohort of less self-focused young adults.” Talk about looking for a silver lining. 

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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