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How Narcissism Rates Differ Depending on Age and Sex

Data from 250,000 people offers a more complete view.

Rosy from Pixabay
Rosy from Pixabay

The topic of narcissism is one that fascinates psychologists and laypeople alike. When people think of narcissists, certain stereotypes might come to mind: the egotistical, status-obsessed man; the young woman constantly posting selfies on social media.

But is there any truth to such stereotypes? A new paper by Rebekka Weidmann and colleagues just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examined narcissism data from 42 different data sets containing survey responses from over 250,000 participants to take a comprehensive look at age and gender differences in narcissism.

Defining Narcissism

In personality research studies, researchers are studying narcissism as a personality trait. They're not studying the pathological levels of narcissism that would qualify someone for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Narcissistic personality tendencies exist in and can be measured among the general population. While those with NPD would certainly get high scores on personality measures of narcissism, such individuals are a very small portion of people who participate in these types of studies.

Narcissism is typically defined as an inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement. However, personality psychologists have identified multiple types of narcissism. Narcissism can be agentic, involving striving for success and seeking to be admired by others. It can be antagonistic, seeking to puff oneself up by putting others down. Or it can be neurotic and come in the form of vulnerable narcissism, where the individual vacillates between feeling superior to others and feeling inferior to them, making them especially sensitive to criticism and rejection.

The researchers examined studies that used measures of all three general types of narcissism to determine whether age or gender might relate to some forms of narcissism and not others.

Gender Differences in Narcissism

Narcissism involves agencyassertiveness, dominance, and a drive toward success. Narcissistic individuals also tend to be less communal and caring than those who are less narcissistic. Men, on average, tend to be more agentic than women, and agentic traits are more characteristic of the stereotype of the male than the female social role. This suggests that men should also possess higher levels of narcissism than women.

Across their data sets, Weidmann and colleagues did find that men scored higher than women on narcissism measures, particularly scales that examined agentic and antagonistic aspects of narcissism. However, statistically, the gender differences were rather small.

Age Differences in Narcissism

There is also reason to believe that narcissism could vary across the lifespan. People may gain self-confidence as they age. Does that mean they become more narcissistic? Or is narcissism more common among the young, who are more focused on themselves than on others?

There are multiple reasons to expect narcissism to decline as people enter middle age. Typically, status concerns become less important to people as they get older, and people become more concerned with others. In addition, as people get older, they face more challenges and are likely to experience more failures. This could make people more modest and less narcissistic as they age.

The researchers did find evidence for age differences in narcissism. Overall, the researchers found that narcissism declined from young adulthood to middle age. However, middle-aged and older adults, on average, had similar levels of narcissism.

Narcissism questionnaires that tracked extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism tended to show the biggest age differences, suggesting that much of the change in narcissism over the lifespan is attributable to typical age-related changes in personality, more broadly.

In Sum

The researchers found that across multiple measures of narcissistic personality traits, on average men score higher than women and young adults score higher than middle-aged or older adults. However, the differences aren't that large, suggesting that factors other than age or gender are better predictors of narcissistic traits.

So, while there is a grain of truth to the stereotype of the narcissistic man or self-obsessed young person, age and gender are only modestly correlated with narcissism.

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