Do Manipulators Become Less Manipulative With Age?

New research explores the trajectory of dark personality traits over time.

Posted Mar 26, 2020

Pixabay / prettysleepy1
Source: Pixabay / prettysleepy1

Once a cheater, always a cheater — or so the expression goes. But is it true that negative personality traits such as cheating, disagreeableness, callousness, and manipulation persist across the lifespan?

New research appearing in the Journal of Research in Personality sheds new light on this interesting question. The researchers found that, while negative personality traits generally show some diminishment over time, the drop-off is not nearly as severe as the increase in these traits from early to late adolescence.

The researchers surveyed over 4,000 adults, ranging in age from 11 to 77, from the Netherlands and Belgium. Participants completed measures of three "dark" personality traits: manipulativeness, callousness, and egocentrism. The items used to define these traits are listed below, with participants rating each statement on a nine-point, agree-disagree scale. 

  1. I tend to manipulate others to get my way. (Manipulativeness)
  2. I have used deceit or lied to get my way. (Manipulativeness)
  3. I have used flattery to get my way. (Manipulativeness)
  4. I tend to exploit others towards my own end. (Manipulativeness)
  5. I tend to lack remorse. (Callousness)
  6. I tend to be unconcerned with the morality of my actions. (Callousness) 
  7. I tend to be callous or insensitive. (Callousness) 
  8. I tend to be cynical. (Callousness)
  9. I tend to want others to admire me. (Egocentricity)
  10. I tend to want others to pay attention to me. (Egocentricity)
  11. I tend to seek prestige or status. (Egocentricity)
  12. I tend to expect special favors from others. (Egocentricity)

The researchers then examined how responses to these questions changed over the lifespan. Interestingly, they found a sharp rise in manipulativeness, callousness, and egocentricity from the age of 11 to about 20, followed by a gradual decrease starting in the early twenties to old age.

There were, however, some interesting differences by gender. For one, men generally scored higher on the personality dimensions of manipulativeness and callousness. This corresponds to other research on narcissism, which shows that men are more likely to exhibit narcissistic personalities than women. For egocentricity, men and women scored around the same level.

Another difference had to do with the trajectory of negative personality traits over time. For men, dark personality traits showed a relatively sharp and consistent rise into the twenties and a gradual decline after that. For women, the trajectory was a bit more complicated — rising into the twenties, then dropping off through the thirties and forties, and then rising again around age 50. 

The researchers interpret their findings to reflect the "maturity principle" of personality, which holds that positive personality traits such as agreeableness and conscientiousness tend to increase with age while negative personality traits such as neuroticism and narcissism tend to decrease.

What's still unclear, however, is why negative personality traits tend to spike during adolescence. Finding an answer to this question may help practitioners develop more effective methods to combat the rise of dark traits in teenagers.   

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Klimstra, T. A., Jeronimus, B. F., Sijtsema, J. J., & Denissen, J. J. (2020). The unfolding dark side: Age trends in dark personality features. Journal of Research in Personality, 103915.