- In the "theory of the aging narcissist," there are reasons to expect that aging poses a unique set of threats.
- New research shows that narcissists seem to moderate their self-importance, especially men.
- It is possible that narcissists learn important life lessons that help them adapt to aging’s challenges.
When you think about your own aging, what is the first image to come to your mind? Is it that your hair is getting grayer (or disappearing completely), that your face is getting wrinkled, or that you aren’t as able to maintain your physical prowess? For people high in narcissism, such threats to their appearance and sense of competence would seem to be almost unbearable. They might, you could imagine, be so threatened that their narcissism spikes even higher than it was before.
Another problem that people high in narcissism might experience relates to the existence of cultural stereotypes pertaining to youth and beauty. As they lose the attributes emphasized everywhere in the media, the thought of not conforming to these social values could create a further existential crisis for them.
All of this can combine with the inequality in cultural stereotypes based on gender, namely that older women lose attractiveness whereas men become even more handsome with gray hair and a few “smile lines.” As a result, the narcissism “crisis” of aging could be even more pronounced in aging women.
The Theory of the Aging Narcissist
According to Michigan State University’s Rebekka Weidmann and colleagues (2023), the issue of aging’s relationship to narcissism is a complicated one. Narcissism doesn’t, they maintain, increase in later life but, instead, shows a continuous decline. In their new large-scale meta-analysis of data from more than 250,000 participants, the international team of authors began with the observation that “The perception that young people are more self-involved and narcissistic than older people has long been prevailing” (p. 1278). Preliminary longitudinal data, they go on to add, confirm this proposition.
Digging further into previous studies, Weidmann et al. note that these earlier findings gloss over the variations in definitions of narcissism. Not only do the studies differ in which measures were used, but they also fail to distinguish sufficiently between grandiose (self-absorbed and egotistical) and vulnerable (haunted by feelings of inadequacy). As you might already know, in some approaches to narcissism, both varieties are seen as stemming from the same inner beliefs of inferiority. Nevertheless, previous studies differ in the extent to which they focus on one or both qualities.
There is another factor to consider, though, according to Weidmann and her colleagues. Recent theories of narcissism now talk about a “trifurcated” perspective. One piece of the narcissism equation is “agentic,” which is also called “narcissistic admiration.” Piece number two is “antagonistic,” also referred to as “narcissistic rivalry.” Neurotic or vulnerable narcissism forms the third component within this perspective.
It may be the case that aging affects these three components differently. People higher in agentic narcissism would potentially be threatened by the eroding effects of aging on the image they present to others. Their sense of vulnerability may also become heightened. Separating the pieces of narcissism would therefore make sense in understanding the impact of aging on those high in these qualities in particular.
Testing the Age-Gender-Narcissism Relationship
Across two separate studies drawing from online data collection and the compilation of literally massive amounts of data from previous researchers, the Michigan State–led research team tested the basic statistical formula comparing the factors of age, gender, and the intersection of age and gender on narcissism scores. Oddly enough, given the negative messages given to women about growing older, all comparisons by gender yielded the pattern of higher scores in men.
Among the eight narcissism measures that the authors used for their analyses, only the narcissism scale derived from the manual used to make psychiatric diagnoses, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), was higher across age groups, but only for men. However, thwarting the ability of the researchers to compare the three components of narcissism, it was difficult to tease out the findings on this basis, although the effects for men were slightly more pronounced on agentic and antagonistic narcissism.
At least on a cross-sectional basis (i.e., not following the same people over time), aging does appear to be related to narcissism in ways that are opposite to the "theory of the aging narcissist." If anything, people high in narcissism when young eventually come to a point in their development where they give up their claims to greatness, stop competing with others, and accept their vulnerabilities.
It's important to note that despite the emergence of these consistencies, the overall effects were relatively small. Varieties across samples and instruments are a strength in ensuring generalizability. However, it may not have been possible in such a large and diverse data set to pinpoint the trajectories shown by people whose narcissism reaches clinical levels.
Learning to Adapt?
It appears, then, that the fate of the “average” (i.e., nonclinical) narcissist may not be all that terrible when it comes to aging. Life may teach individuals, especially men, that they’re not as important or great as they once thought of themselves when young. And, although some researchers bemoan the entitled narcissism of “today’s” young adults (a claim that now goes back 15 years), there may be some advantages to entering the adult years with a sense of confidence and high self-esteem. From a developmental standpoint, this is the period rounding out initial identity formation. It may be adaptive to feel good about your abilities as you enter into a competitive world in which you will be constantly tested.
The adaptation that occurs following this initial burst of self-confidence may come about for a variety of individual and societal reasons. When it comes to the qualities of appearance and physical prowess, noted earlier as potential threats to the aging narcissist, perhaps it is precisely these individuals who take measures intended to preserve their looks and abilities. These may be the people who don’t mind spending money on “anti-aging” products or taking big chunks out of their day to work out at the gym.
From a societal vantage point, it may also be that aging narcissists simply learn through the enactment of their various roles that they’re not as great as they once believed themselves to be. Their children may take them down a few notches by challenging their ability to dominate them or just by tiring them out. At work, the highly narcissistic person may come to realize that they don’t actually get ahead by trying to show off all the time or competing with everyone else.
A final proviso on the data from the Michigan State study is that it was, as the authors note, cross-sectional. Without tracking people over time, it’s impossible to know if such a research project only reflects generational differences rather than the effects of aging. Also, because studies in this project were conducted in different years, there is also no way of estimating the effects of generational factors (i.e., some “young” adults were Gen X, and others were from the “Millennial” generation).
To sum up, it’s fascinating to think about how aging could either threaten or moderate the personality of narcissists. The fulfillment they seek as they get older may, they come to learn, come from smoothing out the rough edges of their sense of self-importance.
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Weidmann, R., Chopik, W. J., Ackerman, R. A., et al. (2023). Age and gender differences in narcissism: A comprehensive study across eight measures and over 250,000 participants. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 124(6), 1277–1298. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000463