- A longitudinal study looked at changes in narcissism and its influence on life events.
- Narcissism tends to decline with age.
- The relative degree of narcissism is similar within peer groups.
- Narcissism has a big impact on later life experiences, but experiences don't influence narcissism much.
Personality characteristics change slowly over the course of your life, but they do drift a bit. That change can be due both to maturation and to your experiences. The difficulty with assessing these changes, though, is that the best way to do it is to track the same group of people over a long period of time in a longitudinal study.
A fascinating paper from August 2020 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Eunike Wetzel, Emily Grijalva, Richard Robins, and Brent Roberts analyzed a longitudinal data set that assessed narcissism (using the Narcissism Personality Inventory) in first-year college students (at roughly age 18) and again 23 years later (at roughly age 41). The second data collection also asked participants about a variety of life experiences they had in that 23-year period. There were 237 people who completed the surveys both as 18-year-olds and as 41-year-olds.
Are Younger People Really More Narcissistic?
As the authors point out at the start of their paper, older people are always complaining that young people are so self-centered. This observation suggests that levels of narcissism tend to decrease overall as people age. Consistent with that prediction, the mean level of narcissism did go down for the participants in the study. In fact, only 3 percent of the people in the study had their overall narcissism score go up.
The authors were particularly interested in three facets of narcissism: Entitlement, Vanity, and Leadership. Entitlement is the facet in which narcissists devalue other people relative to themselves. Vanity is the degree to which people take pride in their achievements and appearance and the desire to be the center of attention. Leadership is the desire to lead others, to achieve goals, and the tendency to have high self-esteem. On average, all of the facets of self-esteem declined with age.
Even though the average score on the NPI tended to go down, the relative degree of narcissism a person has compared to their age group tends to stay the same over time. That is, someone who scores as highly entitled relative to their peers at age 18 also tends to score high compared to their peers at 41. This tendency for similarity across ages was true for all of the facets of narcissism, and was strongest for the entitlement facet.
How Narcissism Affects the Direction of Your Life
The authors also did a few interesting analyses to look at the influence of personality on life events and the influence of life events on personality. First, they looked at the relationship between rated narcissism at age 18 and life events people experienced by age 41. This analysis looks at ways that the level of narcissism affects the kinds of experiences people seek.
One interesting finding was that the higher someone’s narcissism at 18 (particularly in the leadership facet), the more likely people were to have had a job in which they supervise or hire other people. That said, narcissism was not related to salary, the prestige of the jobs people had, the likelihood of changing careers, the experience of financial problems, the particular area of work people selected, or people’s satisfaction with their jobs.
On the family relationship side, the higher people scored on the vanity facet at age 18, the more likely they were to have gotten married and to have gotten divorced, they tended to have been married for fewer years, and they tended to have fewer children. The leadership facet of narcissism was also associated with an increased tendency to get divorced.
The vanity facet of narcissism at 18 was associated with better physical health and well-being at 41, but high levels of the entitlement facet at 18 led to lower levels of life satisfaction and feelings of well-being.
To predict how life experiences influenced narcissism, the researchers analyzed how different life experiences predicted people’s narcissism score at age 41 (controlling for their score at age 18). It is important to note that overall narcissism scores generally declined from age 18 to age 41. So, when a life experience is associated with higher levels of a facet of narcissism at age 41, it means that having this life experience led this facet of narcissism to decline less than expected.
There were not a lot of influences of life experiences on facets of narcissism overall. Being in a job in which people had control over others (which was predicted by the level of the leadership facet of narcissism at age 18) also led to relatively higher scores on the leadership facet at age 41.
There were several aspects of relationships that influenced the vanity facet. People in serious relationships declined more in vanity than those not in serious relationships. Having children was associated with more of a decline in vanity than not having children. Breaking up with a romantic partner was associated with a smaller decrease in vanity than not having broken up with someone.
There are three main things to take away from this study. First, just about everyone becomes less narcissistic as they get older (though they remain at about the same level of narcissism relative to their peers). Second, narcissism influences people’s work, relationships, and job experiences across the lifespan. Third, there are relatively few influences of life events on narcissism later in life—and many of these influence the vanity facet of narcissism.
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Wetzel, E., Grijalva, E., Robins, R.W., & Roberts, B.W. (2020). You're still so vain: Changes in narcissism from young adulthood to middle age. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(2), 479-496.