Narcissism

Study: Narcissism Can Evolve Throughout Life

Maladaptive narcissism tends to dissipate as we get older, new research shows.

Posted Dec 11, 2019

Is it way too meta and narcissistic of me to start this blog post about narcissism by talking about myself? Probably. But that's OK. I'll be the first to admit that I'm happily part of the "Gen X mess" and someone who isn't ashamed to display healthy doses of adaptive, subclinical narcissism (or what I call "fake it till you make it narcissism") on a regular basis.

 tommaso lizzul/Shutterstock
Source: tommaso lizzul/Shutterstock

That said, I feel like I'm infinitely less of a narcissist now than I was during adolescence. Let's just say that by the time you're 50-plus years old, life experience and that "mirror, mirror on the wall" has probably served most midlifers enough humble pie to make grandiose visions of one's "awesomeness" practically impossible.

New research (Chopik & Grimm, 2019) from Michigan State University suggests I'm not alone in rating lower on the narcissism continuum as an older adult. This longitudinal study by William Chopik and Kevin Grimm is published in the most recent issue of Psychology and Aging.

The latest lifespan-based research (2019) on how narcissism changes from adolescence to older adulthood is noteworthy because, unlike most studies on narcissism, the MSU researchers didn't rely on cross-sectional samples, which only offer a snapshot of narcissism over a short period of time.

The longitudinal nature of this research helps to debunk some generation-based myths about narcissism, such as the divisive speculation that "millennials" are more narcissistic than "boomers," or vice versa.

By studying a sample of 747 participants from different generations ranging in age from 13 to 77 over an extended time frame, the researchers were able to identify that regardless of what generation someone belongs to, adolescents tend to display more narcissistic traits than older adults.

As the authors explain, "We found that more maladaptive forms of narcissism (e.g., hypersensitivity, willfulness) declined across life and individual autonomy increased across life."

The main takeaway of this research is that narcissistic traits typically decline over time and with age, regardless of which decade someone was born in.

"There's a narrative in our culture that generations are getting more and more narcissistic, but no one has ever looked at it throughout generations or how it varies with age at the same time," William Chopik, who is an associate professor of psychology at MSU and lead author of this study, said in a news release.

Chopik and Grimm found that young adulthood tends to be the most rapid period of change when it comes to narcissism. According to Chopik, the strongest impetus associated with declining narcissism in young adults appears to be landing your first job and joining the workforce.

"There are things that happen in life that can shake people a little bit and force them to adapt their narcissistic qualities," Chopik said. "As you age, you form new relationships, have new experiences, start a family, and so on. All of these factors make someone realize that it's not 'all about them.' And, the older you get, the more you think about the world that you may leave behind. There's a sense in which narcissists start to realize that being the way they are isn't smart if they want to have friends or meaningful relationships."

Notably, this research highlights that changes in narcissism occur across the lifespan; the evolution of someone's narcissistic tendencies continues to evolve as people age and doesn't appear to stop entirely at any specific age or stage of life.

"There are things that happen in life that can shake people a little bit and force them to adapt their narcissistic qualities," Chopik added. "One thing about narcissists is that they're not open to criticism. When life happens, and you're forced to accept feedback, break up with someone or have tragedy strike, you might need to adjust to understanding that you're not as awesome as you once thought."

Chopik and Grimm hope that their research on how narcissism changes from adolescence to older adulthood will help parents of teenagers and the general population understand that today's adolescents probably aren't any more narcissistic than teens from previous generations. 

"If you're worried that someone is truly a narcissist, there's the hope they will change for the better as they get older," Chopik concluded.

References

William J. Chopik and Kevin J. Grimm. "Longitudinal Changes and Historic Differences in Narcissism from Adolescence to Older Adulthood." Psychology and Aging (First published: December 2019) DOI: 10.1037/pag0000379