Narcissism declines as we grow older

A new study analyzing two surveys of Generation X members carried out 23 years apart show that narcissism and its components — vanity, entitlement, and leadership — decline with age.

The study appears in a recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In 1992, researchers surveyed 486 students from the University of California at Berkeley and then caught up with 237 of the original participants 23 years later.

Although this cohort comprises an elite group of individuals — 64% of whom gain a terminal degree and ultimately earn double the national average income — the authors of the new paper feel the patterns in the data are so strong that they likely apply to Generation X overall.

The study’s conclusions are also consistent with previous research. Emily Grijalva, the co-lead author of the study and professor of organized behavior at Washington University in St. Louis’ Olin Business School, explains:

“Past work has supported the argument that people tend to mature over time by showing that they generally become more conscientious, agreeable, and emotionally stable — less anxious and depressed — from young adulthood to middle age.”

Asserting that narcissism is the “antithesis of maturity,” she notes that, “Maturity here is considered, in social terms — a more pleasant and productive citizen in a society.”

Only 3% of the subjects showed an increase in narcissism. However, “some remained just as narcissistic at age 41 as they had been when they were 18 years old,” says co-lead Eunike Wetzel of Otto-von-Guericke University in Magdeburg, Germany.

Leadership surprise

Typically, people see leadership as a positive characteristic, albeit one that requires a sense of self-importance. Because other research has shown assertiveness to increase with age, the researchers expected the leadership trait of narcissism to do the same.

Co-lead Brent Roberts, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, admits, “I thought it was reasonable to hypothesize a similar increase in the leadership facet.”

The data showed otherwise. Both leadership and entitlement showed the greatest decline of all the attributes they studied.

The researchers studied other aspects of the participants’ lives to determine the impact of narcissism on life outcomes by middle age.

The researchers identified that the participants who had received a classification of vain in their first interview were more likely to experience unstable relationships, with a higher likelihood of divorce. They also had fewer children.

On the other hand, the same subjects were often more physically healthy at 40. Grijalva suggests that a vain person’s greater concern with appearance may result in them prioritizing appearance-enhancing activities, such as going to the gym and eating right.

Conversely, for young subjects with a strong sense of entitlement, later life events proved especially damaging. These people found themselves in their early 40s with a lower sense of life satisfaction, as well as a higher body mass index (BMI).

Benefits of narcissism?

On a career level, narcissism appears to have a positive impact on advancement.

“Narcissistic young adults were more likely to end up in supervisory jobs 23 years later,” says Grijalva, “suggesting that selfish, arrogant individuals are rewarded with more powerful organizational roles.”

“Individuals who supervised others decreased less in narcissism from young adulthood to middle age — meaning that supervisory roles helped to maintain prior levels of narcissism.”

Emily Grijalva

The study also identified ways in which relationships can affect vanity:

  • being in a serious relationship causes a significant reduction in vanity
  • a break-up produces a smaller reduction in vanity
  • having children leads to a considerable decrease in vanity

“Interestingly, people often presume millennials are more entitled and narcissistic than previous generations, but there is a lot of research evidence showing that this simply is not the case,” says Grijalva.

At the heart of this misconception are inter-generational comparisons that people later in life make — after all, they are less narcissistic at that point. Grijalva adds that older people “have forgotten how narcissistic they used to be when they were young.”