Sorry, Boomer, but contrary to the stereotype, young people today are likely no more narcissistic than any generation before them (including the Baby Boomers). That’s just one of the findings from a new analysis of how three key narcissistic traits change over a person’s lifespan and across generations.
Using data from six different studies, researchers charted how narcissism changes over time and between generations in 747 people aged 13 to 77. The three traits used to define narcissism were: Willfulness, or being full of yourself; hypersensitivity, or being overly defensive; and autonomy, or a sense of leadership and authority.
On average, negative forms of narcissism — willfulness and hypersensitivity — declined with age, while the more positive feeling of having control over your life increased as people got older.
The increase in this “good” narcissism over time is surprising, William Chopik, author on the study and assistant professor at Michigan State University, tells Inverse. Narcissism is often thought as a monolithic personality trait, but this suggests autonomy may stand alone. It also makes sense that as we age, we feel more competent in our lives and actions, he says.
“Oftentimes, life experiences, jobs, and relationships have a tendency to change our priorities as we age, and that’s what we think we’re seeing here,” he says.
The new findings were published this week in the journal Psychology and Aging.
Are young people narcissistic?
People are indeed most narcissistic in their twenties, Chopik says (those in their seventies are least narcissistic). But the results defy two popular piece of folk wisdom about younger generations — and the current generation of 20-somethings in particular — that they are hopelessly full of themselves.
“You can find people as long ago as 700 B.C. lamenting at how narcissistic today’s kids are,” Chopik says.
“So for all the talk about how young people are narcissistic, it’s generally the case that they “age out of it” and become more mature, responsible, and considerate of others,” he says.
This contradicts the idea that narcissists are too self-absorbed to ever change, Chopik says.
“People think narcissists don’t have self-insight or would even know why they’d want to change. One thing this study does is put that idea to rest,” he says.
Interestingly, the study found that later generations — especially people born after 1930, tended to be more autonomous and less hypersensitive than those born earlier. That contradicts the idea that people born later tend to be increasingly narcissistic, Chopik says. Rather, narcissistic tendencies appear to have changed across time and as people age.
“I hope it starts to challenge the misconception that all young people are narcissistic or are more narcissistic than previous generations,” he says.
What makes a narcissist?
Previous research on narcissism tends to focus on just one population or age group, making conclusions about what makes a narcissist or how narcissism changes as we age difficult to draw, Chopik says.
How, exactly, individual narcissism changes over time is down to the individual, but humbling or confirmatory life experiences may play a role.
“It looks like the most rapid changes occur just after people experience those set-backs or experiences,” Chopik says. That could be a divorce, or some other adverse experience. Overall, people change the most rapidly during their middle age, he says.
Although negative narcissistic traits do decline over a person’s lifespan on average, there are some key differences between groups.
One of the more interesting differences was apparent between genders: Men tend to be more narcissistic than women overall, although women experience a greater surge in the feeling of autonomy after middle age than do men at any point in their lives.
“It looks like the difference is driven more by men thinking they’re more ideally suited for positions of leadership and authority and using their narcissism to exploit others,” Chopik says.
The researchers also found some outliers: Some people just stayed narcissists, they found. “Some people declined really dramatically and became quite humble people. Others didn’t change much at all, suggesting that narcissism might be a lifelong condition for them,” Chopik says.
So what makes a lifelong narcissist? It could be that they miss out on key experiences that might otherwise bring them back down to Earth, like heartbreak, he says. It could also be that they are just too full of themselves.
“I think up until now, people have avoided this question entirely because they thought narcissists are never self-critical and open to feedback or change,” he says. “First, we need to figure out what’s so special about these life experiences that are changing narcissism. Is it that we encounter adversity and learn to overcome it? Or are we humbled by our need to maintain positive relationships with our families, friends, and coworkers?”
In the debate about whether or not narcissism has been increasing in recent history, there is a lack of basic information about how narcissism changes across the adult life span. Existing research relies on cross-sectional samples, purposely restricts samples to include only college students, or follows one group of individuals over a short period of time. In the current study, we addressed many of these limitations by examining how narcissism changed longitudinally in a sample of 747 participants (72.3% female) from Age 13 to Age 77 across 6 samples of participants born between 1923 and 1969. Narcissism was moderately stable across the life span (rs ranged from .37 to .52), to a comparable degree as other psychological characteristics. We found that more maladaptive forms of narcissism (e.g., hypersensitivity, willfulness) declined across life and individual autonomy increased across life. More later-born birth cohorts were lower in hypersensitivity and higher in autonomy compared with earlier-born birth cohorts; these differences were most apparent among those born after the 1930s. The results are discussed in the context of the mechanisms that drive both changes in narcissism across the life span and substantive differences in narcissism between historical periods.