What Leads a Person Down the Narcissism Pathway?
A new study shows how life events can lead a young adult toward narcissism.
Posted Jun 11, 2019
When you think about how people become narcissists, do you assume that something went wrong in their early development? Do you blame the parents for being either pathologically involved with their children or do you regard narcissism as emerging from early life neglect? Perhaps you regard narcissism as the result of a culture that is breeding the millennial generation into self-centered and entitled adults. Although narcissism isn’t a new phenomenon, you may believe that it is escalating out of control through selfies and social media.
Researchers have debunked the myth that millennials are more narcissistic than any preceding generation (e.g. Wetzel et al., 2017), but the myth remains active in public consciousness. New research supports this critique of the narcissism myth and adds to further understanding of the processes that may lead a young adult to tread the narcissism pathway. In the Netherlands, University of Tübingen’s Michael Grosz and colleagues (2019) led an international team of personality researchers in a longitudinal study of narcissism’s evolution in the transitional years between the end of high school and the two years after college graduation. Their study began as a test of the “maturity principle,” the idea that as young adults face the challenges of transitioning from their early adult years (the 20s) into midlife, they become more emotionally stable, agreeable, conscientious, and more socially dominant (more independent and socially self-confident). To put it simply, as people get older they “settle down” and become more stable, if perhaps somewhat less adventurous. Because the maturity principle predicts that people maintain their relative stability, there is the assumption that everyone changes more or less to the same degree.
That said, not everyone changes in identical fashion, and because people’s life experiences become more divergent as they get older, there are more opportunities for people to begin to branch out from each other and become more and more different from their age peers. Consider the lives of you and your best friend from elementary school. Perhaps you were very similar to each other when you were young, and that’s what led you to like each other. However, you made one set of life choices, such as moving to another city, or perhaps another country, and your friend stayed put. You two will now be influenced by the factors specific to your new locations, from politics to the offerings at your local shopping markets.
Only longitudinal studies can get at the type of change that occurs within people over time, especially if those studies include additional information relevant to life experiences. The best studies, additionally, look at more than one particular group of people as they develop over time. Returning to this idea of the millennials and their own personalities, you might ask whether people who grew up with the influences of the late 20th century show different patterns of change than those who were part of an earlier generation. Grosz and his collaborators were able to take advantage of this kind of staggered longitudinal design in which they studied the high school to post-college years transition across two separate subgroups. Additionally, the international research team expanded their study of personality from the traits already investigated in terms of the Five Factor Model (reported on by Roberts et al., 2008) to specifically include narcissism and its related quality of Machiavellianism, the tendency to exploit others. Their analysis focused not just on patterns of change but also on the life events that would shape those patterns of change.
The definition of narcissism that guided the Gratz et al. study focuses on the quality of “narcissistic admiration,” in which people “prioritize agentic goals (status, uniqueness, competence, and superiority) over communal goals (affiliation, warmth, relatedness, acceptance and community feelings.” Individuals high in narcissistic admiration “seek to maintain and aggrandize high self-esteem and obtain external approval for grandiose self-views”(p. 468). Machiavellianism also involves seeking agentic goals but through a different set of processes. The “cynical world view,” held by the Machiavelli’s of the world, regards other people as there to be exploited. As a result, these opportunistic people “devaluate communal goals and morality as well as fears that others will dominate, hurt, or exploit them if they’re not agentic or powerful enough” (p. 468).
Using data from the “Transformation of the Secondary School System and Academic Careers” longitudinal study (abbreviated as “TOSCA”), Grosz and his collaborators examined longitudinal change in high school students first tested in 2002 and a second group started in 2006. Although the four-year span constitutes a rather narrow range for defining cohort, the design of the study at least makes it possible to replicate the patterns of change from the first to the second cohort. The TOSCA samples were both large (4,962 in the first and 2,572 in the second), allowing the research team to evaluate not only change over time but also the influence of a wide range of possible life events affecting their personality change. Furthermore, the authors were able to test a side hypothesis based on the intriguing prospect that a student’s choice of college major reflects, and is affected by, personality traits. In particular, Grosz et al. believed that students majoring in economics would be influenced by their studies to develop “immoral tendencies” in the form of high narcissistic admiration scores and high Machiavellianism. This hypothesis emerged from a larger study of personality and college experiences.
Returning to the TOSCA data, the authors asked participants to rate, every two years, their experiences of having gone through one or more of 30 life events. In keeping with the study’s emphasis on agentic (individual) vs. communal (group) motives, the authors divided the life events into categories that reflected this dichotomy. The complex analyses conducted by the authors evaluated, then, longitudinal change, cohort differences, and the impact of life events including the experiences associated with being an economics major.
The findings showed, first of all, that narcissistic admiration scores remained stable across the years from high school to just after college. The authors believed that if they had followed the students for a longer period, past the early adult years, narcissistic admiration would have showed decreases as has been observed in prior research. On the other hand, that lack of a decrease caused the authors to re-evaluate their assertion that narcissism decreases correspond to the maturity principle: “Perhaps some narcissistic tendencies (e.g. narcissistic admiration) are less maladaptive than other tendencies (e.g. narcissistic rivalry) during early adulthood” (p. 476). In other words, maybe young adults find it beneficial to attempt to achieve recognition and status as they establish themselves in the world.
Of the life events included in this study, increases in narcissistic admiration were associated with positively-evaluated changes in eating or sleeping habits, suggesting that when things are going well, people feel better about themselves and are therefore adopt healthier habits. It’s also possible that after college, young adults are better able to adjust their schedules which, in turn, helps them feel more positive and optimistic. Breaking off a romantic relationship was another life event associated with an increase in narcissistic admiration. This seemingly paradoxical finding might be explained, as the authors note, by the fact that after a relationship ends, people become less communally-oriented and more focused on agentic goals, i.e. themselves. On the other hand, it’s also possible that people who become more agentic become less desirable romantic partners. Changing universities was a fourth life change associated with increased narcissistic admiration. All of these findings suggest, to the authors, that the individuals who actively make long-lasting life changes are able to achieve a better person-environment fit: “important corrections that might bestow a sense of empowerment and assertiveness and thus increase narcissistic admiration” (p. 479).
On the converse side, people who failed an important exam and evaluated this experience negatively showed an increase in narcissistic admiration, another potentially paradoxical finding. The authors maintain that reverting back to psychodynamic theories of narcissism, an important failure can provoke a defensive spike in self-rated agency. Rather than allow failure to penetrate their self-image, people with high narcissistic admiration overcompensate by seeing themselves as more in control of their destiny rather than less.
You might be wondering about the flip side, whether people’s change in narcissistic admiration drives negative life events in general, including that romantic breakup mentioned earlier. The findings showed that, indeed, people with higher narcissism scores at age 21.5 went on to experience more stressful life events in the ensuing years. These findings show how personality drives life events, which in turn, can drive personality changes. That narcissism pathway, in other words, can become less and less satisfying over time and it is perhaps for this reason that some individuals come down from their overly high estimations of their worth.
Finally, the Machiavellianism hypothesis regarding the study of economics did not pan out. Across both cohorts, this personality trait decreased consistently across time, but only for the majority (91 percent) who started a new job and evaluated that job positively: “In other words, successfully mastering occupational roles may contribute to decreases in Mach(iavellianism)” (p. 479).
To sum up, this large and complex study reinforces the idea that personality change, and the personalities of cohorts, reflects and affects the life events that people choose, as well as those that happen to them. Narcissism’s roots, based on the Grosz et al. study, may be found in early life experiences, but like other personality dimensions, continues to evolve as individuals continue to seek their own personal fulfillment through the events that occur as they progress through adulthood.
Grosz, M. P., Göllner, R., Rose, N., Spengler, M., Trautwein, U., Rauthmann, J. F., … Roberts, B. W. (2019). The development of narcissistic admiration and machiavellianism in early adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 116(3), 467–482. doi:10.1037/pspp0000174
Wetzel, E., Brown, A., Hill, P. L., Chung, J. M., Robins, R. W., & Roberts, B. W. (2017). The narcissism epidemic is dead; long live the narcissism epidemic. Psychological Science, 28(12), 1833–1847. doi: 10.1177/0956797617724208
Roberts, B. W., Wood, D., & Caspi, A. (2008). The development of personality traits in adulthood. In O. P.John, R. W.Robins, & L. A.Pervin (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (3rd ed., pp. 375–398). New York, NY: Guilford Press.