Once a Narcissist, Always a Narcissist?

New research explores the evolution of narcissism over the lifespan.

Posted Nov 13, 2019

Source: Pxhere

The latest research in personality science suggests that personality changes gradually with age. Research shows, for instance, that people are more optimistic in their fifties than they are in their twenties. People also tend to become more agreeable and conscientious as they get older.

But what about narcissism? New research forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examined the trajectory of narcissism from young adulthood to middle age. Specifically, a team of researchers led by Eunike Wetzel of the University of Vienna examined longitudinal data spanning 23 years to determine how narcissism and its associated traits evolved over the lifespan. 

"Until now, no longitudinal study has tracked change in narcissism from young adulthood to midlife," stated Wetzel and her team. "We report the longest longitudinal investigation of continuity and change in narcissism reported to date."

Interestingly, they found evidence to suggest that narcissists become less narcissistic over time.

To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers explored data from the Berkeley Longitudinal Study (BLS). The BLS commenced in 1992 and was composed of a cohort of first-year students at the University of California, Berkeley. The students were asked to complete a series of personality measures, including measures of narcissism. In the decades that ensued, participants were periodically asked to retake the personality measures.  

Wetzel and her team analyzed narcissism among participants in the BLS at two points in time: In 1992 (at age 18) and in 2016 (at age 41). Their analysis included 237 people. Narcissism was measured using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). The NPI measures overall narcissism with items such as "People always seem to recognize my authority" and "I like to look at myself in the mirror." It also measures the three facets, or subcategories, of narcissism: leadership, vanity, and entitlement.

Here's what they found: First, they reported that narcissism exhibited consistency in that people who began college as narcissists tended to be relatively narcissistic into their forties. However, they also found that, on average, narcissism decreased significantly over the test period. The decrease was most pronounced for the facet of entitlement and least pronounced for the facet of vanity.

They also found that changes in narcissism tended to coincide with certain life experiences. For instance, people who experienced more negative life events were less likely to show declines in vanity and people in managerial positions (that is, handling a budget and being able to hire and fire people) were less likely to show declines in the leadership facet of narcissism.

The authors concluded: "People on average appear to become less narcissistic from young adulthood to middle age, which is in line with the maturity principle. The magnitude of this decline appears to be related to the particular career and family pathways a person pursues during this stage of life."

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Wetzel, E., Grijalva, E., Robins, R., & Roberts, B. (2019). You’re Still so Vain; Changes in Narcissism from Young Adulthood to Middle Age.