Younger generations are more narcissistic than older generations. This statement—and others like it—is usually viewed as an indisputable fact. But is it really a true-blue truth? And what happens when younger generations grow up?
These are the questions William Chopik, Ph.D, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, aimed to answer with his research. Chopik, along with Arizona State University professor Kevin J. Grimm, examined how narcissism changed across the lifespan—from age 13 to 77.
The researchers looked at six different samples, totaling 747 people (72.3 percent were women), who were born between 1923 and 1969. In all the samples, clinicians, trained graduate students, and psychologists completed the 100-question California Adult Q-Sort for each participant.
This measure includes three facets of narcissism: hypersensitivity, willfulness, and autonomy.
According to Chopik, hypersensitivity is akin to being thin-skinned, holding oneself in high regard, taking slights seriously, and lashing out. Willfulness, he said, “has to do more with dominating interpersonal situations,” being condescending, and lacking concern about others.
Autonomy, on the other hand, is an adaptive form of narcissism, where individuals have high aspirations for themselves, value independence, and can take control over their lives, Chopik said.
Chopik and Grimm’s findings were unexpected.
Results are Unexpected
For one, contrary to popular belief, individuals who were born later were slightly lower in hypersensitivity and higher in autonomy than earlier-born samples (these differences were most apparent among people born after the 1930s).
Other research has found similar results. Patrick L. Hill, Ph.D, an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis, examined overall narcissistic levels and other facets of narcissism (leadership, vanity, and entitlement) in college students born in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. He also found a slight decrease in overall narcissism and specific narcissistic traits.
Even more importantly, Chopik and Grimm’s study found dramatic declines in narcissism over time.
“I was surprised that lifespan changes were so pervasive,” Chopik said. “Every generation experienced them.”
“The declines [in narcissism] were way larger than how much the generations differ. All these people are arguing that younger generations are self-centered and obsessed with cell phones, but in reality, everyone declines in narcissism over time,” Chopik said.
Specifically, hypersensitivity and willfulness decreased as individuals got older (while autonomy increased).
Autonomy, Leadership are Adaptive
Hill, who also studies narcissism across the lifespan, noted there are points in a person’s life where we’d expect narcissistic traits to be higher—and that’s a good thing. As mentioned earlier, autonomy is adaptive. So is leadership.
During adolescence, for example, individuals are trying to figure out who they are and making a lot of mistakes, Hill said. “There is a lot of potential susceptibility to self-esteem issues,” and some narcissistic traits serve a protective role.
Other traits, of course, do not, which may explain why they decline over time.
According to Chopik, one driver of change is getting a full-time job for the first time. This makes sense since a job requires showing up on time, listening to your boss, and working well with colleagues.
It “requires a type of selflessness,” Chopik said. In addition, in order to keep your job, get a raise, and advance in your career, you need to consider and incorporate constructive feedback, he said.
Similarly, Hill noted that as individuals adopt adult social roles, such as being a good worker, partner, and parent, they learn that narcissistic tendencies and traits are not appreciated or valued by others.
In other words, “the roles you take on shape your personality.”
Chopik pointed out that not all people dramatically transform. Some people never change at all and remain narcissistic. “They don’t seem to learn from life experiences.”
In the future, he hopes to examine why some people change and others don’t. “Does it have to do with what’s happening to them? Or maybe they interpret things differently.” What is it about jobs that help people change? Maybe it’s having to be accountable or take in other perspectives, he said.
According to Chopik, gaining an understanding of why people change over time provides a place for mental health professionals to intervene and reduce the problems people with narcissistic traits face.
Hill noted that one potential treatment strategy may be increasing individuals’ engagement in roles or adult responsibilities, such as being part of the community, workplace, and family.
Overall, Chopik stressed the importance of focusing less on blaming younger generations for being more narcissistic and focusing more on unpacking why narcissistic traits change over time.
This study was published in 2019 in the journal Psychology and Aging.