You’re so vain, you probably think this study’s about you

Olin faculty member part of research finding that narcissism wanes by middle age

(Image: Shutterstock)

Go ahead, look in the mirror and admit it: If you are middle aged, you probably aren’t as self-centered as you used to be. The reason isn’t merely maturity from the intervening years since college, but you may have life experiences such as your relationships, your family and your career to generally thank for this change.

In a study co-authored by a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis’ Olin Business School, a survey that began with Generation X college students in 1992 and revisited when they were around age 41 finds that overall narcissism declined over time — as did the three narcissism components: vanity, leadership and entitlement.

The research, forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, surveyed 237 of the original 486 participants and found out how the lives of narcissistic people from the days of “A League of Their Own” and President Bill Clinton’s first term turned out — if, say, many indeed went from Boyz II Men.

Grijalva

“Maturity here is considered in social terms — a more pleasant and productive citizen in a society,” said Emily Grijalva, professor of organizational behavior at Olin.

She was a co-principal investigator on the study. Her co-authors included Brent Roberts, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, where Grijalva earned her PhD; Richard Robins of the University of California, Davis;  and Eunike Wetzel of Otto-von-Guericke University in Magdeburg, Germany, who served as the other co-principal investigator.

“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. Our findings are relevant because narcissism is really the antithesis of maturity,” Grijalva said.

Among other findings from the survey: Narcissism overall, and vanity, leadership and entitlement in particular, all saw a decline over the roughly quarter-century between the first examination, when Roberts and Robins were doctoral students at the University of California, Berkeley, and the re-examination 23 years later. Only 3% actually showed an increase in narcissism over that span, Wetzel said, and “some remained just as narcissistic at age 41 as they had been when they were 18 years old.”

One of these results surprised the researchers, who had expected to see an increase in the leadership component of narcissism, but found a decrease.

“In fairness to my co-authors, that hypothesis was mine, and it turns out I was wrong,” said Roberts, who noted how leadership is considered one of the least pathological elements of narcissism.

“We know from past research that another component of personality, assertiveness, tends to increase during this time of life,” Roberts said. “So, I thought it was reasonable to hypothesize a similar increase in the leadership facet. This either means the past research is wrong, or our read of the leadership component of narcissism is wrong — it may actually be more negative than we thought. We have to figure this out in future research.”

The researchers also examined the types of life events people experienced. Participants who were vain at age 18 were more likely to divorce, had fewer children and had more unstable relationships. On the other hand, they also reported better health after 40. One interpretation is that vanity may promote a concern with physical attractiveness, and, in turn, healthy habits such as going to the gym and eating healthy. In this way, vanity has mixed outcomes — it is associated with better physical health, but less successful romantic relationships, Grijalva said.

Personality not only predicts the occurrence of life events, but life events can affect the trajectory of change in personality. “We found, for example, that having children and being in an intimate relationship were related to stronger decreases in vanity,” Grijalva said. But when relationships failed, vanity levels tended to decrease less.

When considering work-related outcomes, “Narcissistic young adults were more likely to end up in supervisory jobs 23 years later, suggesting that selfish, arrogant individuals are rewarded with more powerful organizational roles,” added Grijalva, who completed the project while working at the University of Buffalo prior to joining Olin in 2019.

“Further, 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,” she said.

Entitlement is a word a layman associates with the much-maligned millenial generation, more so than Generation X, who grew up with the music of Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Rage Against the Machine.

“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,” Grijalva said. “It appears that older generations assume young people are more narcissistic because their own narcissism levels naturally declined over time — leaving them currently less narcissistic than young people — and they have forgotten how narcissistic they used to be when they were young.”

Wetzel added that she, Roberts and Robins worked on the generational aspect in a previous project. “We already published a paper together showing that the popular perception that young adults today are more narcissistic than young adults of prior generations is incorrect,” Wetzel said. “The current study showing that, on average, people decrease in narcissism from young adulthood to middle age is kind of a follow-up study.”

The entitled folks of Gen X, this study revealed, were more prone than the vanity or leadership segments to endure what they ranked as negative life events and to grow into people with lower life satisfaction and well-being — and those with higher entitlement tended to have larger body mass index.

Even though the study group came from Cal students — who earned twice the national average and went on to earn a terminal degree 64% of the time — the co-authors expect that the tendency for narcissism to decrease from young adulthood to middle age is relatively robust. Could scientists return in another quarter-century or so to survey this group again, while it approaches retirement age?

“There is a dearth of this kind of research with older adults,” Grijalva said.


The University of Illinois news release contributed to this report; it is available here.
Grijalva is available at egrijalva@wustl.edu, Wetzel at eunike.wetzel@ovgu.de and Roberts at bwrobrts@illinois.edu

Comments and respectful dialogue are encouraged, but content will be moderated. Please, no personal attacks, obscenity or profanity, selling of commercial products, or endorsements of political candidates or positions. We reserve the right to remove any inappropriate comments. We also cannot address individual medical concerns or provide medical advice in this forum.