Narcissism wanes as they age


The belief that one is smarter, better looking, more successful and more deserving than others — a personality trait known as narcissism — tends to wane as a person matures, a new study confirms. But not for everyone, and not to the same extent.

The study, reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, finds that the magnitude of the decline in narcissism between young adulthood and middle age is related to the specific career and personal relationship choices a person makes.

The research tracked participants across two time points.

The first occurred when they were 18 and just starting out as freshmen at the University of California, Berkeley.

The second was 23 years later, when participants were 41 years old.

Of the original 486 participants, 237 completed a new round of evaluations.

Participants at both time points answered questions from a survey designed to assess their narcissistic traits.

For the follow-up study, researchers also asked about relationship and employment history, job satisfaction, and health and well-being.

“We looked at the different facets of narcissism in adults at age 18 and again at 41,” said Eunike Wetzel, a professor of psychology at Otto-von-Guericke University in Magdeburg, Germany, who led the research with University of Illinois psychology professor Brent Roberts; Emily Grijalva, an organizational behavior professor at Washington University in St. Louis; and Richard Robins, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis. “We focused on participants’ vanity, the belief in their own leadership qualities and their tendency to feel entitled.”

Each facet of narcissism was associated with several negative — and in a few cases, positive — outcomes for the individual, the researchers found.

Those who had higher levels of vanity at age 18 were prone to unstable relationships and marriages, and were more likely to be divorced by middle age.

But they also reported better health at age 41. In contrast, those who felt the most entitled as young adults reported more negative life events and tended to have lower well-being and life satisfaction at middle age.

“We originally hypothesized that the leadership facet of narcissism would increase,” Roberts said.

“In fairness to my co-authors, that hypothesis was mine, and it turns out I was wrong.”

Leadership is associated with goal persistence, extraversion, self-esteem and a desire to lead. It is considered one of the least pathological elements of narcissism, Roberts said.

“We know from past research that another component of personality, assertiveness, tends to increase during this time of life,” he 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.”

Vanity appeared to be most strongly linked to life events, the researchers found. For example, vanity declined more in those who entered into serious romantic relationships and those with children.

But vanity declined significantly less in middle-aged adults who had experienced more negative life events than their peers.

Vanity appeared to be most strongly linked to life events, the researchers found.

For example, vanity declined more in those who entered into serious romantic relationships and those with children.

But vanity declined significantly less in middle-aged adults who had experienced more negative life events than their peers.

“We also found that 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,” Grijalva said.

“Further, individuals who supervised others decreased less in narcissism from young adulthood to middle age — meaning that supervisory roles helped maintain prior levels of narcissism.”

Despite the differences between individuals, most of the participants who responded to researchers’ questions again at age 41 saw a decline in narcissism as they matured, the researchers found.

“Very few people, only 3% of participants, actually increased in overall narcissism between the ages of 18 and 41,” Wetzel said.

“And some remained just as narcissistic at age 41 as they had been when they were 18 years old.”

“The findings should bring comfort to those who are concerned that young people are problematically narcissistic,” Roberts said. “With time, it seems most people turn away from their earlier narcissistic tendencies.”

Sub-clinical narcissism is operationally defined as ‘self-admiration that is characterized by tendencies toward grandiose ideas, fantasied talents, exhibitionism, and defensiveness in response to criticism; interpersonal relationships… characterized by feelings of entitlement, exploitativeness, and a lack of empathy’ (Raskin and Terry, 1988, p. 896).

Some psychologists have considered the trait to be maladaptive (Freud, 1914Kernberg, 1975Washburn et al., 2004), and there are undoubtedly ‘costs’ associated with the trait. These include difficulty in maintaining relationships (social and romantic) over time (Campbell et al., 2005Rauthmann, 2012).

However, evidence has linked narcissism to a number of ‘bright’ outcomes. Narcissism is related to positive impression formation (Back et al., 2010), and an outgoing social style (Holtzman et al., 2010).

Other benefits are related to evolutionary ‘fitness’: increased levels of lifetime sexual partners (Holtzman and Strube, 2012), achieving status in hierarchical environments (Maccoby, 2000Rosenthal and Pittinsky, 2006), and a longer lifespan with good emotional, psychological and social well-being, and good mental health (Jonason et al., 2015).

The present study explores the relationship between narcissism and a specific, deleterious mental state – loneliness – experienced by many in older age, and related to depression and higher levels of suicide (Battegay and Mullejans, 1992Heisel et al., 2007Singh, 2015).

Existing evidence suggests narcissism decreases with age (Foster et al., 2003); the opposite is true of loneliness (Routasalo et al., 2006).

The relationship between the two, and whether narcissism’s evolutionarily beneficial effects extend to ‘protect’ against loneliness are explored in the present study.

Historically, approaches to conceptualizing and studying narcissism were largely psychodynamic or psychoanalytical (Freud, 1914Kohut, 1966).

Nevertheless, there was a lack of consensus as to a singular, definitive classification of the concept (see Consoling, 1999). Decades of clinical, observational work ultimately led to the inclusion of a definition of narcissism in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual as a lack of empathy accompanied by a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior) and a need for admiration (American Psychiatric Association, 1980).

Narcissism was later classified as a discrete disorder (a ‘Cluster B Personality Disorder’) in the DSM-IV, according to the criteria of possessing a grandiose sense of self-importance; a preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love; a belief that he or she is ‘special’ and ‘unique’; a requirement for excessive admiration; and a sense of entitlement.

Over a similar period to these developments, Raskin and Hall (1979) created the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). Later refined by Raskin and Terry (1988), the NPI is considered the genesis of a different approach to the trait.

The NPI provided the impetus to view narcissism from a quantitative, empirical, and social-personality point of view, and to define and explore a sub-clinical level of the character trait (Miller and Campbell, 2008).

Although associated with multiple adverse attitudes and behaviors, evolutionary psychologists have recently appraised narcissism in respect of the benefits that high levels of the trait confer, as well as its costs. Holtzman and Strube (2012) suggest the charm, self-adornment, and unrestricted sociosexuality associated with the trait facilitate a successful short-term mating strategy. 

Paunonen et al. (2006) found that the egotism and self-esteem aspects of narcissism were associated with other-rated leadership potential. Jonason et al. (2015) found that narcissism was related to living longer, and to feelings of hope, self-esteem and psychological well-being. Jonason et al. (2015) argued that this was an example of the adaptive benefits that narcissism yields; in particular that positive mental health outcomes were a result of narcissistic individuals’ extraversion and sociability. This was proposed to partly stem from narcissistic individuals’ need for others to admire and lavish attention on them.

Narcissism and Age

Despite myriad empirical studies exploring the trait’s correlates and outcomes, little attention has focused on the relationship between narcissism and age.

In particular, there is a paucity of work on narcissism involving older-age participants: most studies have been conducted with student- or early-middle-aged participants.

A recent meta-analysis of 355 studies (N = 470,856) reported that the upper end of the age range of participants was 55 years old (Grijalva et al., 2015).

Among the few authors who have reflected on narcissism in later life, most have adopted case-study approaches (Jovic, 1986Becker, 2006).

Even the Berlin Aging Study (BASE; Lindenburger et al., 2010), a large-scale study that investigated the mental health and psychological functioning of older-age participants (aged 70–100), did not address the issue, despite its focus on sub-diagnostic psychopathology, and self and personality concepts.

Where studies have been conducted on this topic, researchers have noted that increasing age can affect narcissistic tendencies, relating to typically contemporaneous changes to an individual’s role in the world (Wheelock, 1997).

These changes may encompass a lessening of authority and responsibility, and even a loss of independence (Danko et al., 2009).

Researchers have proposed that this creates ‘narcissistic injury’ (Wheelock, 1997) and induces a ‘narcissistic crisis’ (Teising, 2008).

Changes in self-perception are particularly deleterious to narcissism, particularly regarding sentiments of self-admiration, fantasied talents, and exhibitionism.

Societal views of the age group to which one belongs greatly affect the individuals (Danko et al., 2009). Battegay and Mullejans (1992) concluded that the elderly have ‘less narcissism at their disposal’ (p. 293); a view shared by Pellerin et al. (2003), who referred to ‘the weakening of narcissism’ (p. 89).

Supporting this, Twenge and Campbell (2008), in a large-scale (N = 3,445), geographically and ethnically wide-ranging cross-sectional study, reported that college-aged members of ‘Generation Me’ (p. 862) are more narcissistic than post-war ‘Baby Boomers’ and their antecedents.

Although contested by some (Trzesniewski et al., 2008), a meta-analysis by Twenge et al. (2008) showed that NPI scores were significantly positively correlated with the year of their recording. Other available evidence (Roberts et al., 2010) suggests this is accurate, reflecting the recession of narcissism over age, and that age, rather than cohort belonging, per se, is the cause of this decline.

Extant research thus suggests narcissism decreases with age, simultaneous to a decrease in libido, self-attention, ego, and, often, socially conventional standards of beauty (Battegay and Mullejans, 1992).

One of the consequences of the attenuation of narcissism may be the issues of self-confidence that arise within some elderly individuals.

Older adults can experience self-confidence issues in interpersonal interactions, particularly with unfamiliar individuals.

This extends to uncertainty in novel environments, or situations (Battegay and Mullejans, 1992).

The effect, therefore, can be a greater feeling of isolation, and a tendency to withdraw from such novel people and circumstances, eliminating the social lifestyle that Jonason et al. (2015) hypothesized was central to narcissism’s health benefits.

While Battegay and Mullejans’ (1992) Swiss study centers on the extreme outcomes these feelings can result in (i.e., suicide), their data are nonetheless valuable in gaining an insight into a rarely-studied aspect of the elderly experience.

Suicide levels were significantly higher for men over 60 (p < 0.05), with sex differences increasing in those over 70 (p < 0.01), concurrent with decreased levels of narcissism (Battegay and Mullejans, 1992).

The same is true of the findings of Clark (1993), who suggested that, in certain cases, suicidal tendencies were brought about by life-changes that relate to age, compounded by decreased levels of narcissism. Even in non-suicidal elderly individuals, a positive correlation between narcissism and depression has been noted. Importantly, both these relationships remain when controlling for cognitive functioning (Heisel et al., 2007). These results reflect the ‘mixed-benefits’ nature of the trait, but more importantly, the link between narcissism and mental health, which we continue to explore here.

Narcissism and Loneliness

Narcissism can be conceived, partially, as an evolved protector against some negative psychological states, of which loneliness is one, and from which other negative psychological states subsequently stem. Wada (2000) has suggested a degree of narcissism may be crucial (and therefore beneficial) to individuals’ functioning, no less in old age than in earlier life.

If narcissism declines to the extent existing literature suggests, that would partly explain a predisposition towards the ‘psychological vulnerability’ (p. 885) often manifest in later years. Wada (2000) suggests the degradation of narcissism levels in the elderly may, in part, be responsible for increased susceptibility to depression, which in turn ‘can induce various kinds of physical illness’ (p. 887).

This is supported by Pellerin et al. (2003) and Stucke and Sporer (2002): the latter investigated the relationship between narcissism and negative mental states, in terms of responses to ego threats, and found lower levels of narcissism predicted negative emotionality.

In addition to representing a buffer against negative psychological states, the levels of self-esteem and self-confidence associated with narcissism (Zeigler-Hill et al., 2008) impart a considerable, specific defense against feelings of loneliness. Sedikides et al. (2004) conducted five studies into the relationship between narcissism and psychological health.

The second of these found that narcissism was inversely related to both daily and dispositional loneliness. Furthermore, in a longitudinal study that considered clinical, anecdotal, and empirical evidence, Joiner et al. (2008) found that the relationship between levels of narcissism and psychological health appears to be linear, and unidirectional.

Moreover, Taylor et al. (2003) presented evidence that narcissism acts as a defense mechanism – a concomitant of good mental health – and that the self-esteem and self-enhancement associated with a degree of narcissism is positively correlated with developing good interpersonal relationships. Taylor et al.’s (2003) results support Battegay and Mullejans (1992), who recorded a concurrent reduction in narcissism and self-confidence in the elderly, particularly with regard to experiences involving others. Avoidance of social interactions likely results in increased feelings of isolation and loneliness, further exacerbated over time, in the manner of a feedback loop (see also Rainer and Martin, 2012). Finally, in a series of Finnish studies, Kalliopuska (2008) reported links between low levels of narcissism and high levels of shyness, leading to feelings of isolation. This further supports the relationship between social isolation and loneliness. Interpersonal skills, socialization patterns, and social support have also been implicated in an individual’s vulnerability to developing, as well as recovery from, depression (Coyne, 1976Billings et al., 1983Joiner et al., 1992Bieling and Alden, 2001), in a similar feedback loop. Other studies have found comparable results, noting that depression – which, as established, is a greater risk to those with lower levels of narcissism – and other ‘hardships originating from aging’ (p. 223), were causally related to loneliness (Routasalo et al., 2006).

Evolutionary psychologists have proposed that individual differences in personality both ‘create’ and ‘solve’ problems (e.g., Buss, 1993). This argument has been made in respect of narcissism and short-term mating (Holtzman and Strube, 2012); evidence suggests it may be true of narcissism and loneliness. Through an aversion to several harmful health behaviors, whether or not the motivation is to maintain attractiveness, narcissism is related to a comparatively healthy lifestyle and increased longevity (Jonason et al., 2015Hudek-Knežević et al., 2016). To the extent that older age engenders loneliness, narcissism may additionally function to ‘solve’ this costly outcome.

University of Illinois
Media Contacts:
Diana Yates – University of Illinois
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“You’re Still so Vain; Changes in Narcissism from Young Adulthood to Middle Age”. Eunike Wetzel Emily Grijalva Richard Robins Brent Roberts.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology doi:10.31234/


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