People Become Less Narcissistic As They Grow Older: Study
Thu, September 29, 2022

People Become Less Narcissistic As They Grow Older: Study

While there is some truth that younger people focus more on themselves, those narcissistic tendencies change as they grow older. Researchers from Michigan State University have revealed that narcissistic qualities decrease over time in the longest study on narcissism to date / Photo by: golubovy via 123RF


Older generations see their younger counterparts as more selfish and self-absorbed than they were, mainly due to advancing technology that allows them to either focus or put the focus on themselves. As such, this led to the discourse of why that idea is or isn't true.

While there is some truth that younger people focus more on themselves, those narcissistic tendencies change as they grow older. Researchers from Michigan State University have revealed that narcissistic qualities decrease over time in the longest study on narcissism to date.


A Narcissistic Generation

While all people harbor some degree of narcissism, many believe younger generations—specifically millennials—are the most self-centered of them all, and data proves this to be true.

A narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) isn’t common among the general population; Only about 1 in 200 people (0.5%) in the US are known to have the disorder, as per the rehabilitation facility network The Recovery Village. It adds that the prevalence of the disorder also have significant gender differences, with men making up 75% of people with NPD.

However, the prevalence of NPD seems to be at high levels among younger people. According to the National Institutes of Health, the incidence of NPD among people in their 20s is nearly three times higher compared to those who are aged 65 or older. A narcissism scale also indicates that 58% more college students in 2009 scored higher than in 1982.

While millennials in each country differ from one another, social media and exportation of Western culture make millennials more alike compared to older generations within their nations. Time Magazine says advancement in technology and growing urbanization have created a generation of “overconfident and self-involved” individuals—regardless if they are in the US or China and whether they are rich or poor.

Time adds that people’s want to improve kids’ self-esteem in the 1970s is also partly the reason why millennials are said to be overflowing with confidence—which psychology professor Roy Baumeister said was "an honest mistake."

"The early findings showed that, indeed, kids with high self-esteem did better in school and were less likely to be in various kinds of trouble," Baumeister explained. "It's just that we've learned later that self-esteem is a result, not a cause."

However, a study of young people working in the UK shows millennials are suffering from Imposter Syndrome or the fear of "being exposed as a fraud" in the workplace. Examples of which is their fear of being on the spot, presenting in front of their supervisors, and feeling intimidated by their superiors.

The new study from MSU further debunks these ideas, showing that people's narcissistic traits change over time—with young adults seeing more rapid change than any age group.

Debunking Generational Myths

The study, published in the journal Psychology and Aging, is a breakthrough in the subject since it didn't rely on cross-sectional samples that provide a mere snapshot of narcissism over a short time.

"There's a narrative in our culture that generations are getting more and more narcissistic, but no one has ever looked at it throughout generations or how it varies with age at the same time," said lead author William Chopik.

It consists of 747 participants from various generations aged from 13 to 77, whom the researchers studied over an extended time. Their study helped the MSU researchers determine that teens are likely to display more narcissistic behaviors than older adults—regardless of their generation.

"We found that more maladaptive forms of narcissism (e.g., hypersensitivity, willfulness) declined across life and individual autonomy increased across life," the authors explained, as per US magazine Psychology Today.

It adds that the results of the study debunk some generation-based myths about narcissism, like the idea that millennials are more self-absorbed compared to boomers or vice versa. But the main takeaway is that these traits usually decrease a person ages, regardless of the generation they were born in.

The researchers also found that young adulthood is the most rapidly changing period in regards to narcissism. Chopik said the most renowned significant stimulus linked to decreasing narcissism at this period is young people getting their first job and being a part of the working class.

He added that things that happen as one age—forming new relationships and having new experiences, for instance—force people to let go of narcissistic traits as they "think about the world that you may leave behind."

"There's a sense in which narcissists start to realize that being the way they are isn't smart if they want to have friends or meaningful relationships."

The research also reveals that changes in narcissism happen throughout a person's life, meaning these traits continue to evolve as people grow older and won't entirely stop at any specific age.

A Lack of Studies

The recent study provides valuable insight into narcissism across lifespans, which comes when there is a lack of high-quality research on the issue.

Clinical psychologist Clinton Moore noted, however, considering whether the topic is "about a general form of self-absorption or NPD." He added such a perspective may help researchers see changes in variables like levels of self-absorption from childhood and social pressures that come with aging.

"As people move through different ages, life is generally a pretty good cure for this type of narcissism," Moore explained to health news site Healthline.

"However, when dealing with something like NPD we’re talking about a fairly stable personality trait that, while unhelpful, is well-maintained across the life cycle. As such, we wouldn’t expect this trait to decrease, but the person may change the way it’s presented."

Mental health counselor GinaMarie Guarino also told Healthline that people are likely to become less self-centered as they age if they healthily go through life.

However, New York clinical psychologist Stanley Teitelbaum said not all cases of narcissism will decrease as some may get worse over time.

Teitelbaum said the need for affirmation among narcissists may be so strong that the stacking disappointments, which comes from growing old, "reinforces a continuing attempt to do the world on their terms, and leads to a widening gap between illusion and reality."

"Narcissists become increasingly absorbed with the search to fill this gap," the psychologist explained.