But are the young really more narcissistic?
Recent research on a large sample of students in three U.S. universities suggests otherwise. The study found small decreases in overall narcissism when comparing current college students with those from the 1990s or the 2000s. The results were relatively consistent across ethnicity and gender.
So why do older people think the young are more narcissistic than they were at that age?
One intriguing theory is that we become less narcissistic as we grow up and forget how we were when we were young. While most of our personality doesn’t change as we age, we do become more mature, emotionally stable, and conscientious as we get older. It’s not a stretch to think increased maturity would reduce narcissism.
A recent report from a multi-national group of researchers provides some insight into the theory. They compared the narcissism levels of several hundred participants from when they were students to results 23 years later. Results were compared in three dimensions: entitlement, vanity, and leadership.
- Entitlement is associated with expecting special treatment, devaluing others, and being disagreeable.
- Vanity is associated with an incessant need to be the center of attention and a high prevalence of grandiose fantasies of success.
- Leadership is associated with a desire to lead, high self-esteem, and goal persistence.
While narcissism decreased over time, there was considerable variability in how the individual dimensions decreased. Entitlement decreased the most, followed closely by leadership; compared to the other two, vanity only reduced slightly. Vain youth remained vain in middle age.
Participants who were in supervisory positions or were in charge of a budget showed smaller decreases in the leadership dimension from when they were young, possibly because their roles reinforced their narcissism. In a related vein, young adults with higher narcissism and leadership levels were more likely to be in supervisory positions in middle age. The reason may be more related to will than skill.
Participants who experienced unstable relationships showed smaller decreases in vanity from young adulthood to middle age. The researchers suggest a perception of failure might encourage vain people to put even more energy into their physical appearance to attract new partners. Not surprisingly, young adults with higher vanity levels had fewer children and were more likely to divorce by middle age.
Taken together, these findings suggest people become less narcissistic as they age. Today’s youth aren’t really more narcissistic; every generation of youth has about the same percentage of vain and entitled people. And then most of them grow up.