CHAMPAIGN — Narcissists are notorious for being among the most difficult people to get along with, but new research suggests narcissism tends to diminish between young adulthood and middle age.
Researchers at the University of Illinois and three other universities tracked narcissism and three of its tendencies — vanity, a sense of entitlement and self-belief in leadership abilities — in hundreds of people at age 18 and again at age 41.
What they found was that narcissism not only tended to decline when people reached middle age, but the extent to which people became less narcissistic was related to the career and personal relationship choices they made.
“The message is, if you find somebody to be narcissistic, just wait. Be patient,” said Brent Roberts, a UI psychology professor and one of the research leaders.
Some people might need a lot of patience, according to Roberts. Not all narcissists get better as they age, and the magnitude of their narcissism may not necessarily decline enough for people in their lives to stick with them.
People with narcissistic personality disorder generally have an exaggerated sense of self-importance, a sense of entitlement and a belief that they’re superior to and more deserving than others. They can also be prone to arrogance, exploitative behavior, a lack of empathy and an inability to handle criticism.
Older adults tend to regard today’s youth as particularly self-focused and narcissistic, though some research has indicated that today’s youth aren’t more narcissistic than youth of other generations, the authors wrote.
Roberts and his fellow researchers set out to provide a long-term look that tracked narcissism traits from youth to middle age, and the degree to which narcissism in college freshmen predicted their life experiences over the subsequent 23 years.
“We found pretty robust evidence that people become less narcissistic with age,” Roberts said.
Among the findings were that young adults with higher levels of vanity had fewer children and were more likely to get divorced — but also to consider themselves to be in better health — at the time they reached middle age.
Researchers also found that young adults with higher levels of narcissism and leadership were more likely to end up working in supervisory positions giving them more control over others.
Overall, narcissism and all three of the studied traits — vanity, entitlement and leadership — declined between ages 18 and 41, the authors found, with the smallest decrease coming in vanity and the largest decrease in a sense of entitlement.
Vanity was considered to be most strongly related to life events, the researchers found. People who had more negative life events didn’t decrease in vanity as much as the average person did from young adulthood to middle age, they found.
As for entitlement, “thank God it goes down,” Roberts said.
One argument for that may be that over time and with life experiences, people tend to become come more secure in themselves, he said.
“I think we’re appropriately insecure when we’re young, because we don’t have anything to show yet,” Roberts said.
As people accomplish what society expects of them and have things to show for that, they perhaps don’t need that sense of entitlement, he said.
One hypothesis in the research that didn’t pan out was that leadership — considered to be one of the least pathological elements of narcissism — would increase over that 23-year study period, according to Roberts.
The study report was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.