Ever called someone—or been called—a narcissist? Chances are, it wasn’t a compliment. In popular culture (as opposed to psychoanalytic theory), ‘narcissist’ is generally used to describe someone vain, conceited, egotistical, selfish or deluded about their self-worth. But a new study suggests that a little bit of narcissism, at least in the young, is actually a good thing. Where narcissism goes bad is (alas! like so many things) with age.
“Most people think of narcissism as a trait that doesn’t change much across the lifespan,” said University of Illinois researcher Patrick Hill, who conducted the study with psychology professor Brent Roberts. “But a lot of recent studies have shown that the developmental trajectory of narcissism goes upward in adolescence and what we call emerging adulthood – the late teens and early 20s, and then typically declines.”
This is a good thing—in most people, narcissistic traits hang around when they’re most useful, and then decline when they’re not so useful anymore. It’s when this ebb-and-flow of self-regard fails to function properly that we get, say, the ladies of ‘Real Housewives’ (I was going to say Heidi Montag & Spencer Pratt, but then I remembered how young they were/are; if their most recent interviews are any indication, the aging/declining-narcissism link may actually be holding true here).
For the UI study, Hill and Roberts surveyed 368 college students and 439 of their family members to build a narcissism profile of both the students and their mothers (there were enough mothers but not other relatives in the study to provide a robust sample size). They looked at three different types of narcissism: an inflated sense of leadership or authority (Hill describes this as the belief “that you know a lot and people should come to you for advice”); grandiose exhibitionism (wanting to show off and/or having an exaggerated sense of one’s talents); and lastly—perhaps the most dangerous form of narcissism—a sense of entitlement and willingness to exploit others for personal gain.
Thankfully, that last type of narcissism corresponded to lower life satisfaction for all subjects, regardless of age. And for the mothers, this held true with the leadership and exhibitionist forms of narcissism, too. The young people who were high in these traits, however, actually reported higher life satisfaction and well-being than their non-narcissist counterparts. An exaggerated belief in one’s own capabilities and prospects may help young people “navigate adolescence and the turmoil involved in trying to find a sense of identity,” said Roberts. Later in life, however, those same traits “appear to be related to less life satisfaction and a poorer reputation.”
Huh—to quote some researchers from a similar 2010 study—I guess every generation is ‘Generation Me.’ It’s not surprising that the older generations are always accusing the younger of being ‘more’ narcissistic, because comparatively, they are. In normal development, this goes away with age. If not—well, like the mothers in the UI study, you wind up unhappy and with family members that describe you as uncaring and ‘neurotic.’