For thousands of years, older generations have been complaining about how self-absorbed the younger generations are. Lately, people have taken up the language of psychology to talk of a generation made narcissistic by social media and selfies. It turns out Generation Z do have some of the traits ascribed to them, not because they are so different from their predecessors but because narcissism is common in the late teens.
Although psychologists have increasingly recognized the importance of studying narcissistic personality disorder, and milder but more common versions of the same traits, research has been restricted to single moments in time or only a few years apart. Professor Eunike Wetzel of Germany’s Otto-von-Guericke University has joined with researchers from three American Universities to change that. They analyzed responses from students who had been psychologically assessed as 18-year-olds in their first year at the University of California, Berkeley, and asked the same questions 23 years later.
More than half the original participants either couldn’t be found or declined to participate in the follow-up, but since Wetzel was interested in their individual changes, rather than group averages, that didn’t matter.
“We focused on participants’ vanity, the belief in their own leadership qualities and their tendency to feel entitled,” Wetzel said in a statement.
Wetzel found that the participants scored lower for all three facets of narcissism at 41 than 18. Only 3 percent went the other way, Wetzel and colleagues report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Even the more positive aspect of leadership, which some of the authors anticipated would increase with age, declined.
Unsurprisingly, being more than usually narcissistic at 18 had negative consequences. People who initially scored high for vanity were less likely to maintain long-term romantic relationships. Those who were particularly entitled when young had lower life satisfaction and described more negative life events.
Although entitlement had the largest decline of the three traits, the authors struggled to identify life events associated with this healthy trend, let alone any that might be responsible. On the other hand, lasting romantic relationships and having children were associated with greater declines in vanity. People who had suffered particularly more negative life events, however, usually retained more of their initial vanity.
Narcissism as a teenager was associated with holding jobs that involved power over others at 41. Worse still, those holding supervisory positions exhibited smaller declines in narcissistic tendencies than others. Early narcissism was also associated with good health, presumably better news for the individual than those who have to work under them.
However, there was no relationship between narcissism, or any of its components, and salary, job satisfaction, or financial problems, although it must be remembered students from a leading university are not always representative of society as a whole.