Once a narcissist always a narcissist? That is, more or less, the question that researchers asked in a study that tracked people’s levels of narcissism from age 18 to 41.
Although we sometimes talk about “narcissists” as if they’re a separate group of people, psychologists usually measure narcissism as a personality trait that everyone has in different levels. To put it another way, we all fall somewhere on the continuum of narcissism, with some individuals having higher levels than others.
In this study, the researchers used a questionnaire that measures three facets of narcissism – vanity, leadership and entitlement. Some people might score higher on one of these subcategories than others, but all three contribute to the overall narcissism score that the researchers used.
Over the 23 years of the study, the researchers found that narcissism scores tended to fall with time, a pattern that held true for all three flavors of narcissistic traits. That is, people tended to be less narcissistic at 41 than they were at 18.
At the same time, people’s levels of narcissism relative to other people in their age group were relatively stable from 18 to 41. While there was some change in narcissism rankings over time, people who had above- or below-average levels of narcissism at 18 tended to exhibit similar tendencies at 41.
The researchers were also interested in how narcissism levels interacted with people’s career and relationship experiences over time.
They found that people who had higher levels of narcissism at age 18 were more likely to have supervisory roles in the workplace at age 41. And going in the other direction, people in supervisory positions at work saw smaller decreases in the leadership subcategory of narcissism. Thus, narcissism and leadership roles in the workplace appear to reinforce each other to some extent.
The study turned up a couple other types of life experiences that tended to reinforce narcissism over time, particularly traits in the vanity subcategory.
One had to do with relationships. People who were involved in more unstable relationships saw smaller decreases in vanity between young adulthood and middle age.
The other had to do with health. Those who enjoyed better physical health between the ages of 18 and 41 apparently maintained higher levels of vanity as well.
The vanity aspect of narcissism specifically was a trait that may have taken toll on people’s family lives. Young adults who scored higher on vanity had fewer children by age 41 and were more likely to have divorced.
Considering these findings as a whole, there isn’t one simple takeaway about narcissism. That’s because narcissism, while clearly decreasing with age, apparently interacts in reciprocal ways with work experiences, relationships and even health, with narcissistic traits predisposing people to certain types of experiences and certain types of experiences possibly reinforcing or decreasing levels of narcissism.