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New Study Shows That Narcissists Do Change Over Time

December 11, 2019

Once a narcissist, always a narcissist? According to this new study, probably not.

Researchers at Michigan State University have found that narcissistic traits fluctuate over time and, in general, decrease as people age.

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In the longest study of narcissism to date, researchers tracked a group of participants between the ages of 13 and 77 to assess how narcissistic traits change over time1. It considered a range of factors and traits related to narcissism across a spectrum. The study was published in Psychology and Aging.

In general, they found that "maladaptive" traits associated with narcissism, like being "full of yourself" and being sensitive to criticism, declined over time. Some traits associated with narcissism actually increased, especially having high aspirations for oneself.

"As you age, you form new relationships, have new experiences, start a family and so on," said William Chopik, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at MSU and lead author on the study. "All of these factors make someone realize that it's not 'all about them.'"

As narcissists age, they enter the workforce and get more feedback, which challenges self-image. This study suggests that this may be the reason for decreased narcissism over time. As people get better at (and more used to) receiving feedback, they seem to naturally become less narcissistic.

The evidence suggested that the period of most dramatic change for narcissistic traits was young adulthood—but the older generations are the ones who started with stronger negative traits connected to narcissism.

"One of the most surprising findings was that [...] individuals who were born earlier in the century started off with higher levels of [...] the type of narcissism where people are full of themselves, as well as willfulness, which is the tendency to impose opinions on others," Chopik said.

This study suggests that we may all have some individual component parts of what makes a narcissist, but what defines how narcissistic we are as adults is how we hold onto, or change, those traits as we age and experience more.

As "baby boomers" continue to age (and continue to be a dominant portion of the population), studies of their personalities and change over time become more relevant. Continued research into how personality changes over time will help enlighten how these changes affect well-being and relationships.

"There isn't much data on older generations, but now that baby boomers are aging into that phase of life, it's a huge part of the population that we need to be looking at," said Chopik.

The biggest take-away: These findings indicate that there's always hope a narcissist may grow out of their more negative traits.

If you're wondering if someone in your life fits the brief for a narcissist, check out these signs of narcissism, or read this to learn how to tell the difference between a personality disorder and simple self-confidence.

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