When people enter young adulthood during times of economic hardship they tend to be less narcissistic later in life than people who come of age when the economy is strong.
“Whereas previous research has shown that parental behavior during childhood predicts later narcissism, the present findings suggest that macroenvironmental conditions play a similar role at a later stage of development,” writes Emily Bianchi, the study’s author and an assistant professor of organization and management at Emory University in Atlanta.
Narcissists are defined in the study as people who “regard themselves as superior to other people and believe that they are entitled to good outcomes, excessive admiration, and unyielding praise.”
A trio of studies
Bianchi’s study is actually three separate studies. In the first one, 1,572 people born between the years 1947 and 1994 filled out an online survey that included the 40-question Narcissism Personality Inventory as well as some questions that measured self-esteem.
Bianchi then took that data, adjusted it slightly for age (narcissism typically declines as people age), and looked to see if there was any correlation between the participants’ narcissism scores and the average U.S. unemployment rate during the years the participants were 18 to 25 years old. (The participants who were born during the late 1940s and late 1970s experienced the best economic conditions during young adulthood, while those born in the early 1960s and late 1980s encountered the worst.)
Bianchi found that people who were 18 to 25 years old during periods of high unemployment (average unemployment: 7.7 percent) scored, on average, 2.35 points lower on the 40-point narcissism inventory scale than those who entered young adulthood during periods of low unemployment (average unemployment: 4.3 percent).
This correlation held even after Bianchi adjusted for education and gender. (Men tend to be more narcissistic than women.) And it was not explained by dips or rises in self-esteem, a personality trait associated with but not the same as narcissism.
Importantly, the correlation was not found among slightly older adults — those aged 26 to 33 during an economic downturn. This finding strengthens the suggestion from other research that the emerging years of adulthood — 18 to 25 — are particularly impressionable and significant in terms of shaping people’s later attitudes and values.
Bianchi then repeated the study using data collected from a larger, more nationally representative sample of 31,000 people born between 1930 and 1984. The findings were similar.
“People who came of age in worse economic environments were less likely to regard themselves as unique, special, and deserving,” she writes.
Bianchi then set out to investigate whether or not the differences in narcissism observed in the two studies manifested themselves in people’s behaviors. She decided to test this by looking at CEO pay. Other research has shown that narcissistic CEOs tend to make sure they are paid much more than the next most highly paid executive in their company. (As Bianchi explains, “CEOs have some control over their own pay and almost complete control over the pay of other executives.”)
Bianchi gathered 2007 data on about 2,000 CEOs from major publicly traded companies in the United States. She chose the year 2007 because it was the last year before the recent financial crisis, and thus a year in which CEOs didn’t have to worry too much about others’ perceptions of their pay.
She found that CEOs who had been 18 to 25 years old during economic recessions paid themselves relatively less than those who had come of age in more prosperous times. The association held even after controlling for age, gender, company revenues and assets and type of industry.
The effect was most pronounced when total compensation was considered. “CEOs who came of age in the most prosperous times paid themselves 2.26 times as much as the next well-paid executive, whereas CEOS who came of age in the least prosperous times paid themselves 1.69 times as much,” writes Bianchi.
Of course, all three studies have their limitations. As Bianchi herself points out, her findings show only a correlation, not a causation, between economic conditions in early adulthood and narcissism later in life. It’s possible that other, as-yet unidentified factors may explain the results.
An explanation for rising narcissism?
There has been a lot of debate, including among researchers, about whether or not narcissism has been on the rise among American college students in recent decades. If it has (and, again, the issue is hotly debated), this study’s findings may offer an explanation.
“If narcissism is rising, the strong economy of the late 1980s and 1990s may help account for this rise,” says Bianchi. “Indeed, the most widely cited publication on the growth of narcissism charted rising egoism between 1979 and 2006, a time period that began with a deep recession and continued with several decades of mostly robust economic growth.”
“Thus, growing narcissism among American college students over this period may reflect a long stretch of rising prosperity,” she adds. “If so, then the Great Recession may knock this upward trajectory off course.”
You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Psychological Science website.