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Narcissism linked to economic conditions during young adulthood, study finds

Narcissism linked to economic conditions during young adulthood
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.

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.

That’s the finding from a fascinating study published this month in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“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.

Narcissistic CEOs

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.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/14/2014 - 10:45 am.


    It’s impossible to evaluate these studies based on the abstract, there are huge potential problems with the study design. For instance, the average CEO at any age comes from a more privileged background and may have been completely isolated from any real effects of a recession when they were in their early 20s. You need to know to something about these subjects biographies. There many other possible confounding variables, economies for instance are very complex so you can’t compare the environment of early 80s to that of the early 90s easily. Reagan’s recession was much deeper than Bush’s.

    This study comes out of a business school, not a psych department, who knows what kind of study design or stats they used. Are the differences statistically significant? And the online narcissistic personality inventory looks more like a measurement of egoism or extroversion which is slightly a slightly different personality trait. Does this instrument actually measure what it claims to measure?

    I’m not saying the studies are junk, but the abstract alone is insufficient. And by the way, this Journal of Psychological Science claims to be the highest rated journal in psychology? That’s a ridiculous claim on the face of it even if they point to some “rating” somewhere. Rated by whom?

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/14/2014 - 01:37 pm.

    Not that surprising

    Even granting the several caveats in the column by the study’s author and by Ms. Perry, as well as the critique by Mr. Udstrand, the study’s results don’t strike me as all that unusual.

    Few age groups are going to be more self-absorbed than adolescents, and a good case could be made that at least the earliest 1/3 of the age group being studied here still qualify as adolescent. Beyond that, it strikes me – without doing any research at all – that what seems “normal” to many people as they reach, and then pass, the cusp of adulthood is likely to be what they consider “normal” later in life. That will color their judgments about all sorts of things, from what constitutes poverty to how much a CEO should be paid to how important it is to be attractive or “stylish.”

  3. Submitted by Jon Lord on 05/16/2014 - 09:04 am.


    all CEO’s have a rather higher opinion about themselves than the average person does as Paul and Ray suggest. Probably and primarily due to the effects of having everything, all their needs and wants, handed to them in upper class families. If narcissism diminishes any for those who come of age during recession periods it’s probably due to “appearances” rather than any internalizing on their part. Of course there are always exceptions which will prove the rule.

    It seems to me that narcissism is a very close relative of the sociopath.

  4. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/17/2014 - 01:52 pm.

    Perhaps a person who comes of age during

    bad economic times is more likely than someone who has always lived comfortably to understand that achievement and economic security are partly based on circumstances beyond an individual’s control. They see people doing all the right things, working hard, and still ending up in bad shape.

    On the other hand, a person who has coasted through life and ended up in a comfortable spot is likely to think, “I made it! What’s wrong with those whiny slackers?”

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