The widely held belief that only children tend to be more selfish and self-centered than children with siblings is unfounded, according to German researchers.
In a study published this week in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, the study’s authors found no evidence that only children are more narcissistic than those with brothers or sisters.
Past research on this topic has turned up conflicting findings. Those earlier studies, however, often had methodological limitations — such as small sample sizes — that made their results less than reliable.
The authors of the new study say their research addresses and corrects those problems. “We can now say with rather high confidence that only children are not substantially more narcissistic than people with siblings,” says Michael Dufner, the study’s lead author and a psychologist at the University of Leipzig, in a released statement.
How the study was done
The study involved two parts. First, Dufner and his colleagues conducted an online survey of a representative sample of 556 German adults. Their average age was 46, and 105 of them (19 percent) were only children.
The survey was designed to determine the prevalence of the stereotype that people who are only children are more likely to be narcissistic than those with siblings.
The survey found that people do, indeed, tend to judge only children as being more narcissistic, both in terms of their need to be the center of attention (a characteristic known as narcissistic admiration) and in terms of their desire to demean or devalue others to build up their own inflated sense of importance (narcissistic rivalry).
Interestingly, the survey found that respondents without siblings were just as likely as those with siblings to believe that only children need to be the center of attention. They were less likely, however, to believe that only children have a greater tendency toward narcissistic rivalry.
For the second part of the study, the researchers analyzed data collected from a representative sample of 1,810 German adults, including 233 without siblings, who answered questions designed to measure their level of narcissism.
The analysis debunked the stereotype. “We found no evidence for the claim that only children are more narcissistic than non-only children,” the researchers write.
That finding held even after the researchers accounted for factors that are associated with higher levels of narcissism, such as gender (narcissism is more common among men), a young age, coming from a family with a high socioeconomic status, and living in urban rather than rural areas.
In fact, when they controlled for those factors, the researchers found that the respondents who were only children scored lower in narcissistic admiration (the need to be the center of attention) than the respondents with siblings.
Limitations and implications
The study has two important limitations. First, it involved German adults, so the results can’t be generalized to other cultures. Second, the study looked only at grandiose narcissism, which is a type of narcissism characterized by “overt expressions of feelings of superiority and entitlement.” It did not look at vulnerable narcissism, which is typified by “hypersensitivity and introversive self-absorbedness.”
Still, as Dufner and his co-authors point out in their paper, the study’s findings align with a growing body of research that has shown “neither only child status nor birth order has a substantial effect on most broad personality traits.”
“Laypeople’s beliefs concerning narcissistic only children are flawed,” they conclude.
This persistent stereotype can be harmful, they point out, as it unjustifiably tags only children with a negative personality trait that may put them at a social disadvantage.
“Given this downside, researchers and journalists should refrain from portraying only children as narcissistic,” Dufner and his co-authors write.
“Furthermore, when sociologists, economists or policy makers discuss the downsides of low fertility rates, they should let go of the idea that growing up without siblings leads to increased narcissism,” the researchers add. “There might of course be economic or societal costs associated with low birth rates, but increasing narcissism in the upcoming generation does not seem to be a factor that is relevant to the discussion.”
FMI: You can read the study in full on the Social Psychological and Personality Science website.