Recessions take a lasting toll on narcissism

Hard economic times dent young adults’ self-regard for decades

SELF ADJUSTMENTS  This graph shows changes in average national unemployment rates (from a low of 4.28 percent to a high of 7.73 percent) during young adulthood for volunteers in a new study, by year of birth. Those who faced peaks of unemployment were less narcissistic later in life than those who encountered the best employment prospects.

Bianchi/Psychological Science 2014

Bad economies levy a tax on narcissism, at least among young adults, a new study suggests.

People who came of age during economic recessions report and display fewer signs of extreme self-absorption than those who entered adulthood during relatively prosperous periods, says management professor Emily Bianchi of Emory University in Atlanta.

A strong economy during the late 1980s and 1990s may partly explain reports of rising narcissism rates among U.S. college students of that era, Bianchi proposes May 8 in Psychological Science. If so, humility should have begun to reassert itself among young adults who have grappled with the economic recession that began in 2008, she predicts.

Narcissists view themselves as superior in all situations, feel entitled to special treatment and expect to always succeed and be admired and praised (SN: 8/13/11, p. 16).

Earlier research suggested that grandiose self-regard gets nurtured in children whose parents overindulge them and shower them with unearned praise. Some scholars suspect that an emphasis on self-esteem in schools and the growth of self-promotion via social media have both cultivated narcissistic youngsters. “My results suggest that national economic conditions affect narcissism at a later, critical life stage,” Bianchi says.

“It may be slightly unsettling to imagine that there is a link between, say, the Fed’s monetary policy today and Americans’ self-absorption a generation or two later,” says psychologist Daniel Ames of Columbia University. “But this new work indicates such a link is plausible.”

Bianchi evaluated self-reports of narcissistic attitudes and behaviors in two groups of U.S. adults. One sample consisted of 1,572 volunteers, born between 1947 and 1994, who completed an online survey. Participants born in the late 1940s and the late 1970s encountered the best economic conditions as 18- to 25-year-olds, as indicated by low average national unemployment rates; those born in the early 1960s and the late 1980s experienced the worst economic conditions.

A second, nationally representative sample included 31,060 individuals, ages 18 to 72, who were interviewed in 2001 and 2002, and again three years later, as part of a larger survey.

Bianchi statistically controlled for a tendency of narcissism scores to decline with age and to be greater in men than in women.

People who came of age in tough economic times felt  less special and less entitled than those who had enjoyed the most prosperity on the cusp of adulthood. In the smaller sample, volunteers who entered adulthood in the worst economic climate scored an average of 2.35 points lower on a 40-point narcissism scale than those whose transition to adulthood coincided with the best economic conditions. That difference translated into a lesser likelihood of being excessively confident and self-satisfied, Bianchi says. Further analysis of the smaller sample found no narcissism disparity among participants who were 26 to 33 years old during recessions or upturns.

After consulting income data from 2,095 CEOs of U.S. companies in 2007, Bianchi also found that those who came of age in up economies paid themselves 2.26 times as much in total compensation as their second-in-commands. CEOs who had faced down economies as young adults paid themselves only 1.69 times as much in total compensation as the next-highest-paid employee.

The effects of good or bad economies on young adults’ narcissism did not lessen as members of the three samples  got older.

Adolescence and young adulthood may be “sensitive developmental periods” for revamping personal values in response to cultural and economic shifts, says psychologist Patricia Greenfield of UCLA. Greenfield and her colleagues have found that U.S. high school seniors and college freshmen expressed more concern for others and for environmental issues, as well as less assurance about their school ability, during the recession of 2008 to 2010, compared with the better economic times of 2004 to 2006.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated June 11, 2014, to correct the number of people in the nationally representative survey.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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