Narcissism May Benefit the Young

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photo: "Narcissus," by Michelangelo Merisi da Carvaggio. Credit: Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica/Wikipedia

Researchers are finding that narcissistic traits in some people aren't that bad after all. For teens and emerging adults, narcissism may even help them wade through the uncertain waters of adulthood.

The research, featured in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, stems from the idea that narcissism is complex and often changes throughout a person's life. Previous findings revealed that narcissism can be beneficial, but the authors wanted to know more about when in a person's life this might be the case (and when it might not).

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Defined as having an "inflated sense of self-importance and an extreme preoccupation with themselves," people with narcissistic personality disorder can be unhappy and even let it hinder their well-being. But before writing off all narcissistic qualities the same, be mindful that psychologists are expanding what it means to behave narcissistically, with cases varying in intensity.

For instance, narcissistic qualities can seem "adaptive" in the form of leadership or authority behaviors, which mesh well with personality traits needed to transition into the workplace. Let's just say these people are the go-getters, and narcissism serves a purpose that's not negatively viewed by themselves or others.

On the other hand, narcissism may come in the form of exhibitionism or self-entitlement — two features that aren't exactly desirable or beneficial.

With this in mind, researchers studied survey responses from 368 undergraduates and 439 of their family members. Because of response limitations, the team drew its analysis from how the students viewed themselves, their mothers and vice versa.

The undergrads answered questions about their levels of perceived narcissism and satisfaction with life based on established scales. They also completed the Big-Five Personality Test, which measures self-perceived levels of agreeableness, extroversion, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness.

Looking at how family members (mothers' answers were used mostly) and students answered questions, the team found that narcissism was positively associated with student respondents' self-reported satisfaction with life. Even more, their personalities weren't viewed negatively by their mothers (but they weren't seen as necessarily positive either).

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The same could not be said of respondents' reactions to their parents' narcissistic personalities, suggesting that the benefit of being narcissistic — at least how others view you — may decrease with age. The findings apply only to students and close family members, meaning it'll take more work to find out if college-aged young adults tolerate narcissistic qualities in their peers as well.

Being narcissistic may have benefits for adolescents and emerging adults transitioning into adulthood because it gives them the self-agency and optimism to develop personalities independent from parental influence. Narcissism may cushion the impact of failure during this transition, too.

But, the researchers caution, "the link between narcissism and well-being is far from universal." It's also difficult to expand the findings to other individuals not in college, they point out. Ultimately, it seems the more adaptive forms of narcissistic personality traits account for the benefit (rather than exhibitionism and self-entitlement).