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
"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
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