Early success leads to narcissism later

Last updated 16:34 27/05/2014

SO VAIN: Narcissists tend to have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration.

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What a difference a decade makes.

Between 22 and 32, there is often a whole lot of being humbled by life along with heartbreak and honing of who we want to be and how we want to be it.

As the reality of adulthood hits, most of us face at least a moment of deep fear that our dreams in life will remain just that.

It stands to reason then that those who achieve success* later in life are likely to be launching from a more modest place in themselves with a broader life perspective.

Similarly, it makes sense that those who achieve success without the struggle may tend towards entitlement and have a skewed perception of what is normal.

Add to this the fact that graduates and high-achievers are more likely to experience impostor syndrome.

It becomes easy to see how successful young adults might fill the gap between an embryonic sense of self and the recognition they are receiving with bravado and a puffed chest.

A new study has found this to be true.

Published in the journal Psychological Science, the research found that the more people experience economic ease in young adulthood, the more likely they are to be narcissistic.

Narcissists tend to have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration, according to the Mayo Clinic. But beneath the cloak of uber-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem (self-esteem being narcissism's healthier counterpart).

"Despite widespread interest in narcissism, relatively little is known about the conditions that encourage or dampen it," the study's lead author, Emily Bianchi, of Emory University, said.

She hypothesised that economic status was one of these "conditions".

To test her theory, Bianchi and her team conducted three tests.

First they measured the economic environment during the emerging adulthood of more than 1500 respondents, born between 1947 and 1994.

Even after taking into account gender and education, they found that those who had done it tough financially and had less career success between the ages of 18 and 25 had lower narcissism scores later in life.

Interestingly, narcissism was not associated with economic and career conditions among those who achieved success slightly later on (between the ages of 26 and 33).

These findings were supported by a second study using data from more than 30,000 adults across America.

Finally, the researchers looked at how the narcissism scores played out in behaviour.

Looking at more than 2000 chief executives of big companies, they found CEOs who had experienced economic difficulty during young adulthood paid themselves less compared with those who had achieved success early on.

"These findings suggest that macro-environmental experiences at a critical life stage can have lasting implications for how unique, special, and deserving people believe themselves to be," Bianchi concluded.

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She said concern that recent generations were more narcissistic may be the result of the relative economic prosperity they had enjoyed.

And although these young adults tend to be more self-centred, they do have one thing going for them, Bianchi said.

"Narcissists are often well-liked in initial interactions and are effective at claiming resources for themselves," Bianchi writes. "In this regard, the present results could help explain why entering the workforce in an economic boom continues to confer advantages even decades into people's careers."

*Success means many things to many people. For the purposes of this article, its focus has been narrowed to career and finances.

- Sydney Morning Herald


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