Dec. 10 (UPI) -- New research suggests narcissism isn't static -- it changes over time.
Previous studies on narcissism have mostly focused on small groups and cross-sectional population samples across short periods of time. Until now, there was little information on how narcissism changes across the adult life span.
For the new study, published in the journal Psychology and Aging, scientists analyzed changes in narcissism among 747 survey participants, ages 13 to 77. Over the course of several decades, scientists periodically interviewed six groups of participants born between 1923 and 1969 -- the longest study on narcissism to date.
Much public debate exists about whether new generations of young people are more narcissistic than previous generations, but the latest findings showed narcissism tends to decline as people age.
"For all the talk about how young people are narcissistic, it's generally the case that they 'age out of it' and become more mature, responsible, and considerate of others," lead study author William Chopik, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, told UPI. "They're not narcissists by the time they are middle aged."
Researchers looked at two negative forms of narcissism: hypersensitivity, an unwillingness to accept criticism, and willfulness, the "grandiose full-of-yourself type of narcissism," according to Chopik.
"We found that the hypersensitivity declined the most and the full-of-yourself narcissism didn't decline as much -- but still did," Chopik said.
As young people get older, their narcissism runs into obstacles. Life experiences like getting a job, as well as entering into and maintaining relationships, require a reduction in narcissism. The latest research showed the biggest declines in narcissism occur during young adulthood, when changes related to life, love and work are often most dramatic.
Of course, not all people experience the same amount of reduction in narcissistic traits. Some people are more narcissistic than others, and in these individuals, their narcissism remains strong throughout their lives.
"Narcissism might be a lifelong condition for them," Chopik said.
Researchers also measured a positive form of narcissism, a belief that one has control of their own lives. In most people, this positive narcissism, a kind of autonomy, increased over time and was associated with positive outcomes.
The new findings don't allow researchers to say definitively that there aren't generational differences in narcissism -- there isn't enough information on older generations. But the data suggests all generations start out narcissistic and become less narcissistic as they age.
"I would say that it's a bit normal to think that young people can sometimes be a bit self-centered," Chopik said. "But the truth is, we all were."
History suggests that as people age, they're not just liable to become less narcissistic, they're also likely to start complaining about the selfishness of younger generations.
"You can find people as long ago as 700 B.C. lamenting at how narcissistic today's kids are," Chopik said. "Hopefully our study is comforting in that it shows that people's focus on themselves might wane over time. The changes over life were much larger than differences between generations, if that makes sense."
But while the latest data suggests changes related to work, life and love coincide with reductions in narcissism, scientists aren't totally sure what specifically drives changes narcissism -- whether its the need to maintain healthy relationships or the impacts of overcoming adversity.
Chopik and his colleagues hope future studies will reveal the causes of changes in narcissism and help scientists develop interventions for reducing unhealthy levels of narcissism.