Certain life events linked to changes in narcissism and Machiavellianism in young adults

New research used a large set of data from German students to examine the trajectories of narcissism and Machiavellianism in early adulthood. The findings, which were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggest that Machiavellianism tends to decrease as people age while narcissism tends to stay constant.

“I was involved in this project because I am interested in the two dark personality traits, narcissism and Machiavellianism. Both traits are interesting to me because they are both related to moral behavior, group dynamics, and social status and power in groups,” said study author Michael P. Grosz of the University of Tübingen.

“Narcissism is especially interesting because it is a very dynamic and multi-faceted personality trait. For example, narcissistic people can be charismatic and entertaining, but can also be quite antisocial. Interestingly, several studies suggest that the antisocial dark side of narcissistic people emerges often only after some time, when the initial charisma and charm fades away.”

The researchers examined longitudinal data from 7,534 young adults who participated in the ongoing Transformation of the Secondary School System and Academic Careers study. The study surveyed German students regarding their education, personality, life events, and other factors every two years from around age 19 to 30.

“The most important findings of our study are the observed mean-level trends: the average level of narcissistic admiration (i.e., a dimension of grandiose narcissism) neither increased nor decreased between age 20 and 30 whereas the average level of Machiavellianism decreased between age 20 and 30,” Grosz told PsyPost.

“These findings might not sound very spectacular, but they lay the groundwork for many developmental theories and future longitudinal research on narcissism and Machiavellianism. Plus, these findings are robust because (a) they are the product of simple descriptive analysis that depend on few assumptions, and (b) these analysis are based on two large samples of German high school graduates.”

The researchers found that certain life events were linked to changes in both narcissistic admiration and Machiavellianism.

“We found, for example, that Machiavellianism only decreased among the early adults who started a new job and experienced this start of a new job as a positive event. Early adults who did not start a new job or who did not think that the start of a new job was a positive event did not decrease in Machiavellianism. Mastering occupational roles might mitigate Machiavellianism in early adulthood,” Grosz said.

Grosz and his colleagues also found that changes in eating and sleeping habits, changes to another university/apprenticeship, and the end of a romantic relationship were related to increases in narcissistic admiration, but only when these events were viewed positively. A negatively evaluated failure on an important exam, on the other hand, was associated with an increase in narcissistic admiration.

“That said, it is hardly possible to make causal claims based on this and similar findings,” Grosz noted. “A different design or statistical analysis would be necessary to legitimize causal claims. Furthermore, the life events analyses were exploratory (we did not have hypotheses beforehand). Thus, the findings involving life events need to be confirmed by further research.”

The study, “The Development of Narcissistic Admiration and Machiavellianism in Early Adulthood,” was authored by Michael P. Grosz, Richard Göllner, Norman Rose, Marion Spengler, Ulrich Trautwein, John F. Rauthmann, Eunike Wetzel, and Brent W. Roberts.