Mental Health

New study sheds light on the links between family type, childhood experiences, and narcissism

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Former foster children and adoptees tend to be less narcissistic than those who were not adopted nor fostered, according to new research published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect. The findings provide some new insights into the relationship between childhood experiences and narcissism.

Previous research has found evidence that deprived childhood environments are associated with narcissism in adulthood. But few studies have examined whether this holds true for adoptees and former foster children.

“Both of my sisters were adopted from China so the topic behind attachment and its long-term impact was (and still is) very intriguing to me, especially because of how pertinent it is within my own family history,” said study author Aspen Starbird, who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in social work at the University of Georgia.

“But during my undergraduate studies, I realized that there is an unfortunate lack of literature on attachment and that it is rarely found in subtopics outside of human development, which I believe underestimates the significance of family relationships in psychology.”

“Even more so, it was troubling to find that adoptees and former foster children were vastly underrepresented in psychology literature, in general,” Starbird explained. “After a few months of researching various literature, we wondered if attachment theory and early memories could be an influential factor in dark personality traits.”

In the study, 71 adoptees, 59 former foster children, and 207 individuals who were neither adopted nor former foster children completed questionnaires about their positive childhood experiences and maladaptive interpersonal schemas (or thought patterns.) The participants also completed an assessment of narcissism.

The researchers found that former foster children recalled the fewest positive childhood experiences, followed by adoptees, and then those who were neither adopted nor fostered. Family type was also associated with maladaptive schemas, with former foster children scoring higher on the measure of maladaptive thought patterns, followed by adoptees.

“Former foster children and adoptees had mutual feelings of insecure attachment and the expectation that they cannot rely on others to obtain nurturance, safety, and stability,” the researchers explained. “Both former foster children and adoptees were also more likely to believe that others will exploit them for their own selfish needs and consistently under the belief that they are worthless and will not be loved by others, with the two previous beliefs being more prevalent in former foster children.”

The researchers found that narcissism was more common among those who reported more positive experiences in childhood. Most maladaptive schemas, on the other hand, had a significant negative correlation with narcissism. Consequently, former foster children and adoptees tended to have lower levels of narcissism.

Importantly, however, positive childhood experiences weakened the association between family type and maladaptive interpersonal thought patterns.

The new findings highlight the “fundamental importance of benevolent childhood experiences (or the importance of early childhood experiences, in general) and how it impacts long-term success, especially when it pertains to integral personality traits and social psychology,” Starbird told PsyPost.

“As psychologists, we have a habit of dwelling on the unusual negative notions in an individual’s lifespan and tend to romanticize the negativities because it is perceived more interesting in psychology research. We rarely take the time to identify positive incidences that can lead to powerful healing.”

“While the variables that evaluated our populations’ trauma held significant results (the early maladaptive schemas), our research also showed how important it is to look at positive factors as well so that we can help buffer negative outcomes,” Starbird said.

The researchers used Facebook support groups and non-profit organizations to recruit participants. Most of them were born in North America, but the sample also included individuals born in Africa, South America, Central America, Europe, and Asia.

“We believed it was imperative to target populations that are rarely represented in psychology research,” Starbird explained. “Many times, researchers utilize a limited sample of individuals from higher-class, educated, white areas due to those populations being easily accessible. If we had limited our research participants to easily accessible individuals due to convenience, rather than the exact populations that we were trying to bring awareness to, our study wouldn’t have evaluated what we truly wanted to evaluate.”

As with all research, the study includes some limitations, such as the use of self-reported measures.

“Perspective of oneself is severely biased and heavily selective. The inner self is often our biggest critic. Future research should consider evaluating information that comes from external outlets, such as family and friends who might identify the individual’s outcomes or life events differently,” Starbird said.

“In addition, future research should try to reevaluate these populations with samples that are identical in other variables,” she added. “Our sample was still very limited so we had differences in age and gender in our population groups. Lastly, narcissism is a complex topic and should be approached as so. Our study only evaluated grandiose narcissism, but vulnerable narcissism has a unique, deep fragility that might’ve shown interesting results when paired with early memories.”

The study, “Consequences of childhood memories: Narcissism, malevolent, and benevolent childhood experiences“, was authored by Aspen D. Starbird and Paul A. Story.