According to new research from the journal Self and Identity, the personality trait of exploitativeness may be a driving factor behind problematic behavior during adolescence. The longitudinal study found that youth who were more exploitative at age 14 engaged in more problematic behaviors — such as drug use and early sexual behavior — two years later.
The negative behaviors associated with narcissism have been widely studied by personality researchers, and yet much remains unexplored. Researchers Eunike Wetzel and her colleagues noted a lack of research concerning narcissism during adolescence, a life phase marked by an increase in risky behavior.
The study authors aimed to build on previous findings in several ways. Using longitudinal data, they examined the relationship between narcissism and behavior over time and among an understudied ethnic-minority population. The study assessed the specific narcissistic facets of superiority and exploitativeness as well as a broad range of problematic behaviors during adolescence.
The research sample came from a larger ongoing study among 674 Mexican-origin children in America. The children and their parents participated in annual interviews, and Wetzel and her team focused on data from the two assessments when the youth were ages 14 and 16. The adolescents were assessed for symptoms of conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder and self-reported their sexual behaviors and substance use behaviors. Both the youth and their parents also answered questions assessing the youth’s delinquent behaviors.
Finally, the surveys included assessments of two facets that fall under grandiose narcissism. A measure of superiority assessed the youths’ vanity and inflated perceptions of self, and a measure of exploitativeness measured the youths’ propensity to manipulate and exploit others.
The researchers analyzed the data to see whether superiority or exploitativeness at age 14 would predict behavior at age 16 — when taking into account behavior at age 14. They found that youth who scored higher in exploitativeness at age 14 had higher odds of later engaging in a range of problematic behaviors like delinquency, drug use, and early sexual behavior. They also had higher odds of later presenting with symptoms of conduct disorder. Superiority at age 14 was only associated with a lower likelihood of youth-reported delinquency at age 16.
The findings fall in line with research connecting maladaptive narcissism to delinquent behavior in adolescence. A new finding, however, was that exploitativeness may be a risk factor for early sexual behavior among teens.
People high in narcissism tend to be drawn toward immediate rewards, so it follows that adolescents with narcissistic tendencies might be pulled toward risky acts that garner admiration from peers. “Exploitative adolescents may engage in a wide range of problem behaviors, such as being delinquent, under the influence of drugs, and sexually active because they provide immediate, short-term rewards and enhance feelings of power over others,” Wetzel and her team elaborate.
One drawback to the study method was that the problematic behaviors assessed were behaviors that are uncommon at age 16. The study authors suggest that investigating the occurrence of these behaviors at a later stage of adolescence might yield additional findings. They also propose that future research should explore whether aspects of vulnerable narcissism can similarly predict problematic behavior among youth.
The study, “Investigating the Link between Narcissism and Problem Behaviors in Adolescence”, was authored by Eunike Wetzel, Olivia E. Atherton, and Richard Robins.