Narcissism declined among U.S. college students during the Great Recession, according to a meta-analysis published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. The findings suggest that this decline in narcissism is partly the result of higher unemployment and greater income inequality during the recession.
The premise for the study was the idea that fluctuations in the economy can influence people’s self-views. According to Greenfield’s 2009 theory of social change and human development, times of economic difficulty are met with declines in individualism and increases in collectivism. Study authors Jean M. Twenge and her team theorized that economic hardship might also coincide with decreases in narcissism — a personality trait that involves overly high self-esteem and a lack of empathy for others.
The researchers explain that when the economy is doing well, people may feel comfortable relying on their own opportunities and may feel that support from others in their community is unnecessary. But during an economic downturn, people become less certain about their futures and more reliant on others. This dependence on others might promote lower narcissism.
Twenge and colleagues conducted several studies to investigate whether narcissism scores fell in the United States in accordance with the economic downturn of the 2007-2009 Great Recession.
In a first study, the researchers gathered data from a collection of previous studies that each included an assessment of narcissism from the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) among undergraduate students from four-year colleges in the U.S. They pooled this data with data from a previous meta-analysis by Twenge and Foster (2010) and ended up with information from 164 samples of over 35,000 college students, collected between 1982 to 2013.
When analyzing all this data, the researchers found that narcissism increased significantly from 1982 to 2008 and then decreased significantly from 2009 to 2013. They then assessed whether narcissism scores were associated with economic indicators at the time of data collection. It was found that narcissism rose as unemployment declined.
Next, the researchers conducted two within-campus analyses that yielded similar results. Data from the University of California, Davis was collected from 2002 to 2015 and included over 55,000 students. Here, narcissism rose from the years 2002 to 2008 and then declined from 2009 to 2015. The analysis also revealed that narcissism was higher when unemployment and inequality were lower.
The second within-campus analysis was conducted using data from the University of South Alabama. The data came from 119 students who were studied in 1994, as well as students sampled at the university every year from 2006 to 2016. In line with the first two studies, narcissism levels increased in the years before the recession, from 1994 to 2008. This effect was marginally significant, which the authors say was likely because they only had a few years of data for this time period. In the years after the recession, from 2009 to 2015, narcissism levels dropped significantly. Once more, as income inequality went down, narcissism levels went up.
The authors say the three studies followed an overall pattern where narcissism rose until the late 2000s and dropped around 2009 with the Great Recession. By 2013-2016, narcissism scores had dropped as low as they had been in the 1980s/90s. Importantly, these findings suggest that economic cycles can influence personality and self-views.
However, Twenge and her colleagues note that there may be other explanations than the recession for why narcissism dropped during this time period. For example, studies have suggested that when social media became popular around 2012, happiness and self-esteem declined — two traits that are linked to grandiose narcissism among young people. It could be that social media played a role in reducing narcissism among college students during this time.
The study, “Egos deflating with the Great Recession: A cross-temporal meta-analysis and within-campus analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, 1982–2016”, was authored by Jean M. Twenge, Sara H. Konrath, A. Bell Cooper, Joshua D. Foster, W. Keith Campbell, and Cooper McAllister.