Trajectories of narcissism and self-esteem in adolescence predict interpersonal factors at age 20

A new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality sheds light on how the development of narcissistic tendencies and self-esteem are related to interpersonal factors such as indirect aggression, jealousy, and hypercompetitiveness.

“Narcissism includes a sense of entitlement, superiority, and need for recognition and is strongly linked to aggressive behavior,” explained researchers Tracy Vaillancourt (@vaillancourt_dr) and Ann Farrell (@DrAnnFarrell), a full professor at the University of Ottawa and assistant professor at Brock University, respectively.

“Thus, narcissism is not inconsequential. Narcissism is also related to a fragile sense of self, especially when provoked. Therefore, were curious to know how narcissism and self-esteem jointly develop across adolescence and how it predicts interpersonal features like indirect aggression (peer group exclusion, silent treatment, etc.) in young adults.”

For their study, the researchers examined data from 617 Canadian individuals from the McMaster Teen Study, longitudinal research on bullying, mental health, and academic achievement that started when participants were in Grade 5 and followed up annually until they were age 23. The study included assessments of narcissism, self-esteem, jealousy, aggressiveness, hypercompetitiveness, and self-perceived mate value (meaning how attractive participants perceived themselves to be as a romantic partner.) The dataset allowed the researchers to examine how these variables changed over time within individuals.

Using latent growth curve models, Vaillancourt and Farrell found three common trajectories for narcissism and self-esteem:

  • Narcissism that started off high at age 13 and slowly increased into young adulthood; narcissism that was moderate at age 13 and remained stable; and narcissism that was low at age 13, slowly declined, and then started to increase around age 16.
  • Self-esteem that started off high at age 13 and remained stable; self-esteem that was moderate at age 13 and slowly declined; and self-esteem that was moderate at age 13 and then declined to a low level before slightly rebounding.

Self-perceived mate value and indirect aggression tended to be higher among individuals who followed a pattern of high increasing narcissism compared to other individuals. But there were some differences observed between narcissistic individuals with a high and stable level of self-esteem and narcissistic individuals with moderate-to-low decreasing self-esteem.

“We found two distinct developmental patterns of high increasing narcissism across ages 13 to 19; a small group of individuals who followed a trajectory of high self-esteem coupled with high narcissism and another small group of individuals who followed a trajectory of low self-esteem coupled with high narcissism,” Vaillancourt and Farrell told PsyPost. “Membership in both groups predicted higher use of indirect aggression at age 20, but the former group additionally predicted hypercompetitiveness whereas the latter group additionally predicted jealousy.”

“Overall, our findings highlight that we need to promote self-esteem for healthy development, but without inadvertently inflating these perceptions to the point of narcissism. It is important to recognize that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. Social comparison is inevitable, but emphasizing the process of personal development as opposed to the outcome could help facilitate a healthy sense of self-worth.”

But the study — like all research — includes some limitations. For example, the majority of participants had a moderate level of narcissism and high self-esteem. Only about 1% of participant followed a trajectory of high increasing narcissism coupled with moderate-to-low decreasing self-esteem.

“Future studies based on larger sample sizes should assess whether our results are replicated. We also cannot draw any causal conclusions on the associations among narcissism, self-esteem, and interpersonal features,” the researchers said.

The study, “Joint trajectories of adolescent narcissism and self-esteem predict interpersonal features in young adulthood“, was published online on July 2, 2021.

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