Are We Born Narcissists — Or Is It Someone Else's Fault?

A new study sheds some light on the origins of self-obsession. (Photo: Getty Images)

In a stand-up routine about surviving small-talk, comedian Brian Regan tells an entertaining story about “me monsters” — people who fill their sentences with “I” and “me,” and who are forever trying to one-up everyone else.

You know, narcissists.

By definition, narcissism is egoism or excessive interest in oneself. And for the most part, it’s generally thought that narcissistic people were just born that way. But were they really?

Maybe not, says a new study out of The Ohio State University. When study author Brad J. Bushman, PhD, and a team of researchers surveyed parents of children ages 7 to 11 — asking how much they agreed with statements such as, “My child is more special than other children” — they found parents who “overvalued” their children (and agreed with such statements) wound up with kids who scored higher on tests of narcissism later on in life.

Is everyone a narcissist? 

It’s often thought that narcissism is just too much self-esteem, but the study authors point out that isn’t the case. “Self-esteem is thinking, ‘I’m a person of worth. I’m as good as others.’ Narcissism is thinking, ‘I’m better than other people. I’m a special person that deserves special treatment,’” Bushman tells Yahoo Health. 

Related: Is Your Friend A Narcissist? The Telltale Signs Of 6 Personality Types

Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder with severe consequences in ethical behavior — but in social psychology, the trait is seen on a continuum, explains narcissism researcher Emily Bianchi, PhD, of Emory’s Goizueta Business School, who was not involved in the study.

“You’re either more or less narcissistic,” Bianchi tells Yahoo Health. In fact, narcissism may even be a normal part of growing up — so long as it doesn’t carry on through adulthood.

There’s pretty good evidence that narcissism decreases with age, she says. One reason: Adversity can temper narcissism. “As we get older, we experience more trying times. As you invest in romantic relationships, children, or a career, the demands of life don’t allow you to be as self-focused,” she says.

Where you are in life can also play a role in your narcissism levels. For instance, 20-year-olds tend to have much higher rates of narcissism, in part because that is an age people are very self-focused, she notes.

Why you don’t want to be a narcissist

The downsides of narcissism are real. According to Bushman’s previous research, “overvalued children are not more intelligent or better performing than other children” — they just think they are.And after 25 years of aggression and violence research, he has come to this conclusion: “One of the most dangerous beliefs someone can have is that they are superior to others. If someone believes that they are superior — in gender, in race, because of their country — they behave very badly.”

Research backs that idea up. The personality trait has been linked to violence, aggression, an inability to have long-term relationships, and unethical behavior. (In one version of the mythological Greek tale, the beautiful Narcissus falls in love with his reflection in a puddle only to be turned into a flower bearing his name.)

To that extent, “narcissism’s not good for the person or for society,” Bushman says. “If you think you’re great, why try to improve?” He also notes a strong negative correlation between narcissism and empathy — a trait he says is key for good pro-social behavior.

What brings out the narcissist inside? 

Research shows that narcissism is more common among certain people than others. Men are more likely to be narcissists than women, for instance. And “narcissists tend to care a lot more about agentic domains like leadership than about communal domains like how well they get along with others,” says Bushman. “This is because narcissists are so self-focused.” (Interestingly, research suggests they are more likely to emerge as leaders for this reason, too.)

Related: Science Confirms The Most Narcissistic Gender

Bianchi also wrote a paper noting that people who come of age in a recession are less likely to be narcissistic than those who didn’t — the reason going back to that idea of adversity, she says.

There are also certain situations or relationships that can bring out a person’s narcissistic side — particularly, ones that involve comparison with others (since narcissists believe they’re superior to others), he says.

Can you stop someone from being a narcissist?

“Perhaps the most important aspect of our research is that it shows people aren’t just born narcissists and cannot change,” says Bushman.

While overvaluation of children was connected with narcissism in the study, parental warmth (showing affection and appreciation) was linked to higher self-esteem over time — not narcissism.

“It has not been shown yet, but one possible application of this research is to train parents not to overvalue their children,” says Bushman. “As a parent, you want to be warm and loving, but you also want children to know that no person on this planet is more or less valuable than anyone else. Humanity defines our worth,” he says. “We should try to teach our children that everyone they meet will be superior to them in some aspect — and that we can learn from everyone.”

And while parents have tremendous influence on the development of their children, Bushman says that researchers next hope to study possible genetic differences or personality characteristics innate to the self-obsessed.

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