The findings underscored the importance of taking age into account when understanding narcissism. Research on personality disorders, in general, shows a lower percentage of individuals in mid and later life who have the so-called “immature” personality disorders that include narcissistic personality disorder. Accordingly, in the Canadian study, the sample as a whole, whose average age was 49 years (with a range of from 19 to 86), pathological narcissism scores were lower than those obtained in samples of undergraduates. Within the current sample, younger men also were higher in SB-PNI scores than their older counterparts. In fact, age was negatively correlated with all of the measures of distress and maladaptive behaviors.
As predicted, men with high pathological narcissism scores were more likely to experience distress, to use drugs and alcohol, and to engage in angry and aggressive acts. In the case of drug use, though, age also played a role in that it was only among the younger men that pathological narcissism was correlated with high scores on this maladaptive behavior measure. In the area of risk-taking behavior, there was also a complex relationship with pathological narcissism, in that it was only among men with high levels of distress that high narcissism related to high-risk behavior.
Given the associations with age, pathological narcissism, then, appears to be less of a stable trait than we might assume. As men mature into their middle and later adult years, they potentially gain greater self-confidence while they also modulate their high risk-taking and substance abuse-related tendencies. Another possibility is that, unlike the Billy Joel song, only the risky die young. Those individuals who engage in heavy patterns of substance abuse and aggression, for example, experience higher accident- or illness-related mortality. However, it is also possible that as they advance through their adult years, those who were narcissistic when younger gain greater perspective, particularly if they manage to achieve a certain level of success in their work and romantic lives.
The authors also suggest that for the pathologically narcissistic male, there is an element of hypermasculinity that leads them, especially when younger, to try to show just how macho they are by drinking heavily, treating others aggressively, and otherwise trying to overcome underlying feelings of weakness and deficiency. Unfortunately, there were no measures in this study assessing identification with masculine role stereotypes, but it seems reasonable to assume that the pathologically narcissistic may believe they have to overcome their core inferiority by proving just how manly they really are.
In summary, the Kealy et al study suggests that pathological narcissism isn’t a single entity on which an individual is high or low. Over the years of adulthood, men may learn through bad experiences that they need to modulate their aggressiveness and high-risk behavior, or they may gain a greater inner sense of security that allows them to express weaknesses without feeling flawed. By the same token, as the authors suggest, mental health workers who provide treatment to men with substance abuse or high-risk aggressive behavior may wish to consider the role of narcissism as a contributing factor.
For those individuals who live with or love a man high in pathological narcissism, the study’s findings also provide insight into the deep distress these individuals feel on a day-to-day basis. Although it is no fun to be in a relationship with a man high in narcissism, it is no fun to be that man either.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – 5th Edition: DSM-5. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association