Stories about insuferable teenagers, selfish college students or inconsiderate older adults have one thing in common: They attribute the presence of socially undesirable personality features to age. But is there evidence supporting such claims?
We had more than 4,000 Dutch and Belgian people complete questionnaires to dive into this question and examine age differences in so-called “dark” personality features and published our research in the Journal of Research in Personality,
We focused on the personality features related to narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, collectively known as the Dark Triad. Related, because thoroughly measuring everything relevant to the Dark Triad features would require filling out 100 questions or more.
The only people who’d be up to doing that without an incentive might be people who’d score really low on the Dark Triad, and we wanted a representative group. Therefore, we measured the more specific “dark” features of egocentricity, callous affect (being cynical and insensitive), and manipulativeness.
Our participants rated themselves on those features. You might think that’d lead to no one admitting how egocentric, manipulative, and callous they really are, but that’s not true! Research strongly suggests that people with “dark” personality features will admit they have them, likely because they don’t see them as problematic.
You might recognize this phenomenon in famous people publicly and openly talking about their selfish, manipulative, or outright antisocial behavior in a way that suggests they don’t see these behavioral tendencies as problematic.
Another important thing to know is personality features are typically measured on a scale, for example, from one to nine. In other words, personality psychologists don’t think that someone is egocentric or not: we work from the assumption that everyone is egocentric, some just barely and others badly.
In our study, the averages for the “dark” personality features rarely exceeded five, which is right in the middle of our nine-point rating scale. In other words, on average, people really aren’t that bad. This is a sample largely consisting of Dutch people.
What about the age difference, then? Simply put, average levels of egocentricity, manipulation, and callous affect appeared to be low among the youngest people in the sample, the 11-to-13-year-olds. Among the somewhat older youth, average levels gradually get higher. Among adults, average levels were a little lower again. This suggests that levels of “dark” personality features peak in young adulthood, so the college student age.
The most important nuance about this is that our findings are about differences in averages between groups. Those averages are based on a lot of different scores from different individuals of a particular age. If you look beyond the average, we see that there are people with high or low scores on egocentricity, manipulativeness, and callous affect within every single age group.
Because of that, our findings do not mean that every single young adult is more manipulative, callous, and egocentric than every young adolescent. There are plenty of young adults with very low scores on “dark” personality features and plenty of young adolescents, or older adults, with very high scores.
Differences in group means need to be interpreted with that in mind! Therefore, our findings mean that we are a little more likely to find more manipulative, callous, and egocentric people among young adults than in the other age groups.
This raises the question of why that would be, and the literature offers a couple of suggestions. Most likely, several societal factors contribute to our findings. For example, young adults are supposed to enter the job market and establish a career. There’s often tough competition for the best jobs, and being too nice in that process is not necessarily encouraged in countries like The Netherlands (or the US).
Also, when you compete for the best jobs with your best friends from college, it might be easier not to overthink what your success might mean for their success and thus be a bit more egocentric and callous.
Similarly, evolutionary psychologists would point to competition in finding a partner as a potential cause of these increased levels of dark personality features.
Somewhat related to this is that the years from adolescence into young adulthood are considered important for finding out who we are and where we are going in life. In other words, we’re expected to form an identity in those years. Despite that also being a social process, identity formation often comes with an increased self-focus which perhaps translates into increased levels of “dark” personality features.
Overall, we learned that there are people with high or low levels of “dark” personality features in any age group. Higher levels are a little more common in young adults than in other age groups. However, their scores are still well below the scale’s midpoint for manipulativeness and callous affect and only slightly above the midpoint for egocentricity.
In other words, young adults might be a little more self-focused, but there’s no reason to fear the average young adult, including college students. This also nicely aligns with my personal experience, as in my job, I interact with them daily, and I think they are wonderful people!