New research has confirmed an age-old gender stereotype — that men tend to be more narcissistic than women on average.
The study, which will be published this month in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin, found a small but statistically significant gap between men and women in some key personality traits associated with narcissism. They specifically looked at leadership/authority, or wanting to take control of a group of people, and exploitative/entitlement, or finding other people easy to manipulate — which both tended to be more frequent among male respondents. A third trait the study examined, grandiosity/exhibitionism, seemed to rate about the same in both genders. All are traits as described by psychology’s “bible,” the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Interestingly, the gap between genders for those first two traits of narcissism wasn’t as great as other gender gaps found in behaviors like risk taking, neuroticism and self-esteem.
One surprising factor in the research was that the gap in narcissism between men and women hasn’t changed much over time. According to the research that’s out there, the undergraduates who were studied in the 1990s, shortly after the modern ideas of narcissism had made their way into the DSM, exhibited a similar gender gap on narcissism traits compared to more recent studies. In other words, the gender gap in these traits have been stable since psychologists started studying the issue. This may be, the research points out, because of many of the radical cultural changes in the U.S. occurred in the 1970s and 1980s; by the 1990s, many of those cultural changes about men and women had plateaued. This research looking at young men and women also didn’t find much evidence to indicate that “Generation Me” millennials are any more narcissistic than previous generations of young people.
The research was spearheaded by Emily Grijalva, assistant professor of organization and human resources in the University at Buffalo School of Management, who said she’d been hearing the stereotype that men were more narcissistic than women for years, but was surprised that there was little scientific evidence to back up the claim. She wound up combing through more than 350 studies that surveyed nearly half a million patients over 30 years for her research. The study is already getting a lot of attention, but Grijalva is also careful to point out that her research focuses on the differences between averages; not all men rate high on these narcissistic traits and not all women rate low, which isn’t always reflected in the writeups of the research.
Figuring out what led to the gaps in these personality traits wasn’t the point of this study, but Grijalva did point to previous psychological research that explored theories about gender roles put forth by Wendy Wood and Alice Eagly, which try to parse the origins of gendered behavior.
“These gender differences in narcissism, we think are potentially driven by gender role beliefs by what’s considered appropriate behavior for men and women,” Grijalva said. “There are these stereotypes where it’s more acceptable for men to exhibit … dominance and assertiveness, whereas women, on the other hand are stereotyped as being communal, nurturing and caring.”
“All this is driven by the fact that we observe people performing different behaviors and then we draw dispositional assumptions,” she continued. “So men are in leadership roles, higher level leadership roles more frequently, so therefore they must be more dominant than women. These reinforce themselves over time, which continues the status quo.”
It’s not hard to see how these stereotypes play out in the real world. After all, there remains a persistent gender pay gap in the American economy, and though women have reached gender parity in management positions in the U.S., they remain a tiny minority in high-profile leadership positions like in Fortune 500 companies or in high levels of government. Previous research has shown that enforcing gender stereotypes in children at a young age can be damaging to their health.
The benefits of closing the narcissism gap can be good. A 2011 study found that women who showed “masculine traits” — being aggressive, assertive and confident — received 1.5 more promotions than men and about twice as many promotions as more “feminine”-acting women.
But it’s also difficult to change those gender norms. Four studies found that women who more aggressively negotiated their salaries were also penalized for doing so. Women also seem to have an easier time negotiating on behalf of someone else than they do for themselves.
“There might be this tendency for people to think, women should act more like a man. Maybe men are obtaining higher pay and these higher leadership positions because they’re narcissistic,” Grijalva said, but that might be misguided. “For one thing, we don’t have enough research to make that specific link to draw that conclusion yet. But in addition to that, it’s not clear that if a women were to act like a man she would be perceived the same way.”