What's the average narcissism score?
A question I often get asked is, “what's the average narcissism score (on whatever measure of narcissism you happen to be using)?” There isn’t a good single answer to this question because it depends on how old you are, whether you’re a man or a woman (almost all narcissism research has focused on binary gender), where you come from, and even what year you were born. So, if you ask me what the average narcissism score is, I’m going to ask you, “the average of who?” (yeah, I’m fun at parties)
I’ve been measuring narcissism at my university, the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama, since 2006. Every semester, hundreds of students taking introductory psychology courses at my school take a measure called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, or NPI for short. The NPI has historically been the most widely used measure of narcissism. It’s been around in one form or another since the late 1970s. If you’re interested in taking the NPI, you can take it here.
So, what is the average NPI score for my students? I have a dataset in front of me that contains over 19,000 NPI scores from students at my school who have taken the NPI during the past 15 years. If I take a simple average of these scores, I get an average score of 15.5 points. To put this in context, scores on the NPI can range from zero to 40 points. Like most personality measures, extreme scores are less common than moderate scores. In this entire dataset, only 28 students scored zero (the lowest possible narcissism level) and even fewer (17) scored a “perfect” 40 (the highest possible narcissism level). In contrast, more than a thousand students each scored 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, or 17. So most students at my school, including the mythical "average student," scored somewhere near the middle of the scale.
Of course, the true middle of the NPI scale is 20, which makes the NPI score distribution a bit skewed to the left, meaning that lower narcissism levels are more common than higher narcissism levels. In other words, while a few people are extremely narcissistic, most people are not very narcissistic (or so they say). Below is a histogram showing how frequently each of the possible NPI scores (0-40) were. It’s a little asymmetrical (that’s the left skew) but otherwise it's a very pretty bell curve, if I do say so myself.
So, the average narcissism level/score of students at my school, when measured using the NPI, is 15.5. But as I mentioned at the beginning, narcissism level differs depending on lots of different individual difference variables, such as age, gender, nationality, etc. Asking what the average narcissism level is, is kind of like asking what the average home price is. It’s not really useful unless you drill-down to more specific regions and even neighborhoods. Let’s drill-down on narcissism at the University of South Alabama.
Below are some average scores on the NPI from students at my university who represent different groups (men vs women, younger vs older students, American vs international students) and different time periods (students who took the NPI between the years 2006-2010 vs 2016-2020).
18-25 years old
>25 years old
As you can see, scores are all over the place. They range from approximately 12 to 18. That’s a big difference for the NPI, A score of 12 would put you around the 35th percentile in this sample and a score of 18 would put you at nearly the 70th percentile! But there are some general trends. Men scored higher than women, younger students scored higher than older students, and Americans scored (slightly) higher than international students. These differences are all consistent with previously published research findings.
Also notice that every group scored higher during the years 2006-2010 compared 2016-2020. Because this is a college sample and most people (especially the 18-25-year-olds) were in a similar age range, students in the 2006-2010 sample were born an average of about 10 years earlier than students in the 2016-2020 sample. Therefore, not only did younger students score higher than older students, 20-year-olds who were born in, say, 1990 scored higher than 20-year-olds who were born in 2000. In other words, students born more recently were less narcissistic than students born earlier.
This is pretty interesting because it reverses a trend that my colleagues and I have observed over many years. Up until about 2008, students who were born more recently were on average more narcissistic than students born earlier. To be clear, this is not a simple age difference. These differences are between students of the same approximate age, but born in different years (e.g., 20-year-olds born in 1990 vs 2000). We think this reversal might have something to do with the economic hardships that become so common during the mid-to-late 2000s (e.g., the Great Recession, which began in 2008). It's harder to be a narcissist when times are really tough!
Of course, all of these are just averages, and more specifically, averages of college students at one specific university located in one specific region of the United States. And it gets even more specific than that! All these students were enrolled in Introductory Psychology courses at the time they took the narcissism measure. So, take all these average scores with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, the point remains: if you ask me what the average narcissism score is, I’m probably going to ask you to get a little more specific.