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Science has revealed the surprise truth about “narcissistic” only children

Posted by
Anna Brech
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A young woman looking in the mirror

Hold the front page because only children may not be as self-absorbed as everyone assumed – according to new research. 

Of all familial stereotypes out there – the zany middle sibling, the spoilt brat youngest – only children get the worst press of all. 

Science has long held the view that children without siblings are inherently self-centred; a quality that makes it hard for them to build identity and adapt to peer groups

This ingrained cliché prompted psychologist Granville Stanley Hall to (rather harshly) describe being an only child as “a disease in itself” in a lecture in 1907. It later gave rise to terms such as “single child syndrome” to describe the so-called “perils” of flying sans siblings.

The belief that siblings are better off is no less evident in popular culture, where classic films such as The Sound of Music and Cheaper by the Dozen speak to the delights of a large family.

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Forget all you know, though, because a new study shows that our perception around single children has zero foundation in fact.

According to research published in the journal Social Psychology and Psychology Science, there’s no evidence to support the notion that only children are any more self-involved than those with siblings.

Michael Dufner of the University of Leipzig and his colleagues analyzed data from a wide-ranging panel study of over 1800 people. They found the scores for narcissistic traits – which they defined as behaving in a grandiose or rivalrous manner – were no different between only children and those with sisters or brothers.

Siblings-hugging-one-another
Only children are no more selfish than siblings, despite the stereotype

Recent research on the topic of only children has been varied. Some studies highlight the competitive advantage of being an only sibling, as well as pointing to the damaging impact that sibling bullying has on self-esteem. Other academics suggest children with siblings are better off in terms of social and academic development.

This same contradiction is rife within the question of narcissism, and whether single children really are more selfish.

However, according to Dufner, “we can now say with rather high confidence that only children are not substantially more narcissistic than people with siblings.”

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Interestingly, the same study found that both single children and those with siblings share the belief that only children are more narcissistic.

Even with the evidence in the bag, then, there’s still some way to go for only children to shake off their self-centred rep. 

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Images: Kevin Laminto and Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.

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