Think only children are narcissistic? Science says you're wrong

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

I can't remember a time when I wasn't battling the stereotype of only children being narcissists. I am a true only child. This means I have never had a sibling of any kind at any point in my life. 

No half-siblings, no step-siblings and I never lived in the same house as other children when I was a child. With that comes a certain assumption of character - about me, from other people.

The words spoilt, narcissist, tyrant, selfish are the first that come to mind. Characters such as Veruca Salt sure don't help, either.

Couples often decide to have another child simply to prevent their child being an only, so pervasive is this idea that onlies are brats, but new research out of Germany debunks this notion.

A new study has concluded that only children are no more likely to be narcissistic than children who have siblings, which, of course, I knew all along.

Published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, a study called, rather satisfyingly, The End of a Stereotype: Only Children Are Not More Narcissistic Than People With Siblings, has concluded that people are wrong when it comes to only children.

"The scores of only children on the two narcissism dimensions did not exceed those of people with siblings..." concluding that, "The results indicate that the stereotype that only children are narcissistic is prevalent but inaccurate."

"We can now say with rather high confidence that only children are not substantially more narcissistic than people with siblings," said Michael Dufner, a psychologist from the University of Leipzig.

Yep, knew it.

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I was the most social of children. I would be disarmingly pliant, and generous to a fault, so that other children - who could choose to be with their siblings - would want to spend their spare time with me.

I was the very best guest you could imagine. I would wash and dry my water glass, tidy up an abandoned board game and converse with the adult hosts - because I enjoyed being a good guest and also because good guests get repeat invites.

Fast forward 20 years to when we were looking for our first family home, an agent showing us through a property asked us if we had noted the huge amounts of toys around the house - we hadn't - before rolling her eyes and whispering, "ONLY CHILD," with the inference being, spoiled, indulged, selfish.

I felt a smidgen of delight observing the horror spreading across her face in a crimson rash after I said, "I'm an only child."

She blustered her way through the rest of that house showing, much to my amusement. Perhaps she was struck by the absurdity of what she had said, or maybe just embarrassed at having her attitudes exposed.

Dubious papers and outmoded psych methods are largely to blame for such ideas, though with the rise of single-child families, the world has had cause to re-examine.

In 1896 G. Stanley Hall claimed that being an only child was "a disease in itself." and Freud wrote about only children having sexual identity problems thanks to spoiling from the opposite sex parent. Thanks Sigmund.

The just-published study, however, has some up-to-date science to back it up.

556 adults - some only children and some with siblings - started off by doing an online survey which revealed that pretty much everybody - even the only children themselves - believed only children were more narcissistic than those with siblings.

In a second experiment, researchers analysed responses focussing on two personality traits from 1,810 people – 233 only children and 1,577 who had siblings. The traits were, "feelings of self-admiration and being more prone to rivalry."

The findings showed that only children demonstrated no increased incidences of these personality traits than people with siblings.

So there you have it. If you're using this idea to have a child you wouldn't have had otherwise, you're off the hook.

And next time you meet an only child, focus on how they blow that damaging stereotype out of the water. Only children are just as diverse in character as the rest of the population.