Childhood analysis

Childhood adversity is associated with narcissistic tendencies and, in turn, an elevated immune response to stress

According to a study published in Personality and individual differences, adults with more difficult childhoods have higher white blood cell counts, and the effect is partly explained by higher levels of narcissism. The study’s authors suggest that an unstable upbringing sets the stage for the development of narcissistic traits, which then lead to risky behaviors, ultimately triggering a high immune response in order to fight stress.

Childhood stress has been found to trigger an immune system response that mirrors the body’s response to physical stress. This response involves an increased production of white blood cells (WBCs) to protect the body against infections. A research team led by Yaoguo Geng wondered if personality could amplify this relationship between childhood adversity and the immune system’s response.

Geng and his team note that people who live in unpredictable environments often develop what researchers call a rapid life history strategy. People with this mindset tend to focus on the short term, prioritize more sex partners, and invest less in offspring. This higher number of sexual partners puts individuals at an increased risk of encountering pathogens, which can trigger a high immune response. Because the dark personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy have been associated with a quick life history strategy, Geng and his colleagues have proposed that these traits may play a role in linking the adversity of childhood and white blood cell count.

A total of 234 Chinese adults between the ages of 18 and 55 completed a questionnaire that included assessments of Dark Triad traits and life history speed. To assess childhood adversity, surveys asked participants to respond to seven items assessing children’s exposure to violence and seven items assessing the unpredictability of the childhood environment. The participants also had blood samples taken to measure their white blood cell count.

The results revealed that exposure to violence in childhood was associated with higher white blood cell counts, suggesting that stressful events during childhood may negatively impact the nervous, endocrine and immune systems. . Adults with more unpredictable childhoods and with greater exposure to childhood violence were also more likely to have a quick life story strategy and, in turn, higher psychopathy and Machiavellianism.

Further analysis revealed that only one variable was directly related to the number of white blood cells – narcissism. Participants with higher narcissism demonstrated an increase in the number of white blood cells. Additionally, childhood adversity was indirectly linked to WBC through narcissism. This suggests that participants growing up in a more unstable environment were more likely to develop narcissistic traits and, in turn, a high immune response characterized by increased production of white blood cells. It’s possible that narcissistic tendencies lead to risky behaviors, like casual sex and substance abuse, which then trigger an increased immune response to fight stress.

Interestingly, this mediating role of narcissism on the relationship between childhood adversity and white blood cell count was stronger in women than in men. This suggests that women are more likely to experience an increased immune response after acting on narcissistic tendencies, possibly because women tend to be more affected by socio-ecological conditions than men. However, overall, men were more likely to have a quick life story strategy, dark personality traits, more violent childhoods, and increased WBC.

Geng and his colleagues say their study was limited since it only included retrospective accounts of childhood experiences and relied on participants’ recollection. The study also did not include a measure of children’s health problems, which may play a role in increasing immune system responses.

The study, “Adversity from childhood is associated with white blood cell count in adulthood through narcissismWas written by Yaoguo Geng, Xueying Sai, Peter K. Jonason, Minqi Yang, Xueli Zhu, Jingjing Gu and Huijuan Kong.


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