written by: Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD
Self-centered and attention-grabbing with a tendency toward manipulating others and deceiving themselves. These are probably the words that come to mind when you think of narcissists. In the classic sense, narcissists suffer from excessive self-love. Psychiatry classifies narcissism, in its extreme form, as a personality disorder. Narcissism almost disappeared from psychiatry’s diagnostic system, but luckily for the narcissists who were offended by their exclusion, it’s back though with a few new twists.
In the new diagnostic manual, a person needs to show such characteristics as needing others to confirm their identities, wanting excessively to please others, being unable to empathize with others, having little interest in close relationships, feelings entitled to special treatment, and – last but not least – seeking attention. The new diagnostic method will involve rating people along these trait dimensions and not just scoring them on a checklist, as was true in the past.
Narcissism, like all of our personal traits, isn’t an all-or-none quality. People vary in their narcissistic tendencies. Also, people can change. Research headed by University of Illinois psychologist Brent Roberts shows that narcissism peaks during the years of young adulthood. It’s not that the millenials (and post-millenials) are more narcissistic than their parents or grandparents, but that self-centeredness seems to be a feature of that particular age period. Roberts and his colleaguesexamined hundreds of studies carried out over the past 30 years and showed that no matter what the generation, people in their 20s had the highest narcissistic scores.
The finding that every generation is the “Me” generation fits with developmental psychologist David Elkind’s adolescent egocentrism theory. According to Elkind, teenagers believe that they are the center of their universe. They feel that they have an imaginary audience that follows them everywhere, watching and being impressed by their behaviors. Roberts and colleagues pointed out that this self-focus diminishes as teens develop close interpersonal relationships in the early twenties and begin their own families, causing their focus to shift away from themselves and toward their loved ones. People should, then, get less narcissistic as they get older through these normative developmental changes.
Who’s left? The people high in narcissism exit their teenage and young adult years without making the developmental shift that shifts their focus to others. However, some people never move down to the middle of the narcissism spectrum. My PsychToday colleague, Scott Barry Kaufman, wrote an excellent article on how to “spot a narcissist.” Consider this your guidebook to determining who fits or does not fit the narcissism profile.
Short of the diagnosable adults and self-centered teens, however, there are many people who show mild to moderate levels of narcissism in their everyday behavior. In reformulating DSM-5, psychiatrists took seriously the research by personality psychologists on the”Big 5.” People’s personalities don’t come in categories, they come in measurable dimensions.
The Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) contains a list of 40 statements that measure four of the narcissistic tendencies seen in the new DSM diagnosis– exhibitionism, exploitativeness, entitlement, and vanity. High scores on all of the narcissism scales don’t necessarily qualify you for the official diagnosis but they indicate that you lean in that direction.
The NPI has produced many valuable findings, including the results of the generational change studies. However, it’s got one obvious problem in that it’s asking people to report on their own personal foibles. People high in narcissism tend to deceive themselves and others. When they take these tests, they continue to lie. Their scores underestimate their true narcissistic tendencies.
This premise led Washington University researcher Nicholas Holtzman and his team to take their study of narcissism out into the real world. Investigators typically study people in the lab, creating artificial situations and watching how participants respond. However, as Holtzman pointed out, it’s more relevant and informative to study what people do in their actual environments. Because people high in narcissism try to present themselves in the best possible light they’re not going to show their true stripes in the psych lab.
Holtzman and his collaborators gave their participants an “Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR)” which they carried around for 4 days (with informed consent, of course).. They didn’t know when exactly they were being taped so they couldn’t engage in deliberate deception. In fact, the results proved quite the opposite, as they clearly let their least attractive narcissistic qualities show in all kinds of situations. Unfortunately, the participants were college students, who we already know are the most narcissistic of all age groups. Even so, assuming that regardless of age, people high in narcissism behave the way they did, we can glean some valuable
There was one positive finding about the people high in narcissism. Although regardless of how extraverted they were, the narcissistic women in the study were more likely to socialize with others. However, the negatives outweighed this positive. The three key problem areas of people high in narcissism were:
Engaging in disagreeable behavior. People high in narcissism were more likely to argue, swear, and become enraged, especially if they were the exploitative and entitled type of narcissist.
Being more likely to shirk their duties. Once again, exploitative and entitled narcissists were the most poorly adapted. It wasn’t that they were lazy, but that they didn’t become academically engaged.
Using sexual language. The exploitative and entitled were more likely to “talk dirty.” Even after controlling for the fact that many sexual words also express anger, the exploiters and entitled used more sexual language in their everyday speech (such as “nude”).
A little bit of narcissism may not be reflected in these behaviors, but as you go up the narcissism gradient, these acts become more and more likely to occur. The narcissist’s tendencies to become enraged, skip classes or work, and talk in sexual ways can lead to spoiled relationships, failure at work or school, and uncalled-for expressions of venom, These maladaptive behaviors can quickly undo any benefits of showing the narcissist’s good side of appearing friendly, outgoing, and poised.
Is there hope for the narcissist? Again, if we assume that we’re not dealing with its pathological form, hope comes in these three forms:
1. Most people grow out of their narcissistic phase. Age, experience, and involvement in new social roles lead most people to grow out of their youthful narcissism.
2. Narcissism can be tamed. Learning to read other people’s reactions can help people tone down their self-centered focus and calm their exploitative or explosive tendencies.
3. Friendliness is their friend. The ability to make great first impressions can be a tremendous strength if it’s followed by learning to develop empathy and a sincere interest in other
Don’t write off the narcissist as doomed to a self-centered life, Change can occur naturally over time, or be given a helpful push with these interventions.
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