What psychology knows and doesn’t know about narcissism


It’s hard to access a website or popular psychology writing without running into the concept of narcissism. While the term is often technically intended to refer to the diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, this subtlety is usually lost when applied to celebrities and politicians. As a giant catch-all for various self-aggrandizing and egocentric behaviors, narcissism has strayed so far from its original conceptualization that it has virtually lost most of its meaning.

Returning to this original conceptualization, Elizabeth Edershile and Aidan Wright (2021) of the University of Pittsburgh describe narcissism not only as a set of grandiose and selfish behaviors, but as a “complex system” that drives “a set of processes”. How to better understand these processes, they continue, “remains a source of much debate and contributes to a tension between theoretical models and empirical research” (p. 1).

You may have your own theories about what factors produce narcissistic behavior in people you know. Perhaps you have a brother-in-law who is now an “ex-brother-in-law” after leaving your closest brother with virtually no warning and no explanation. Broken by the experience, your brother seeks solace from you and the rest of your family. Inevitably, discussions about this person receive considerable and perhaps undue attention during phone calls and family gatherings. Your family now looks back at the ex’s previous behavior, listing any signs of narcissism in that person, such as taking center stage at holiday meals, refusing to help clean up after those meals, and, in general, act like they’re better than everyone else.

Once you’ve come to your collectively agreed ex-diagnosis, you assure your brother that nothing he did contributed to the breakup. Indeed, as the time passes, you feel more and more certain that your diagnosis is correct and that your brother has a real interest in getting rid of the ex.

While you’re unlikely to take a sympathetic glance at what may have caused the ex to behave so cruel to your beloved family member, you can try to catch a glimpse once that. the initial pain of the breakup subsides and you are able to think about it all. Did the ex have an exceptionally difficult childhood, raised by parents who neglected or even abused them? Is it possible that the ex feels threatened by your family and the close bond that you and your siblings have with each other as well as with your own parents? Have there been any previous signs that the ex needs attention from you and your family in order to compensate for these feelings of vulnerability?

What psychological theory says about narcissism

These questions about the origins of the ex’s cruel treatment of your brother or sister correspond to the most common theoretical position on narcissism, as articulated by the authors of the U. Pittsburgh. The “complex system” to which they refer reflects an ever-changing interplay between the two fundamental tendencies of vulnerability and greatness, both of which serve to protect an individual’s self-esteem. Threats to self-esteem, they suggest, trigger “a cascade of unfolding processes” in which the individual alternates between vulnerability and greatness, also potentially leading to outward expressions of hostility towards those who thwart their efforts to. feel superior.

The idea that narcissists try to protect their self-esteem is fundamental to the “mask” model proposed by the early theorists of psychodynamics. As Edershile and Wright note, the narcissist’s seemingly inflated ego, according to this view, reflects the attempts to cover up and protect the individual from feeling inferior.

More recently, theorists working from this basic framework propose that narcissists in fact strive not to revert to some type of “normal” basic self-esteem, but to a “higher desired state”. This “trait level right” leads them to believe that they deserve to be treated as better than everyone else.

This high level of entitlement paves the way for the narcissist to view their experiences in terms of whether or not they are getting the attention they think they deserve, and not some type of neutral orientation. In other words, the narcissist views ordinary experiences from the point of view of the need to constantly strengthen their self-esteem. When they do not get this support, they can “descend” into vulnerability and challenge themselves through strategies such as attacking those they see as the culprits.

In trying to understand these dynamics, it may be helpful to review the qualities that psychologists define as involving vulnerability and greatness. Vulnerability, the “intense and felt need for recognition” manifests itself in a strong sense of self-doubt and a desire to avoid being discovered as weak. Greatness is reflected in “shamelessness, self-promoting behavior and a lack of empathy” (p. 2).

Essential readings on narcissism

Such fluctuations between vulnerability and grandiosity mean that a single measure of narcissism as used in a correlational study is unlikely to produce a clear picture. However, as Edershile and Wright point out, this is precisely the approach used in the majority of studies that attempt to put narcissism under the microscope. The gap between theory and research therefore means that an understanding of the dynamics of narcissism “has not been reached” (p. 11).

What psychological research says about narcissism

Since much of what you read about research evidence-based narcissism will be limited by its correlational nature, what can you trust in the published literature? Can research ever appropriately capture the vulnerability-grandiosity interaction over time?

Edershile and Wright propose a way to get around this problem by distinguishing between trait and state narcissism. As you saw earlier, the authors view trait narcissism as that bloated sense of self that needs to be fueled by continuous positive feedback. However, at one time the person’s behavior may show vulnerability and at other times greatness. Studying these state-level manifestations could potentially provide the kind of data needed to study narcissism as a complex system of processes.

To this end, the authors attempted to measure these qualities of state-level narcissism by obtaining reports from 231 participants every 90 minutes on their levels of greatness and vulnerability to see how often they “changed.” Referring to data from an unpublished study, Edershile and Wright report that of the 7,480 momentary reports obtained by the authors, the change only occurred 1.5% of the time, a very small percentage. This discovery led the authors to ask the question of whether it is necessary to probe momentary changes not defined by time intervals, but by specific interactions. must experience being in a grand state.

It is therefore clear that even state-type measures of narcissism have their limitations, suggesting to the authors that “more precise assessment tools are needed” (p. 11). These must also be aligned with experiences likely to provoke the transition from vulnerability to narcissism. A one-time assessment, even one every and a half hours, is unlikely to capture these dynamic processes at work.

What do the results mean to you?

Now that you understand the limitations of existing research on narcissism, even research using momentary sampling, you can see that what you thought you knew may need serious reconsideration. This ex-brother-in-law case, for example, might provide you with your own case study to use to better understand the core of narcissism. Putting aside your anger at this person, are you able to trace events that could have threatened them (such as proximity to your family) leading to their apparent need for validation?

It is certainly difficult to put your theoretical “hat” on someone whose antagonism and narcissistic rights seem out of hand and have caused harm to you or others who are dear to you. According to the article by U. Pittsburgh narcissists can also display opposite behaviors by appearing interested in you, warm, and friendly, as long as their need to feel superior is fueled. You can easily be drawn into a relationship with that person only to be severely shot later when they feel threatened and their greatness sets in.

The theory-research gap in what psychology knows about the narcissism identified in Edershile and Wright’s article provides more than the basis for a critique of the existing literature. As they note, “variability is a key characteristic of the expression of narcissism” (p. 6). If you’re trying to figure out how to maintain a relationship with someone you think is rich in narcissism, being able to identify these predictors of variability might ultimately give you the best way to keep those temper tantrums at bay.

To summarize, it’s very easy to try and categorize people on the basis of what you think is their “personality”. The case of narcissism may be particularly extreme in terms of its underlying theme of variability, but individual personalities reflect situational factors. The article by U. Pittsburgh provides an important reminder of the need to get more than a snapshot of anyone you are trying to understand, including yourself.

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