Narcissism As Normal

The narcissist may be intimidating, mesmerizing, even larger-than-life, but beneath the bombast or the charm is an emotional cripple with the moral development of a toddler. (i) [1]

Narcissism is a cluster of sub-traits or tendencies that we all show but if it becomes a neverending quest to feel special and better than, then life is about maintaining our image and striving for status.  Being fixated on self leaves little room for empathy, and others become means to our ends.  Narcissism, as many argue, is a normal trait to have but some are just better at it than others.


What Is a Personality Trait?


A trait is a quality that we describe to a person.  This quality is an adjective, so to make it a noun we add “ness”.  If someone comes across as agreeable, then we may call the trait agreeableness.  Personality traits are heritable and are shaped by our genes and environment.  If we make the assumption that a trait over time becomes stable, then we have to figure out how to separate it from the interaction of any given situation.  The only way to do this is to take multiple observations and measurements across many different situations and come up with a global or average figure that we hope is independent of the situation that we observe.

But we can’t ever truly separate the situation from the individual because then the trait wouldn’t exist since it is an interaction based on inputs from our environment.  The field of psychology, moreover, can’t observe people over long periods of time and in different situations.  The field relies on self-assessments which must be reliable—make consistent measurements—and valid—measure what it says it does.  There are statistical methods that help determine how sound the measurements are by uncovering the most fundamental sub-traits of the assessment.  For narcissism, the fundamental sub-traits have been established from a factor analysis.


Self-Evaluations Don’t Work?


In looking at the statements from the narcissistic personality inventory or NPI from figure 1 below, these apply to everyone since we are born narcissistic and have a pervasive need to feel special, unique, and valued (ii).  There is a scale that grades the degree of narcissism if we were to take the NPI, but I don’t take it seriously for the pathological cases since narcissists protect their image.  I reject the test because narcissists are self-conscious and know that the test is evaluating how special we think they think they are.


  1. Authority, e.g. ‘‘I have a natural talent for influencing people’’;
  2. Exhibitionism, e.g. ‘‘I will usually show off if I get the chance’’;
  3. Superiority, e.g. ‘‘I am an extraordinary person’’;
  4. Entitlement, e.g. ‘‘I will never be satisfied until I get all that I deserve’’;
  5. Exploitativeness, e.g. ‘‘I find it easy to manipulate people’’;
  6. Self-Sufficiency, e.g. ‘‘My achievements are of my own making’’;
  7. Vanity, e.g. ‘‘I like to show off my body’’

Figure 1: Factor Analysis Reveals Fundamental Sub-Traits


Inflated or Genuine Self-Esteem?

All of the sub-traits above with the exception of exploitativeness are positively correlated with self-esteem and happiness.  Arguably, exploitativeness, however, is what gives it its pathological designation in its extreme forms.  Extreme narcissists have high but unstable self-esteem, and it is argued that they maintain it in a maladaptive way because they are sensitive to feelings of shame (iii).

Narcissists are much more driven to get ahead than to get along.  Narcissism is associated with the need to dominate others and the need to achieve superior resources.  In contrast, authentic self-esteem is much more associated with the desire to establish deep, intimate relationships with others.

The issue is if this type of self-esteem is authentic or inflated.  It is a fact that we have to navigate our social hierarchy, so it is possible that narcissists are just more sensitive to the hierarchy and engage in ego-defense strategies that are helpful to them at the cost of others.  That is what I’d like to explore in the next post because the causes of pathological narcissism are fascinating.


Notes:

i) I think it is important to look at the causes of having a morality that is not well developed.  Is it because they have callous traits, they do what the situation allows them to get away with, or is it a complex combination of both?

ii) As far as classifying narcissism in its extreme forms as pathological, I believe it is a case of morality in action.  But this trait is normally distributed within populations—it has a bell-shaped or Gaussian distribution, which shouldn’t be surprising as it is a natural phenomenon.  Any skepticism I have had on its existence has been quelled by identical twin studies.

iii) Feelings of being “less than” or “not enough” come from shame.  Shame comes from our self-esteem system.  Our self-esteem system was designed to maximize our social inclusion with others, and we are rewarded (feelings of pride) when we are accepted and approved of and punished (feelings of shame) when we fall short of standards.


References

[1] Hotchkiss, Sandy. “Why Is It Always About You?: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism.”

[2] Malkin, Dr. Craig. “Rethinking Narcissism.”

[3] Mischel, Walter. Introduction to Personality: Toward an Integrative Science of the Person, 8th Edition. Wiley Higher Ed.