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.


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.


[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.


    • musing says

      There isn’t a direct opposite as far as a personality trait is concerned although the big five traits of agreeableness would be a candidate. There is the capacity of being empathetic which narcissists usually score low in. And a narcissist—I’m speaking categorically for convenience—usually has a “narcissistic supply” that includes other people that serve to maintain their self-esteem, such as empaths or codependents. However, to show that this is complex and all relative, we can be in a relationship where we are doing the bidding of our partner since they need to always have one up on us to feel confident, but in a different relationship where we may view someone as being inadequate for us and we for some reason have a lot of influence over them, we may become the narcissist. That is why I cringe over the attempts at separating personality from the situation. Furthermore, personality traits can’t predict behavior worth squat but do agree with how people tend to describe our salient or average traits. You usually have clever and pithy comments. This one was too easy to field. I hope this isn’t a loaded question, lol? Thanks for the comment WMDKitty!

  1. Numenaster, whose eyes are up here says

    ” 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?”

    The phrase “callous traits” seems misplaced here: a lack of empathy is surely an absence of positive traits rather than a specific negative trait itself, at least if we are sticking to the Big 5.

    I think it’s mostly the second option. Narcissists have important ego-defense work to do most of the time and are doing it as efficiently as they can. Mastering the framework of a morality they don’t subscribe to would be effort, and if they’re getting their needs met without faking morality they don’t see a need to invest that effort.

    • musing says

      In terms of the Big 5 traits, yes we couldn’t describe callousness. But there are callousness-unemotional traits that have been studied that could be used in principle. I agree with your last comment though.

      The reason why I make the comment on the trait of callousness is that narcissistic personality disorder is part of the dark triad, which means that Machivilleanism and psychopathy are correlated with NPD. [I’m giving this background because someone may find it interesting.] I was married to someone that I was confident met all the criteria for psychopathy. I actually went to the length of having a conversation with the expert on psychopathy by the name of Dr. Christopher Patrick. I am currently pursuing a field in social psychology, so this is relatively new to me and fascinating. The weird thing is I was able to have empathy for this person after understanding the trait. My daughter shares similar characteristics of being able to fake cry and manipulate to a scary degree. This is helpful for the corporate world, but you don’t want to cross or fall in love with someone that you have suspicion falls under the dark triad of traits.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Marja Erwin says

    Somewhat tangential, but empathy has so many meanings…

    1st, there’s the widespread politics of empathy, the insistence that evil is a lack of empathy, and therefore a lack of empathy makes someone evil, etc.

    It is possible to practice concern for everyone, or to deliberately suppress concern for some. But to the degree empathy comes from instinct instead of practice, this politics of empathy privileges instinct, with all its biases, over moral reasoning and moral choices. I think a reliance on empathy from instinct explains a lot of in-group biases.

    2nd, there’s the insistence that certain populations lack empathy. I’m autistic, so I’m said to lack empathy since we have trouble guessing allistic people’s mental states, and because allistic people have trouble guessing our mental states, and often mis-guess. There are somewhat different explanations for other groups, of course.

    3rd, the combination means that the rhetoric about empathy enables dehumanization…

    • musing says

      I agree with you that empathy can mean different things, but I don’t know if I agree that a lack of empathy makes someone evil. I think you mean that we may be more likely to perceive that people are evil if they lack empathy. I understand your preference towards a case against empathy because of autism, and you most definitely bring up an interesting point that perhaps moral reasoning should be favored over instinctive empathy. These are difficult questions, but I can appreciate your conclusion. In fact, I need to finish a book by Bloom titled “Against Empathy” before I comment any further. It’s possible though to have a purely mechanical-based morality that lacks feelings although there are a lot of good reasons why moral-based reasoning can fail us too. Again, if you developed your comment further, it would probably encourage me to finish the book and do a post on it. Thanks for your comment.

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