What motivates prosocial behavior in narcissists?

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Investigations of narcissism often focus on aggression and other negatively perceived traits, but a new study by Sara Konrath, Meng-Han Ho and Sasha Zarins instead examines the factors that motivate narcissists to engage in behaviors that are considered to be prosocial in nature. Prosocial behaviors can take many forms and may be a result of altruistic (self-sacrifice) or self-serving intentions, as it can often garner praise when performed in public settings.

For this study, published in Current Psychology, researchers performed three experiments to evaluate the potential association of various prosocial activities with narcissism.

The first experiment surveyed 9062 adults about completing the “ALS ice bucket challenge”. This social-media phenomenon required a person to record and post a video of themselves dumping a bucket of ice over their head or to donate $100 to the ALS Association.

Subjects indicated their level of participation in the event (hadn’t heard of it, heard but didn’t do it, challenged someone, was challenged, etc.) and then completed the Single Item Narcissism Scale. As expected, people scoring lowest in narcissism were also more likely to donate but not complete the video portion of the challenge, while those measuring highest in narcissism posted the video and did not donate at all.

Study 2 included 289 undergraduate students who completed an online survey. This time, narcissism was more thoroughly measured using the 16-item Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). The prosocial behaviors of interest were volunteering and community involvement (levels of which were obtained by self-report). Participants also completed the 23-item Prosocial Tendencies Scale to determine which of several types of prosocial behaviors they were more likely to demonstrate.

Narcissism was not found to be related to volunteering or community involvement rates. It was confirmed that narcissists are more likely to engage in public prosocial behaviors and less likely to be anonymously prosocial.

The third and final part of this investigation focused on non-formal prosocial behaviors, as opposed to the formal organizational types explored in study 2. A series of online questionnaires were completed by 800 adults, along with the 16-item NPI. Measures were also included to gauge empathy and source of behavioral motivation. Higher narcissism scores were found to be associated with reports of more frequent prosocial behaviors, less empathy and less influence of altruistic motivations/social desirability.

Taken together, the results of these experiments show that narcissism can have a significant effect on prosocial behaviors, but it does not make them less likely to occur. People rating high in narcissism actually had high rates of participation in formal and publicly visible prosocial situations, though the motivations underlying such behaviors appear to be related to personal interests.

The study was titled “The Strategic Helper: Narcissism and Prosocial Motives and Behaviors.”