Narcissists eventually figure out they are not especially socially valued

The incidence of narcissism is generally thought to be on the rise, and recently published research sought to examine how aware narcissists may be of their social status and popularity.

In their studies, Erika Carlson and Nicole Lawless DesJardins rely on a narcissism definition from Raskin & Terry, who define grandiose narcissism as “entitlement and need for admiration, vanity, a belief that one is special, and a tendency to manipulate others.”

The authors make a distinction between social status and popularity, noting that authority and respect in the eyes of others are key considerations in social status, while being well liked best defines popularity. In explaining how narcissists may maintain status and popularity over time, three patterns emerge. A narcissist may sustain a maintenance pattern, the initial realization of status and popularity; a waning pattern describes the initial achievement of status and popularity, but then the loss of both; a null pattern involves no achievement of status or popularity.

Participants in the first study included 133 undergraduate men and women from a university located in the Midwest. Personality description of participants was provided by informant friends, with average length of acquaintance two years.  Study participants, who were not acquainted, met in small groups and provided self and peer ratings of status and popularity.  The Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), was completed to assess overall grandiose narcissism, in addition to four specific subscales (leadership/authority; self-absorption/self-admiration; superiority/arrogance; exploitativeness/entitlement). Status was measured by participants on one scaled item: “has high status, influence or respect.” Popularity, also measured on a scaled item, measured “how much they liked group members . . . and how much they thought their group members, in general, liked them.”

As compared to participants lower in narcissism, those with higher levels reported initially attaining more status, although this was not the case for popularity. While narcissists were accurate in their perception of having higher status, they inaccurately judged themselves to be more popular, overestimating their popularity.

In a second study, Carlson and Lawless-Desjardins focused on longer term perceptions of status and popularity by examining narcissistic beliefs over a period of four months. A total of 94 participants were placed in the small, unacquainted groups, meeting once a week for 10 to 20 minutes, primarily discussing material from a psychology course focused on personality. Ratings related to status and popularity were collected three times at six week intervals. Approximately two weeks after the group began, the NPI was completed, participants described their own personality, and informant friends were nominated to describe their friends’ personality.

During these first four months of acquaintanceship, those participants higher in narcissism were more inclined toward initially attaining status, then losing their status; this lends support to the waning pattern for status. While participants were not necessarily higher in popularity, supporting the null pattern for popularity, those higher on the NPT were inclined to perceive they were more popular and over-estimated their popularity.

Of interest is the finding that narcissists seemed to comprehend their status was lost over time, since at the end of four months, they did not perceive either high or low status or popularity, and the over estimation of social value did not occur.

A third study of 73 participants explored narcissists’ belief about those attributes which contribute to status. Results suggest that narcissists’ believe their narcissistic tendencies are of benefit, that essentially, “their narcissism gets them ahead.” This sense of getting ahead, however, is short lived and “in the long run, and eventually, they seemed to be aware that they were not especially socially valued.”

“This subjective experience likely makes first impression contexts more rewarding than later stages of acquaintanceship and might explain why they prefer short-term relationships,” the researchers said.

The study, which includes findings related to specific narcissistic personality traits and subscale items from the NPI, is published in the July issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

4 Comments

  1. Speaking as the unfortunate daughter of a textbook narcissist, I can assure you – they do not all grasp this concept over time. Haven’t had contact with him in nearly 30 years and it’s blissful not to have to deal with it. Wish my siblings would grasp that they don’t have to, either…

  2. I definitely think that narcissists grasp the concept of their dwindling social value, in fact, I think they’re haunted by it, but I don’t think narcissists genuinely believe they are more popular than in reality. I think they’re trying to convince themselves that they are, but with the awareness that they aren’t, and that narcissism is a complex response to a subjective sense of failure or in lacking approval from others. We like to think of narcissists as only thinking of themselves but really they can’t stop thinking of others. How others perceive them, if they’re liked or not. What they’re going to say next to get the response from someone else they’re looking for. Its all in context to other people, albeit from a completely reward oriented perspective. They were invalidated as kids and developed addictions for approval. And the more you pursue an ideal, the less likely you are to find it, which perpetuates the invalidation, and reinforces the invalidated response.

    • Interesting ideas. I think the root causes are probably more varied though. Such as, maybe as a kid they received a lot of validation. When they moved away from their parents influence they began to realize that others will not treat them as their parents did. They feel a deficit of the kinds of attention they want, but can’t imagine that perhaps they were not as special as their parents led them to believe.

      • Special relative to what? Others? We may be born with a need to succeed, but to be generally special is an ideal, and the more one pursues an ideal, the less likely they are to find it, which perpetuates the invalidation and reinforces the invalidated response.

        I think any real circumstance can illicit a failure response, but that narcissism is a complex response, one habituated over time, among many. I also think that nervous behavior, self defeating behavior, sadistic and vindictive behavior, and responses relating to superiority and inferiority are also failure responses.

        Also, I think that although there is consistency between people due to genetic factors, that its the differences in our circumstances that often account for the differences in our personalities, and why some responses are more common than others. But as a nihilist I am inclined to assume that we are the sum of our parts, rather than being influenced by unknowable hidden factors. A response to my own circumstances, perhaps