Study: Communal narcissist teens portray themselves as helpful — but their peers think otherwise

Teens with high levels of communal narcissism portray themselves as highly agreeable, but according to peers they engage in quite different behavior. That is the result of a new study published in the Journal of Personality.

The study made a distinction between two types of narcissism: agentic and communal. Agentic narcissists have a grandiose view of their own individual traits, such as intelligence and physical attractiveness. Communal narcissists, on the other hand, have a grandiose view of their helpfulness and conscientiousness.

The study of 136 adolescents found those who scored high on a measure of communal narcissism presented themselves as extremely helpful. However, their peers did not perceive them the same way. Communal narcissism was associated a variety of peer-reported aggressive behaviors.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Christopher T. Barry of Washington State University. Read his explanation of the research below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Barry: At first, the topic seemed seemed like an oxymoron. I was very skeptical the first time that one of my students mentioned the term “communal narcissism” to me, but when I read the work by Jochen Gebauer and colleagues on communal narcissism in adults, I wondered if meaningful individual differences on communal narcissism might be apparent in adolescence. Most importantly, when I considered the items that assess communal narcissism (e.g., “I am the most helpful person”, “I am going to solve world poverty”), I thought that having such an attitude would be really problematic in peer contexts. That is, someone who makes such self-proclamations may be especially “annoying” to peers. Our study then became mostly about how peer perceptions vary as a function of communal narcissism.

What should the average person take away from your study?

In our sample, adolescents with relatively high communal narcissism self-reported relatively higher prosocial behavior (not surprising). However, this connection did not translate to peer perceptions. In fact, those who were high on communal narcissism were seen as relatively aggressive by peers (which should be quite low in adolescents with communal narcissism if they are as great toward others as they claim to be). That is, individuals with high levels of communal narcissism might portray themselves as being supremely caring and helpful, but their peers see them in a pretty antagonistic way.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

Our sample was a relatively small sample of at-risk adolescents who attended a residential program together. Therefore, they were quite useful for gaining peer perceptions (because they lived together for about 5 months), but the generalizability to adolescents in general is limited. In addition, I think that the narcissistic part of communal narcissism is what is problematic.

If the items were “I hope to be the most helpful person” or “I try to be the best friend someone can have” instead of “I am” those things, the peer perceptions are probably quite positive. We are designing a study to look at that issue. Communalism may be quite healthy in friendships, but having a superior view of one’s communalism could be damaging.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I would emphasize the preliminary nature of our results, but they do match up with what we might think in terms of adolescent peer contexts (it’s nice to be helpful; it’s quite another thing to overblow one’s helpfulness).

The study, “Adolescent Communal Narcissism and Peer Perceptions“, was also co-authored by Joyce H. L. Lui, Lauren M. Lee-Rowland, and Erin V. Moran.