Neuroimaging study: Narcissists feel distressed rather than gratified when viewing themselves

A fixation on one’s physical appearance is the hallmark of narcissism. But new research suggests that highly narcissistic people experience emotional distress rather than gratification when they see an image of themselves.

The Austrian researchers behind the study, who published their findings in the journal Scientific Reports, used brain imaging technology to examine the neural correlates of narcissistic self-viewing.

“Narcissism is a topic of increasing interest to science and the public, probably because cultural changes in the past decades favor narcissistic behavior,” explained Emanuel Jauk of the University of Graz. “Our study was aimed at taking a closer look at the self-image of narcissistic individuals using neuroscience, which might help to unveil its less conscious aspects.”

The researchers selected 21 German individuals who scored very high on a measure of narcissism and 22 who scored very low from a pool of more than 600 people who were pre-screened with the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. The participants were shown pictures of themselves, their close friends and strangers while the researchers monitored their brain activity with an fMRI.

Highly narcissistic men displayed brain activity that indicated negative affect and conflicting emotional processing when viewing themselves. In particular, they displayed increased activation in the dorsal and ventral anterior cingulate cortex — the latter of which is known to be involved in the processing of negative self-referential material.

The key finding, Jauk said, is that “narcissism, in terms of an inflated self-view, goes along with negative affect towards the self on an involuntary level.”

“This points to an ambiguity or conflict in the self-image of narcissistic people,” he explained to PsyPost. “This phenomenon is well known to therapists, for instance, but probably less so to the public. We think that our study can help raise awareness that narcissistic individuals are not simply “bad” people, but that narcissism is a way of expressing conflicts in self-related beliefs and feelings.”

The main limitation of the study is its sample, which was relatively small.

“Our study found differences in brain activation only between high and low narcissistic men, but not women,” Jauk said. “While it is generally in line with previous literature that male narcissists display more emotionally maladaptive characteristics, more research is need to understand the specifics of narcissistic women.”

The study, “Self-viewing is associated with negative affect rather than reward in highly narcissistic men: an fMRI study“, was also co-authored by Mathias Benedek, Karl Koschutnig, Gayannée Kedia and Aljoscha C. Neubauer.