A series of studies published in the Journal of Research in Personality suggests that the traits of vulnerable narcissism and a negative view of the past are associated with similar personality profiles. Both concepts were associated with high neuroticism and antagonism, low self-esteem, and a negative memory bias.
Narcissism is a personality trait characterized by self-importance, self-entitlement, and hostility. The trait can be expressed in one of two ways — grandiose narcissism or vulnerable narcissism. A grandiose narcissist attempts to maintain their self-esteem by promoting themselves, garnering praise, and derogating others. Vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, protect their self-esteem by drawing away, entertaining fantasies of being better than others while avoiding shame.
Study authors Marcin Zajenkowski and his team wanted to dig deeper into the concept of vulnerable narcissism, proposing that the trait may be defined by a negative view of the past. For example, evidence suggests that vulnerable narcissists demonstrate increased rumination, a more negative conceptualization of past events, and recall more adverse childhood experiences.
The researchers examined seven data samples to explore how a person’s view of the past would relate to individual differences in vulnerable narcissism. The studies involved a total of 1,271 participants, most of whom were undergraduate university students. Questionnaire assessments differed, but all studies included measures of vulnerable narcissism and a negative view of the past. Additional measures included self-esteem, life satisfaction, the Big Five Personality Traits, antagonism, and recalled early traumatic experiences.
First, across all seven samples, vulnerable narcissism and a negative view of the past were positively and strongly correlated. The two concepts also shared a similar psychological profile — both traits were positively related to neuroticism and behavioral inhibition, but negatively related to agreeableness, conscientiousness, and extraversion. Vulnerable narcissism and negative past view were also related to some of the same intrapersonal and interpersonal outcomes. Both constructs tended to be negatively linked to well-being and self-esteem and positively linked to antagonism.
Nevertheless, differences emerged between the traits. Vulnerable narcissism more strongly predicted antagonism, which may suggest that “antagonism is more characteristic of vulnerable narcissists, especially low empathy and concern for others as indicated by their lower levels of the compassion facet.” By contrast, negative views of the past more strongly predicted well-being and self-esteem. According to the study authors, this falls in line with past studies showing that, beyond other personality traits, a negative view of the past robustly predicts “affective states, life satisfaction, and self-esteem.”
The researchers additionally considered the psychological mechanism behind this tendency to view the past through a negative lens. One study found that both vulnerable narcissism and negative past view were associated with higher reports of past trauma, which could suggest that vulnerable narcissists experience a greater number of traumatic events. But a subsequent study uncovered a memory recall bias — revealing that people with higher narcissism and negative past view spontaneously recalled more negative experiences. This suggests that a memory bias is partly behind the tendency for vulnerable narcissists to see the past in a negative light.
Among limitations, some of the assessed variables were only included in a few of the studies, preventing the researchers from reporting on meta-analytic effects. Still, Zajenkowski and his team say that their overall findings add to the understanding of vulnerable narcissism by highlighting a negative view of the past as a key aspect of the trait. “We found that the two constructs overlapped especially in the case of antagonism (i.e., hostility) and low self-esteem,” they say. “It is likely that the concentration on adverse experiences from one’s past drives malevolence and negative self-evaluation among vulnerable narcissists.”
The study, “Narcissus locked in the past: Vulnerable narcissism and the negative views of the past”, was authored by Marcin Zajenkowski, Radosław Rogoza, Oliwia Maciantowicz, Joanna Witowska, and Peter K. Jonason.