The two expressions of narcissism — grandiosity and vulnerability — are more closely related at high levels of grandiose narcissism, according to a study published in the Journal of Personality. The findings may help resolve the disagreement between personality and clinical models of narcissism.
With renewed scientific interest in narcissism, scholars continue to disentangle the features that make up the personality trait. One open question is whether the grandiose and vulnerable facets of narcissism are unrelated or whether they tend to co-occur.
Grandiose narcissism is defined by self-entitlement, a sense of superiority, and a need for admiration. Vulnerable narcissism is characterized by a sense of entitlement but also an anxious and avoidant nature. Personality researchers who study the general population tend to view grandiose and vulnerable facets as independent traits that do not correlate with each other. On the other hand, clinicians observing patients with clinical levels of narcissism tend to report both expressions of narcissism occurring within the same person.
“Grandiose and vulnerable narcissism are usually seen as largely independent traits in personality research, but clinical evidence suggests that both go hand in hand in individuals with narcissistic pathology,” explained study author Emanuel Jauk, a researcher and clinical psychologist at the Medical University of Graz.
Jauk and his team proposed that a potential explanation for these two differing approaches is a nonlinear relationship between the two facets of narcissism. The researchers proposed that at low levels of grandiose narcissism, grandiosity and vulnerability are unrelated. But at high levels of grandiose narcissism, the two facets become linked. The researchers found preliminary support for this idea in two initial studies and then launched an individual data meta-analysis to explore further.
“In two previous works, we aimed to synthesize these perspectives in a nonlinear model,” Jauk said. “In the present meta-analysis, we evaluated this model drawing on a large pool of data from different labs and found support for the hypothesis that narcissistic vulnerability increases at high levels of narcissistic grandiosity.”
Jauk and his colleagues identified studies conducted within the past eight years that included specific measures of narcissism. These studies assessed grandiose and vulnerable narcissism using either the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI)/ Hypersensitive Narcissism Scale (HSNS) or the Five-Factor Narcissism Inventory (FFNI). In all, 22 studies were included in the analysis for a total of over 18,000 participants.
The analysis revealed evidence of nonlinearity between vulnerable and grandiose narcissism, which suggested that vulnerable narcissism increased at high levels of grandiosity. More specifically, at lower versus higher levels of grandiosity, there was a substantial difference in slope between the vulnerable and grandiose facets. And the more grandiosity increased, the bigger the difference in slopes.
These findings suggest that the reason personality and clinical views of narcissism seem to clash is because they are describing different subpopulations. It seems that grandiose and vulnerable narcissism are relatively independent when grandiosity is low, but coexist when grandiosity is high. The study authors said this may be because people with high levels of grandiosity are more likely to experience vulnerable episodes. These vulnerable episodes are then reflected in self-ratings of trait vulnerable narcissism, leading to a relationship between grandiose and vulnerable facets.
“Individuals with high levels of grandiosity display – on average – also higher narcissistic vulnerability,” Jauk told PsyPost. “We think that this is an important finding because it shows that those who present as highly self-confident are also more likely to experience episodes of self-consciousness and shame.”
But the study, like all research, includes some limitations.
“The study draws on a very large amount of data, but these encompass only trait questionnaires, why this study cannot directly speak to the question of fluctuations between grandiose and vulnerable states,” Jauk said. “Our next works will focus on longitudinal observations to understand how and why these fluctuations take place. Interpersonal factors might play an important role here.”
“Interestingly, we found that high grandiosity is more likely to be accompanied by vulnerability as age increases,” he added. “We think that this might be the case because potentially ego-threatening events such as job loss or divorce, or declines in physical performance or attractiveness are more likely to occur with increasing age.”
The study, “The nonlinear association between grandiose and vulnerable narcissism: An individual data meta-analysis”, was authored by Emanuel Jauk, Lisa Ulbrich, Paul Jorschick, Michael Höfler, Scott Barry Kaufman, and Philipp Kanske.