People have unique ways of thinking and seeing the world and therefore, vary in ways they process memory. New research published in the Journal of Personality found that narcissistic individuals have worse recognition memory both for social targets (faces) and nonsocial targets (objects) compared to non-narcissistic people.
“Although most adults show high proficiency in face recognition and process faces more quickly than other stimuli, they vary in how well they remember and identify those around them,” wrote study author Miranda Giacomin and colleagues.
“Although most people recognize faces easily, some individuals show developmental deficits that impair their ability to identify others (e.g., prosopagnosia [an individual’s profound inability to recognize faces] or Autism. Among those without such deficits, social and emotional functioning play a critical role in recognition ability.”
Researchers were interested in how narcissism might impact one’s memory processing. “Because the defining features of narcissism include a positive inflated sense of self and a lack of interest in meaningful interpersonal relationships, narcissists may have little motivation to attend to the social world and may be less likely to remember social and nonsocial information,” explained the study authors.
In four studies, researchers looked at how narcissism impacts recognition memory for neutral white male faces (social targets), objects (nonsocial targets), and how self-focus relates to these effects.
For Study 1, researchers recruited 332 adult participants from Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk), an online platform. Participants completed a face recognition test where they viewed 40 faces for 3 seconds each, completed some distraction tasks, and then tested on recognition. To do this, they were presented 80 faces, 40 familiar and 40 new and told to identify whether they had seen the face before or not. They also completed a measure of narcissism. Results show that overall participants tended to report seeing faces that they had not seen before. Importantly, higher narcissism scores were associated with less accuracy.
Study 2 was a replication and extension of Study 1. The procedure was largely identical to the first study, but the researchers inverted the faces from Study 1 and randomly assigned participants to see either upright or inverted faces (final sample was 261 adults). The idea behind inverting the faces is that narcissistic people tend to focus on individual pieces of information rather than a holistic picture. Thus, narcissistic people might better at recognizing the inverted faces as they are likely attuning to specific features rather than the face as a whole like a non-narcissistic person would. Results did not support this prediction. In other words, narcissistic people scored low on the memory test for both inverted and upright faces.
Study 3a, 3b, and 3c tested memory for typical household objects (final sample = 178 adults), houses (due to their visual similarities to a face; final sample = 203 adults), and cars (final sample = 274 adults), respectively. Procedure was the same as the previous two studies except with nonsocial pictures as the targets. Narcissistic participants scored lower on the memory tests for all types of nonsocial targets. Memory for cars did not vary depending on the status of the car (e.g., expensive cars = high status cars), which was contrary to the researchers’ expectations.
Study 4 expanded on the previous studies by including a measure of self-focus. “A strong self-focus, including attention to one’s appearance, is a defining feature of narcissism. Narcissists’ self-focus may inhibit their memory for both social and nonsocial stimuli,” speculated the researchers. One-hundred and eighty-seven undergraduate students were recruited for this study. The procedure also changed, and participants watched a lecture over a video conference platform. Researchers measured how much the participants looked at the lecturer in the video and how much the participants looked at themselves on their webcam screen. Participants were also given a memory test for the content that was covered in the lecture video. Results show that higher narcissism scores were associated with less memory for the lecture material, more self-reported distraction, and looking at themselves more often in the webcam screen.
Overall, results from these studies suggests that narcissistic people have worse memory in general compared to non-narcissistic people. “Devoting attention to oneself may inhibit noticing, recognizing, or remembering what is happening elsewhere; leaving narcissists particularly prone to miss and subsequently fail to remember events occurring around them,” the researchers concluded.
Researchers note some limitations of their studies. Namely, the short amount of time participants were given to remember 40 faces might have depleted participants’ short term memory capacity. Another important limitation is the correlational nature of these studies. In other words, we cannot conclude from these data alone whether narcissism causes worse memory (or vice versa).
The study, “Narcissistic individuals exhibit poor recognition memory“, was authored by Miranda Giacomin, Christopher Brinton, and Nicholas O. Rule.