A Dutch study published in the journal Psychophysiology has uncovered distinct physiological precursors to narcissism and self-esteem in young children. Four-year-olds who showed elevated skin conductance during social evaluation tended to have higher narcissism levels at age 7, while those who showed reduced skin conductance during social evaluation tended to have higher self-esteem at age 7.
As reported by countless psychology studies, self-esteem plays an important role in children’s development. For example, children with higher self-esteem tend to have lower levels of anxiety and depression and better performance in school. But some scholars have expressed concern that overly high self-esteem can turn into narcissism — a trait characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement.
Contrary to this view, study authors Eddie Brummelman and his team proposed that self-esteem and narcissism are distinct traits. The researchers proposed that self-esteem is characterized by reduced concern with social judgments since people with high self-esteem feel an intrinsic sense of self-worth. By contrast, they proposed that narcissism is defined by elevated concern with social judgments since people with high narcissism believe their self-worth is dependent on external validation.
Brummelman and his colleagues further speculated that early physiological indicators of narcissism and self-esteem can be found in the way young children respond to social evaluative contexts. The researchers focused on grandiose narcissism, a subtype of narcissism that is defined by extraversion and boastfulness.
To explore these ideas, the researchers analyzed data from a wider longitudinal study, resulting in a final analytical sample of 71 children. At age 4.5, the children visited a lab where they performed a song on stage in front of a video camera. Throughout their performance, the children’s physiological arousal was measured via skin conductance levels, heart rate, and heart rate variability. These measures were taken at three different stages: during the two-minute anticipation phase while waiting to perform, during the performance, and during the one-minute recovery phase following their performance. Three years later, when the children were aged 7.5, they completed questionnaires that assessed narcissism and self-esteem.
When analyzing this data, the study authors found that the stage performance increased the children’s physiological arousal as expected — the children showed increases in heart rate and skin conductance, and decreases in heart rate variability during the performance. Moreover, the children’s skin conductance levels were associated with their levels of narcissism and self-esteem assessed three years later.
Children who had high levels of narcissism at age 7 showed elevated skin conductance before their performance, which increased during their performance and stayed high during the recovery phase. By contrast, children who had high levels of self-esteem at age 7 showed lower overall skin conductance throughout the social task. These effects were particularly robust for self-esteem.
“Together,” Brummelman and his team say, “these findings are consistent with the view that children predisposed to high narcissism levels are more fragile and prone to social-evaluative concerns, whereas children predisposed to high self-esteem levels are more secure and able to feel comfortable in social-evaluative contexts.”
Skin conductance is believed to reflect the body’s fight or flight response, an activation of the sympathetic nervous system that prepares the body to fight or flee following stress. “This suggests that children predisposed to high narcissism levels enter a fight-or-flight mode when they anticipate being in the center of attention,” the authors say. “When maintained over long periods of time, such a response might have detrimental health consequences and help to explain why adults with high narcissism levels tend to have elevated basal oxidative stress levels (e.g., 8-OH-DG levels; Lee et al., 2020).”
The authors note several limitations to their research, such as a modest sample size that calls for future replication with a larger, more well-powered sample. They also suggest that future studies should explore possible expressions of narcissism and self-esteem that manifest earlier than age 7.
The study, “Early physiological indicators of narcissism and self-esteem in children”, was authored by Eddie Brummelman, Milica Nikolić, Barbara Nevicka, and Susan M. Bögels.