A person’s body morphology does not appear to provide a reliable cue regarding their level of narcissism, according to new research published in Collabra: Psychology. But the study indicates that people incorrectly assume that individuals with greater bodily attractiveness and physical strength have more narcissistic personality traits.
The corresponding author of the research, Julia Stern, told PsyPost that there were two primary reasons to investigate the link between narcissism and body shape.
“First, I am interested in researching first impressions, as they have a surprisingly large impact on future social interactions,” said Stern, a researcher at the University of Bremen in Germany. “I am curious about finding out how people form first impressions about others, on which information they rely their impression and whether the impression is accurate.”
“The reason why we focus on narcissism in this study is the surprising fact that we usually have very positive first impressions of narcissistic people, but drastically change our impression when getting to know the person better. Given all the negative social consequences that close interactions with narcissistic people can have, we thought it is crucial to find out on which presumably positive traits first impressions regarding narcissism are based.”
“Second, related to the first point, we chose to focus on body morphology due to previous research, but also common stereotypes suggesting that narcissists might put a lot of effort in beautification of their outward appearance, e.g. by trying to achieve an attractive looking body,” Stern explained.
In the new study, 110 participants viewed a series of images of male or female bodies and rated their perceived narcissism. The images were comprised of high-resolution 3D body scans of men and women in standardized tight underwear. “To minimize the influence of confounding variables, such as facial attractiveness or skin color, all bodies were truncated above the neck and consistently colored in grey,” the researchers noted. In addition to being scanned, the men and women also squeezed a hand dynamometer to assess their physical strength.
Furthermore, the men and women completed an assessment of narcissism that measured narcissistic admiration and narcissistic rivalry. Narcissistic admiration is characterized by grandiosity and charmingness, while narcissistic rivalry is characterized by aggressiveness and asserting supremacy.
The researchers found that several body cues were associated with perceived narcissism. Those with greater general bodily attractiveness, larger shoulder-to-hip ratios, smaller waist-to-hip ratios, and greater physical strength tended to be viewed has having higher levels of narcissistic admiration and narcissistic rivalry.
“When we judge other people’s levels of narcissism, we rely on body cues related to common stereotypes of narcissistic people, in that we judge people that are more attractive, physically stronger and who have more muscular bodies as being more narcissistic,” Stern told PsyPost. “However, these impressions seem to be based on biases, as none of these body cues are related to actual levels of narcissism.”
The participants could not reliably detect narcissism based on body morphology alone. But Stern noted it is possible that other visual cues could provide accurate signals of narcissistic traits. “Our stimuli (the 3D body scans) were standardized, the faces and heads were not shown and the bodies did not contain any information on e.g. body hair,” she explained. “All this information is needed in reality to form first impressions.”
The researchers also noted another limitation. The sample consisted mostly of female undergraduate students, while most of the body scans came from young adults of European origin. “We cannot generalize our findings cross-culturally or across different age groups,” Stern said.
The study, “The Relationship Between Body Morphology and Narcissism at Zero Acquaintance“, was authored by Tjark Rode, Tobias L. Kordsmeyer, and Julia Stern.