A year-long study of adults in Germany found that narcissism, the tendency to overlook the feelings and needs of others and react with rage, and defiance when threatened reduced positive and increased negative friendship experiences. The study was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Relationships with other people fulfill the fundamental human need to belong. They are crucial for mental and physical health, happiness and the overall well-being. However, relationships need to be maintained in order to stay satisfying. This involves behaviors that support the continuity and development of the relationship. If these are absent, the relationship suffers and can be dissolved. Behaviors that support friendships and interpersonal relationships in general include providing support and assurance, self-disclosure, spending time together and constructive problem solving.
While normal to most people, these behaviors can be quite challenging to people with pronounced narcissistic traits. When they first meet someone, persons with pronounced narcissism tend to be charming, self-assured and entertaining (narcissistic admiration), but in the long term their behaviors quickly change to selfish, insensitive and aggressive (narcissistic rivalry). Due to this, their relationships tend to oscillate between idealization and devaluation. This provides a very weak foundation for building long-term relationships such as friendships.
Having this in mind, Caroline Wehner and Matthias Ziegler wanted to study how the two aspects of narcissism – narcissistic admiration and rivalry – affect the quality of long-term friendships and vice versa. To do this, they collected data from 831 study participants from all over Germany recruited through social media platforms, flyers and email lists on four occasions, that were each three months apart.
The average age of participants was 26.2, although there were participants as old as 79. 80.6% of participants were female. Around half of participants reported having finished secondary education, while another 32% reported tertiary education. 65% of participants were students.
Participants completed assessments of narcissism (Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Questionnaire at the start of the study and an abbreviated version of this instrument at the second and last study point) and friendship quality (the Network of Relationship Inventory).
The friendship quality assessment assessed four aspects of friendship quality – “appreciation (e.g., “How much does your friend like or approve of the things you do?”), conflict (e.g., “How often are you and your friend angry with or get mad at each other?”), dominance (e.g., “How often does your friend assert him/herself, when you disagree?”), and intimacy (e.g., “How often do you share secrets and private feelings with your friend?”)”. Participants completed this assessment having in mind their “best or at least a close friend.”
Assessments were completed online and, in return for participation, participants received feedback on different personality traits, while psychology students additionally received course credit.
Results showed that narcissistic rivalry leads to less positive and more negative experiences in social relationships. “This finding shows that in particular in friendships of individuals scoring higher in rivalry, positive aspects of friendship quality are missing, which might be a reason why those scoring higher in rivalry generally have fewer close friendships,” the study authors wrote. Higher levels of narcissistic rivalry were associated with lower appreciation and intimacy.
Both narcissistic admiration and rivalry were linked to higher levels of conflict in a friendship and the level of conflict did not change on average during the one-year period of the study. The researchers said that this means that perceived conflict did not necessarily lead to relationship dissolution.
Additionally, when changes through the studied timepoint were considered, appreciation was found to influence later narcissistic rivalry and was influenced by narcissistic admiration and rivalry. “Thus, not feeling appreciated was related to subsequent increases in narcissistic rivalry, while more agentic and antagonistic behavior was related to subsequently lower perceptions of appreciation,” the study authors concluded.
This longitudinal study provides important insights into the interplay of narcissistic traits and friendship quality experiences. However, it should be noted that most of the participants were female and young adults. Additionally, two-thirds of the sample were students and all participants were from Germany. Results might not have been the same on males, older participants and different cultures.
The study, “Narcissism and friendship quality: A longitudinal approach to long-term friendships”, was authored by Caroline Wehner and Matthias Ziegler from the Humboldt-Universitat zu Berlin.