A recent study found that narcissism, often associated with self-centeredness and arrogance, can actually have a positive impact on mental health thanks in part to a quality known as “mental toughness.” The findings, published in Journal of Psychiatric Research, shed light on the relationship between so-called “dark” personality traits and mental well-being across various cultures.
Prior research had shown that grandiose narcissism, which involves an inflated sense of self-importance, may be linked to lower levels of psychopathology. However, most of this research had been conducted in Western countries, raising questions about the universality of these findings. The team aimed to investigate whether these associations held true across diverse cultural backgrounds.
“This research is a direct extension of previous work that we have conducted on the indirect negative association between grandiose (but not vulnerable) narcissism and symptoms of depression,” explained study author Kostas A. Papageorgiou, an associate professor at and the director of the InteRRaCt Lab at Queen’s University Belfast.
“We have shown previously that grandiose narcissism is associated with lower levels of depression through resilience. This time, we wanted to understand whether this result replicates across various different cultures. I am interested in this topic because while we are all very much aware of the negative characteristics and outcomes of “dark” traits, we know little about their potential positive outcomes.”
For their new study, the researchers collected data from five independent national samples, recruiting participants through advertisements on social networks and word of mouth. These participants hailed from the United Kingdom, Greece, Italy, Russia, and Canada, providing a broad cross-cultural perspective.
In total, the study involved 3,649 participants, each completing a series of questionnaires online. These questionnaires assessed various psychological constructs, including the Dark Triad traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy), mental toughness, and symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.
To measure personality traits, the study employed the Short Dark Triad questionnaire, which assesses subclinical levels of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Participants provided responses on a scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” to statements like “People see me as a natural leader” and “Payback needs to be quick and nasty.”
Mental toughness was assessed using the 10-item Mental Toughness Questionnaire (MTQ10), which gauges qualities like challenge, commitment, control, and confidence. Participants rated statements such as “I generally feel in control” on a similar scale.
To evaluate mental health outcomes, the researchers employed the Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Scale (DASS-21). This scale measured the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress through statements like “I found it difficult to relax” and “I felt that life was meaningless.”
Papageorgiou and his colleagues found that individuals with higher levels of grandiose narcissism tended to report fewer symptoms related to depression, anxiety, and stress. Importantly, the researchers found evidence that mental toughness mediated the relationship between narcissism and these symptoms. In other words, narcissistic individuals tended to exhibit higher levels of mental toughness. This mental toughness, in turn, appeared to help them cope with stress, anxiety, and depression more effectively.
The results of this study challenge our preconceptions about narcissism and its impact on mental health. Instead of viewing narcissism solely as a negative trait, the findings suggest that it may have adaptive qualities, particularly in terms of resilience and self-belief.
“I do not want people to think that this research is trying to rehabilitate narcissism or that we need more narcissists,” Papageorgiou told PsyPost. “I want people to entertain (without necessarily accepting) the thought that narcissism and other ‘dark’ traits should not be seen as either good or bad but as products of evolution and expressions of human nature that may be adaptive or maladaptive–for the individual or the society–depending on the context.”
“In this case, we know that individuals that score high on symptoms of depression often have an unrealistic view of themselves, they self-devaluate; individuals scoring high on grandiose narcissism also have an unrealistic view of themselves, they self-enhance. In this sense, grandiose narcissism can be seen as the polar opposite of symptoms of depression. As such, one can ‘use’ grandiose narcissism to escape from negative feelings or to perform under stress when one does not want to spend cognitive resources self-doubting.”
The findings on narcissism were consistent across all five cultural groups, suggesting that the link between grandiose narcissism and mental toughness is a universal phenomenon.
“As mentioned earlier, the study’s main finding was reported by us previously,” Papageorgiou said. “What surprised us this time, was how stable the findings were across five countries. Grandiose narcissism was associated with lower symptoms of depression in the UK, Canada, Russia, Greece and Italy. This shows that despite cultural and socioeconomic differences grandiose narcissism appears to be a positive characteristic in terms of resilience against common psychopathology.”
While grandiose narcissism showed consistent positive effects on mental toughness and mental health across cultures, the results for Machiavellianism and psychopathy were more complex. These traits, associated with manipulation and a lack of empathy, exhibited weaker and sometimes positive associations with mental toughness. In some cases, the indirect effects of Machiavellianism on mental health outcomes were not significant. This suggests that the impact of these traits on mental health may vary depending on individual and cultural factors.
But the study, like all research, it is not without limitations. One key limitation is its cross-sectional nature, which means that it cannot establish causal relationships between variables. Future research should aim to conduct longitudinal studies to explore the directionality of these associations.
“The study has many limitations,” Papageorgiou said. “To name a few, we still need to understand the mechanism through which grandiose narcissism links to resilience. We also need to go deeper into understanding why the observed effect differs in size across cultures. Most importantly, in the present study reliance on self-report measures may be problematic.”
“Specifically, it could be that individuals high in grandiose narcissism may not objectively possess greater resilience and lower levels of psychopathology; rather, their perception of resilience could be inflated due to overconfidence. As such, while self-report methods hold value, it is important to acknowledge the possibility that self-perceptions might not align with objective reality. Narcissistic individuals may believe themselves to be more resilient, but this should be approached cautiously and should be investigated further.”
The study, “Grandiose narcissism indirectly associates with lower psychopathology across five countries“, was authored by Kostas A. Papageorgiou, Andrew Denovan, Neil Dagnall, Elena Hill-Artamonova, Foteini-Maria Gianniou, Sofia Papageorgiou, Rachel A. Plouffe, Christopher Marcin Kowalski, Donald H. Saklofske, Theodoros Kyriazos, Anastasios Stalikas, and Giulio Costantini.