A recent study uncovered intriguing links between dimensions of narcissism and the brain’s reaction to self-caused errors. Specifically, the research, published in the Personality Neuroscience scientific journal, indicated that individuals with high ‘rivalry’ — a dimension of narcissism — tend to be more alert to their own mistakes.
In psychological terms, narcissism encompasses a spectrum of attitudes and behaviors. Earlier research has often given us contradictory insights — namely in the realm of whether or not narcissistic individuals consciously avoid acknowledging their failures as opposed to confronting them vigilantly. This ambiguity led researchers to explore the topic in more depth, focusing on two key dimensions: narcissistic admiration and rivalry.
Narcissistic admiration relates to seeking praise from others, while narcissistic rivalry deals with putting others down to feel superior. By understanding the interplay between these dimensions and error-processing in the brain, the study aimed to shed light on the complexities of narcissistic behaviors.
The study involved a group of 89 participants, 64 females and 25 males, who were all right-handed students at the University of Cologne in Germany. By engaging in a challenging task designed to induce errors in their reaction time, and then recording brain activity during the task using advanced techniques, the scientists analyzed how different individuals responded to their own mistakes. In addition, feedback was manipulated at certain points in the test to make participants believe that they were performing poorly.
Special attention was paid to certain brain signals, such as error-related negativity (ERN) and error positivity (Pe). Both of these are associated with the brain’s electrophysiological response to errors. They are measured using an event-related potential (ERP) technique, which involves recording the brain’s electrical activity via electrodes placed on the scalp.
Interestingly, the results pointed toward the ‘rivalry’ aspect of narcissism. Individuals who scored high in ‘rivalry’ displayed stronger early error-processing signals in the brain. In simpler terms, they were far more alert to their own mistakes. On the other hand, the study did not find a significant link between the ‘admiration’ aspect of narcissism and error-processing.
Furthermore, when feedback was manipulated to make participants believe they were performing poorly, this “ego-threat” didn’t have much effect on either of the narcissism dimensions. This suggests that the inherent challenge of the task already evoked strong responses, rendering the feedback relatively inconsequential.
While the study offers insights into the relationship between narcissism and error recognition, it is important to consider that the feedback designed to threaten participants’ egos had little effect. This may have occurred due to the task’s inherent difficulty. Moreover, participants were not directly asked if they believed the feedback, as doing so might have introduced biases. However, the multi-faceted nature of psychological narcissism leads to the overall outcome that further research could be completed to unpack certain nuances in other dimensions than simply ‘admiration’ and ‘rivalry’.
This possible research, as suggested, may come in the form of incentivizing error detection as opposed to performing highly in a task in order to cater to ‘admiration’, or finding ways to address aspects of vulnerable narcissism — a subtype of narcissistic personality disorder characterized by a combination of an appearance of self-importance coupled with a low self-esteem.
The study, “Narcissism and the perception of failure evidence from the error-related negativity and the error positivity“, was authored by Markus Mück, André Mattes, Elisa Porth, and Jutta Stahl from the University of Cologne.