Trait mindfulness enhances the effect of narcissistic rivalry on reactive aggression, according to new psychology research published in Personality and Individual Differences. The surprising findings suggest that one’s tendency to be fully engaged in the current moment without judgment can exacerbate some maladaptive tendencies associated with narcissism.
The new study was conducted to better understand the relationship between different types of narcissism and aggression. Previous studies have shown that there are different types of narcissism that are related to aggression to varying degrees, but the mechanisms linking narcissism to aggression remain unclear.
“In my daily life, I have found that some individuals almost never actively attack others, but they will quickly and sensitively make reactive aggression in certain situations,” said study author Zhaochunqiu Li of the University of Jinan.
“This has sparked my thinking: what personality factors or motivations and cognition contribute to this situation? Meanwhile, recent meta-analyses have shown that different types of narcissism and aggression exhibit different degrees of correlation. Therefore, the accuracy in measuring narcissism needs to be strengthened, and the relationship between different types of narcissism and aggression need to be explored more deeply.”
For his study, Li recruited 337 Chinese individuals through the WeChat platform to participate in an online survey. The final sample included 337 individuals, with an average age of 22.71 years (ranging from 15 to 58 years). Of the sample, 217 were women and 120 were men.
Li was particularly interested in narcissistic rivalry, a subtype of narcissism in which an individual is competitive with others, particularly those whom they perceive as competitors. They may experience envy and resentment towards these rivals and feel the need to outdo or prove themselves superior to them. Those who score high on this personality trait agree with statements such as “I think most other people are losers.”
The study found that narcissistic rivalry was positively related to reactive aggression, status-seeking motivation, and hostile attribution bias.
Reactive aggression refers to impulsive, emotionally-driven aggressive behavior that is often in response to a perceived threat or provocation, while status-seeking motivation refers to the desire to attain and maintain a high social status or position of power and influence. Hostile attribution bias refers to a tendency to interpret ambiguous or neutral actions of others as hostile or aggressive, even when there is no clear evidence to support such an interpretation.
Li found evidence that heightened status-seeking motivation and greater hostile attribution bias explained the higher levels of reactive aggression among narcissistic individuals.
“Narcissistic rivalry drives individuals’ strong desire for social status, especially in their vigilance toward environmental cues that convey information about how much the environment itself might hinder their pursuit of their goal, leading them to have a more sensitive or even overly sensitive sense of hostility toward the actions of others, resulting in them using aggressive ways to retaliate against those who they believe stand in the way of their pursuit of status,” he wrote in the study
Furthermore, the study found that mindfulness moderated the relationship between hostile attribution bias/narcissistic rivalry and reactive aggression. On the one hand, greater mindfulness weakened the link between hostile attribution bias and reactive aggression, suggesting that mindfulness may play a role in mitigating the effects of hostile attribution bias on reactive aggression.
“When you perceive hostility in others, you may avoid conflict by not processing or thinking about it, but letting it flow slowly from your mind,” Li told PsyPost.
On the other hand, the study found that greater mindfulness strengthened the link between narcissistic rivalry and reactive aggression, meaning that individuals who are more mindful and also have high levels of narcissism are more likely to react aggressively.
The study used the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) to assess trait mindfulness. Those who score high on this measure of mindfulness disagree with statements such as “I could be experiencing some emotion and not be conscious of it until some time later” and “I find it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the present.”
But Li said that mindfulness is a relatively new area of research in psychology, and the definitions for mindfulness have not been pinned down. Some researchers have focused on “second generation mindfulness,” which combines mindfulness with Buddhist moral principles, while many others have examined “first generation mindfulness,” which focuses on paying attention non-judgmentally in the moment. The MAAS measures first generation mindfulness, which may not be the same as Buddhist mindfulness.
“During my previous reading of literature, I found that some studies did not clarify MAAS measures and confused it with Buddhist mindfulness (or correct mindfulness or second generation mindfulness). Many studies refer to the content measured by MAAS as trait mindfulness, but simply using the term trait mindfulness is not enough to clearly reveal the content measured by MAAS,” Li told PsyPost.
“The actual measurement of MAAS is a mindfulness that focuses only on the present without judgment, also known as mindfulness attention awareness. Compared to Buddhist mindfulness, the mindfulness measured by MAAS does not include moral principles and lacks active evaluation and analysis of one’s own cognition and behavior based on moral principles.”
“So this study vividly demonstrates that the mindfulness that focusing solely on the present without judgment, once exploited by narcissistic rivalry, will enhance individuals’ reactive aggression. Therefore, I call on people to establish correct mindfulness in their lives, actively analyze their own cognition and behavior, and make correct adjustments and improvements,” the researcher continued.
“Although admitting one’s own shortcomings can sometimes be painful. At the same time, I call for future research to first clarify what mindfulness is and what MAAS measures, and then explore the effects of mindfulness by combining the context of Buddhism.”
The study provides valuable information for researchers and practitioners working to understand and prevent aggressive behavior. But there are a few limitations that should be taken into account. For instance, the study did not explore the causal relationships between the variables. It is unclear whether narcissistic rivalry, hostile attribution bias, and status-seeking motivation directly cause reactive aggression, or if there are other variables at play.