Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Narcissists know they're narcissists

While positive self-views are generally considered healthy, adaptive, and attractive, OVERLY positive self-views often have social costs. For example, when I asked my friend’s boyfriend if his classes this semester were challenging, he responded as follows: “I’ve done better than EVERY OTHER student in EVERY SINGLE grad class that I’ve taken. I certainly don’t except my classes this semester to be a problem.” If you’re like me, this statement made you shudder. The sense of superiority and the overt “bragginess” screams creep. Again, if you’re like me, you aren’t surprised that I was less interested in a friendship with him the second he uttered the statement, and that when this statement was followed by similar statements later on, my friend quickly ended the relationship. Although I’m certainly not qualified to diagnose my friend’s boyfriend with any disorder, or to label him as a particular type of person, this attitude of superiority is consistent with narcissism, colloquially defined as an inflated sense of self-importance, egotism, vanity, and selfishness.

As this example demonstrates, there is often a large disconnect between narcissists’ self-perceptions (e.g. how positively he sees himself) and others’ perceptions of him (how positively his friends, coworkers, classmates, and acquaintances sees him). Interestingly, narcissists often create positive first impressions - they are initially rated as charming, likable, extraverted, and physically attractive (e.g. Back, Egloff, & Schmukle, 2010). However, overtime these impressions sour, with others progressively seeing them as disagreeable, emotionally unstable, and poorly adjusted (like my example above). Despite the deterioration of their reputation, narcissists often continue to see themselves in overly positive ways. This begs the question – are narcissists self aware? More precisely: do narcissists know that others don’t see them in such a positive light? Are they aware of their own negative characteristics? DO THEY KNOW THEY’RE NARCISSISTS?

These questions were formally examined by Erika Carlson and colleagues (2011) at Washington University in St. Louis. Carlson formally contrasted two different perspectives on narcissism. The Narcissistic Ignorance View argues that narcissists lack insight about their own personality and aren’t aware how others see them. This is the dominant view of narcissism. Alternatively, the Narcissistic Awareness View argues that narcissists do have insight about their own personality and are aware that others see them less positively than they see themselves.

To determine which view is more accurate Carlson conducted three studies that each followed a basic structure. To start with, participants completed scales or interviews that determined their level of narcissism. Then, participants completed two sets of ratings. First participants rated themselves on a variety of personality dimensions (e.g. rate your agreement with the following statement: I’m ingenious, a deep thinker). These are called the participants’ self-perceptions. Next, participants rated how they thought others saw them on those same personality dimensions (e.g. how would your coworker rate you on the following statement: He is ingenious, a deep thinker). These are the participants’ meta-perceptions (i.e. how they think others see them). Finally, that other person (e.g. the coworker) then rated the participant on those same personality dimensions (e.g. how would you rate your coworker (the participant in this study) on the following statement: He is ingenious, a deep thinker). These are called the other-perceptions.

So Carlson thus compared participants’ self-perceptions, meta-perceptions, and other-perceptions. If the Narcissistic Ignorance View was accurate, narcissists would have very positive self-perceptions and similarly, very positive meta-perceptions. They would think that others see them just as positively as they see themselves. If the Narcissistic Awareness View was accurate then narcissist would have very positive self-perceptions, but would have less positive meta-perceptions. They would see themselves very positively, but recognize that others don’t see them in such a positive light.

Using this basic design, Carlson in fact found support for the Narcissistic Awareness View across all three studies. Here are the results:

Consistent with prior studies:
  • Narcissists saw themselves very positively (positive self-perceptions)
  • Narcissists saw themselves more positively than other people saw them, whether the other person was an acquaintance, a close friend, a classmate, or a coworker (more positive self-perceptions than other-perceptions)
  • As in prior studies, others saw narcissists less and less positively as they got to know them more over time (deteriorating other perceptions)
New to this study, Carlson also found:
  • Narcissists rated themselves more positively than they believed others would rate them (self-perceptions more positive than meta-perceptions)
  • Narcissists were aware that others see them more positively initially and then like them less over time (deteriorating meta-perceptions just like other-perceptions)  
  • Narcissists rated themselves somewhat higher on negative qualities that are associated with narcissism (e.g. conceited). That is, narcissists were somewhat aware of their narcissistic traits
Given that the Narcissistic Ignorance View (which again holds that narcissists lack self-awareness) was the prevailing view of narcissism, these results are pretty extraordinary. Even more extraordinary when you consider the fact that although narcissists know that others don’t think they’re so great, they maintain their overly positive self-views anyway. How exactly do narcissists maintain such positive self-views despite others’ dislike of them? Carlson proposed a few interesting ideas. First, narcissists might believe others are just too stupid to see how amazing they truly are, or they may believe other’s negative views are simply the result of jealousy. It might also be the case that narcissists, aware of their deteriorating reputation, cut off long-term friendships and instead, maintain a flow of new acquaintances that see them as the charming and likable person they believe they are. The process by which narcissists retain their positive self-views remains an interesting and important question future work should address. Nonetheless, Carlson's results are an important, and to me, quite interesting contribution.

Have other ideas about how narcissists maintain such positive self-view? Share them in the comments section!

The article:
Carlson EN, Vazire S, & Oltmanns TF (2011). You probably think this paper's about you: narcissists' perceptions of their personality and reputation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 101 (1), 185-201 PMID: 21604895


  1. Q- How many narcissists does it take to change a lightbulb?

    A- One. The narcissist holds the bulb while the world revolves around him.

    Seriously, interesting post. I'm curious, can narcissism be viewed on a scale? If so, one could have mildly exaggerated positive self perception and not be aware that the view of others are not harmonious. What then would be the opposite end of the narcissism scale? Extremely low self-esteem? Where someone thinks they are an awful person even though others do not necessarily see them this way? Just thinking out loud here.


  2. Also, my own instinct leads me to believe that a narcissist maintains their inflated view of self by believing that others are not adequate to appreciate their greatness. I believe this based on my observations of the kids I work with. Teenagers tend to be narcissistic through some factor of normal human development. When they are called out on their BS, they tend to always turn things around and blame other people and factors rather than acknowledge they may not know everything. I work with at-risk teens and this "natural teen narcissism" is obvious everyday. Perhaps adult narcissists simply did not continue to develop past this stage, to a place where they are aware of (and give value to) the perceptions of others.

  3. Hi D.K.M-
    As always thanks for the thoughtful comments!

    So...two of the studies in this paper were conducted using a scale which measures the degree to which someone is narcissistic (called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory). On this measure participants might score higher or lower in narcissistic tendencies but are not labeled as narcissists or non-narcissists per se. In the final study participants went through a structured clinical interview and were again rated on a continuous measure of narcissism.

    I'm not sure what researchers better versed in the literature would say is the opposite of narcissism. Low self-esteem seems like a good candidate. However, some theories argue that narcissists outwardly self-aggrandizing attitude masks a fragile core of low self-esteem. An interesting possibility!

  4. It would be interesting to see the overlap between narcissistic behaviors and those of high SES/social rank people found in Kraus & Keltner (2009). Vangelisti et al. (1990) mentioned a "glossing over" behavior in narcissists - a clear sign of disengagement - but they also have many engaging behaviors which give them their initial charm. It's certainly a complex personality trait.

  5. That's interesting. To my knowledge no one has looked at the potential linkage between social class and narcissism.

  6. I'm not familiar with any research linking narcissism and social class either. A good avenue for future research!

  7. I imagine that narcissists are slightly more aware of what's going on with them because they are so caught up in thinking about themselves. Then again they might just spin their idea of their ideal self further and end up losing touch with reality. Either or I wish more people become a bit more aware of what's going on with themselves.

  8. um hate to be a smarty pants especially with what this post is about (LOL) but I think people are forgetting the third option that could be true... Perhaps some narcissists are self aware and some not... O_O I mean every human is individual right? So some will be of higher intelligence than others just like some have blue eyes and some brown so it makes sense (at least to me) that self awareness of a condition such as thiers could be based on the individual...

  9. DKM raised an interesting point for me. I think that there might be a disconnect (for narcissists) in that they are aware of the opinions of others, but do not value them. The rationalizations of that (for them) may vary but taking the perspective that narcissists are "stuck" developmentally at a young age due to some kind of trauma, it might be that they have somehow learned to cope with abusive behaviour from others (at the time) by not taking others seriously. From personal experience, I've noticed that it seems like narcissists hear you for a split second, and then dismiss whatever you said and change the topic and/or blame you. There does seem to be a short moment of real communication though, but it's always dismissed later, as if there's a split-second habitual decision to just ignore it. Perhaps in truly letting anyone's opinion in, they'd also have to face other feedback that they've managed to shut out in this way, and so they just ignore others' input unless it fits their own opinion.

  10. I agree with "Caroline" here in her observation that for a split second the narcissist does hear what other people have to say or can even take in the truth to a situation they otherwise dismiss or reconstruct into fitting in with their constructed "perfect" self...

    My experience with narcissists also tell me that their inflated selves more serves as a massive but very fragile protective shield around them, preventing the horrible truth about who they really are on the inside to come out. In my opinion the narcissist has the worst self esteem of all, or more bluntly put - a disintegrated self so suppressed under shame and guilt and feelings of being unlovable that the narcissist can not handle being confronted with his true self. And through that the fabricated inflated and ego fixated fake self emerges, to meet up to his or hers imagined expectations of others, to be perfect...

    Therefore it is my belief that the narcissist is not full of himself or in love with himself, but instead despises himself so deeply that he simply cannot be himself. And thus this complicated mixture of boastful inflation and charming social skills and constant underlying rage becomes at least somewhat understandable since it is all a hoax...

    Having to go through life like an actor being on stage 24/7 must also be exhausting, therefore the need of constant adoration and praise becomes necessary and the need for supply from other people needed...
    And that becomes a difficult conflict for the narcissist to handle, since steady supply of adoration usually comes in the form of a romantic relationship. But since romantic relationships eventually craves intimacy and reciprocity it becomes impossible for the narcissist to maintain. Intimacy depends on being able to show your true self to one another, and that is just simply impossible for the narcissist. And maintaining the perfect facade day and night towards a spouse is exhausting and eventually also impossible. And when the need for supply is not met in sufficient amount and the risk of getting exposed becomes to big, the narcissist has to begin his devaluation and discarding process before he is too malnourished of supply to be able to have energy enough to go find a new source of supply...

    In the light of this the question of whether or not the narcissist is aware or not of his condition, I think the answer is twofold. On one hand I think most narcissist's feel or know that they somehow are different from other people, but to some that might translate to better than others whereas some do think that they are the worst creatures of all... And just hope no one will find out... Wn it comes to being aware about what effect they might have on others and especially people close to them, I think it is not so much unawareness as plain lack of time space and capacity inside to also think about how others feel, when they already are completely consumed with their own existence and maintaining a false facade...

    In short, I think being a narcissist is a truly unhappy place to be... A prison even...

    1. OMG, thats me, I always knew I was diffrent, I just didnt know what,why,how... I'm 53 and been in this 'prison' since I can remember. I think im the greatest and smartest person around me, yet I know im a total looser. I quit my job of 10 years, 2 years ago, and havent even looked for work yet, fearing rejection, while thinking in my head I'd be the best asset any employer could have. I am alone in this world, I have no one, now I know why, I guess.

  11. I love your post Anna!

    I came across an article that includes research regarding narcissism and social status:
    Narcissistic Responding to Ego Threat: When the Status of the Evaluator Matters.
    Journal of Personality. Oct2009, Vol. 77 Issue 5, p1493-1526

    It is fascinating stuff as well.