Hardly a week goes by without news of another shocking new story involving the misbehavior of a famous public figure. Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer are only two of the latest to come back from what seemed to be political death. We marvel at their descent but even more at their ascent when, weeks to years later, they step back into the limelight, seeking to reconnect to their previous glorified state. What personality qualities lead people to commit these blatant abuses of their power? Once they’ve fallen from grace, what could possibly protect them from the shame of ridicule and disdain they’re likely to experience should they try to crawl back from their hole?
Closer to home, we all know ordinary people in our circle of family and friends who routinely seek to be welcomed back into the fold after being caught in equally blatant, though less broadly known, web of lies, cheating and exploitation. Could the rich and famous who misbehave share personal qualities with these lesser known, but equally shame-proof violators of social norms?
We typically associate lack of regret or remorse over behavior that exploits or hurts others with psychopathy, the personality trait central to antisocial personality disorder. Put psychopathy together with the self-centeredness of narcissism and a joy in twisting other people’s will to their own (“Machiavellianism”), and you’ve got psychology’s “dark triad.” However, you may not to have to go far beyond narcissism alone to explain the otherwise inscrutable search for forgiveness of the bad boys and girls who seem oblivious to type of reputation damage that would cripple the rest of us.
Although narcissists project an image of self-confidence as well as self-absorption, the traditional psychological understanding of their central defining trait is that it forms the hard core surface around a very weak and vulnerable inner, marshmallow-like, sense of self. This is the “mask” of narcissism. The strong and resilient façade disguises the vulnerable and insecure true self that seeks to be approved and admired. However, researchers now see narcissism as multi-faceted. A bit of the right kind of narcissism can make someone a great leader. Too much of the wrong kind, the kind that lives behind the mask, and you have leaders with the potential to disregard public scorn, no matter how far they deviate from social conventions.
Personality psychologists who study narcissism believe, then, that it comes into two flavors. Pathological narcissism is the version behind the mask. People high in pathological narcissism become miserable when things don’t go their way, particularly when they are forced to confront their inadequacies by others who shun them and cause them to feel small. The “normal” variety of narcissism is found to more or less a degree in everyone.
At best, people high in normal narcissism tend to be outgoing (extraverted) but at worst, they have a strong sense of entitlement, expecting others to go out of their way to make their lives easier and better. Both pathological and normal narcissism contain maladaptive elements, but the balance is shifted toward adaptive in the normal form. Leaders may be high on healthy narcissism and perform decades of service to their profession or the public without incident. Add in a dose of the pathological variety, however, and they disappear behind the grandiosity that masks their inner feelings of weakness.
Oakland University psychologist Virgil Zeigler-Hill teamed up with Sapir College (Israel) psychologist Avi Besser to investigate how the yin and yang of narcissism relate to people’s daily experiences. In a May 2013 paper published as part of a series on narcissism in the Journal of Personality Assessment, they reported on a study of 372 undergraduates in the U.S. (predominantly women) who they tracked for 4 days, asking them to report each day on which events they experienced and how they felt about themselves. Zeigler-Hill and Besser predicted that the two types of narcissism would relate differently to fluctuations in the participants’ self-esteem from day to day.
The study’s key findings pertained to the effect of a good day or a bad day on the participants depending on their levels of the good and bad forms of narcissism. The individuals with high levels of vulnerable narcissism tended to feel worst about themselves on days when others either rejected or argued with them. However, if they also were high on the leadership facet of healthy narcissism, these potentially damaging events had little effect on them. As the authors state “the facets of narcissism that concerns leadership appears to preserve the self-esteem of individuals in the face of social rejection or exclusion” (p. 258). Similarly, people high in “grandiose exhibitionism” were able to keep their heads held high even on days that caused their less narcissistic peers to question their self-worth.
It’s important to remember that these findings stem from a sample of (largely) female undergrads whose personalities are still evolving. However, if the buffering effects of narcissism show up in these relatively healthy young adults, how might they be exaggerated even more in older individuals higher on the narcissism scale?
To answer this question, think about what happens to the “healthy” narcissists who enter public life. They start out with qualities that lend themselves well to positions of leadership. Perhaps they seek the “bauble reputation” to meet their inner needs for approval. However, they achieve success because they don’t mind being out there in the public eye and have a clear idea of how they can provide answers to other people’s problems.
Once in the public eye, though, they start to enjoy the benefits that their fame and authority command- the "narcissistic bubble." People bow and scrape to them. The “yes men” and “yes women” tell them that they’re great, and blame others (the media, the other party, anyone convenient to blame) for whatever problems the great ones encounter. They’re treated as special. They don’t have to enter a building through the normal route. People fix their hair and makeup, clothe them in luxurious designer apparel, and offer them perks from jewelry to cars to luxury hotel suites and the best seats at exclusive events. It doesn’t take long for all of this to (a) get to their head and (b) feel pretty good.
Now the great leader, shielded from normal social controls, gets caught. It hurts, but not as much as the pain of losing all that they’ve come to enjoy from life’s pleasures. The mask of narcissism protects them from feeling truly ashamed and they rationalize their behavior in a kind of Defense Mechanism 101 of denial, projection, and repression. Although it’s painful to be brought in front of the media’s glaring criticism, the agony is short-lived. Over the ensuing weeks or months, that pain comes to be replaced by the pangs of desire for returning to their glory days. As their aides (and perhaps spouses) flock to their side, they seek the “fix” of fame and all that it entails.
Let’s not forget the role that we, the audience, play in these dramas. We all like a tale of redemption. As disgusted as we are by those flaunt their power, we are equally attracted to the possibly that they (and we?) could overcome our own tragic flaws. Of course, there’s a bit of schadenfraude in seeing the mighty bow to the people’s power, but at the same time, we’re forgiving. We cheer the heroes as they climb back up from their degraded positions at the bottom of the publicity heap. Surely if they can overcome their weaknesses, so can we. We turn a blind eye to their flaws, just as we would hope someone would accept us with our own moral slip-ups.
And so the media circuses of the Anthony Weiner’s and Eliot Spitzer’s will continue. I don’t know whether either of them would score high on the narcissism scales such as those used by Zeigler-Hill and Besser. However, their patterns of behavior suggest a scenario that could very well fit the pattern described by this research.
We might wonder whether, over time, people high in these narcissistic traits can change. Are they forever condemned to hiding behind the façade they create of protecting their fragile egos? Luckily, narcissism is not only one of the most heavily-investigated areas in psychology, but it is also one of the richest in terms of therapeutic interventions. A narcissist may resist seeing hard truths in that mirror they study, but over time, they may be persuaded to take a peek.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Zeigler-Hill, V., & Besser, A. (2013). A glimpse behind the mask: Facets of narcissism and feelings of self-worth. Journal Of Personality Assessment, 95(3), 249-260. doi:10.1080/00223891.2012.717150