Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Rich, Entitled, and Narcissistic

Socioeconomic status is a contributing factor to narcissism.

Narcissists are self-centered people who take the view that they are far more important than the people around them. They promote themselves to the exclusion of others and take other people’s successes as competition to their own. They also tend to suck the life out of groups, because they steal the limelight and push their own agenda at the expense of others.

Because of these negative influences of narcissism on relationships and in the workplace, it is valuable to understand where this collection of traits comes from.  An interesting paper in the January, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Paul Piff explores the relationship between narcissism and wealth. 

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He argues that great wealth and higher levels of social class can lead people to have a greater sense of entitlement and that sense can lead to narcissism. 

In one study, adults ranging in age from 18-72 filled out a series of surveys including two of importance for this project. One showed participants a ladder with ten rungs on it that represent people of increasing levels of income, education, and prestige and asked them to select the run they belong to. This is a measure of perceived socioeconomic status (SES).  The second measure was a questionnaire measuring people’s sense of entitlement with items like “I honestly feel that I am more deserving than others.” This study found a small positive correlation between the measure of SES and the measure of sense of entitlement. 

A second study used college students. As a measure of SES, students reported their parents’ income. As a measure of entitlement, the author used a scale that asked people to rate the relative importance of themselves compared to others. This measure had a circle representing other people and circles of different sizes that could represent the self. They had to select a size of a circle representing the self that corresponded to their feelings about their own importance compared to other people. Previous studies suggest that this measure relates to people’s sense of entitlement. Finally, participants filled out an inventory that assesses narcissism. 

In this study, there was a small correlation between SES (as measured by parental income) and narcissism. There was also a small correlation between SES and the measure of entitlement. Statistical tests suggested that the sense of entitlement explained the differences in narcissism between low- and high-SES participants. 

A third study gathered measures of SES from college students in the lab. Other measures were collected including a measure of how much participants care about their appearance. Toward the end of the study, participants were asked if they would allow the experimenter to take their picture for a future study on face recognition. Participants were given the opportunity to look in the mirror to fix their appearance before the picture. The experimenter left the room to get a camera, and another RA measured whether the participant looked in the mirror. Overall, women tended to look in the mirror more often than men. That reflects a general difference between men and women in how much they care about their appearance. Beyond that, high-SES individuals looked in the mirror more often than low-SES individuals. This difference was not explained by differences in how much these individuals care about their appearance.

Finally, one study did an experimental manipulation to break the relationship between SES and narcissism. Participants drawn from a sample on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk filled out a measure of SES. Then, participants either listed three benefits of treating others as equals (which primes the concept of equality) or listed three activities they do in a normal day (a control condition). Finally, participants filled out a narcissism scale. 

For the participants in the control condition, there was a small positive relationship between SES and narcissism. That relationship disappeared for the group that wrote about equality.

Putting this together, then, there is a weak relationship between SES and narcissism. When people grow up and live in a privileged environment, it can increase their tendency to feel entitled. That sense of entitlement leads to greater narcissism.

As interesting as these results are, it is important to recognize that the effects overall are small. There are plenty of people high in socioeconomic status who have neither a sense of entitlement nor a tendency toward narcissism. Similarly, there are many people from a low-SES background who do have a sense of entitlement and narcissistic traits. But, it is valuable to know that there are elements of a person’s social situation that can make them more susceptible to being a narcissist. 

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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