- Rejection is a painful experience for anyone, but it can be disastrous for some types of narcissists.
- According to the Mask Model of narcissism, the grandiose type of narcissist is covering up for inner feelings of weakness.
- New research shows that the grandiose type of narcissist manages to find a way to avoid being hurt by rejection, challenging the Mask Model.
Think about the last time you felt rejected by the people around you. Perhaps you arrived at the home of your sister-in-law ready for an enjoyable, socially distanced, afternoon picnic. As you entered the backyard, no one seems to notice your arrival. A few children are playing ball, your older relatives are chatting, and your sister-in-law is deep in conversation with her own sister. After a painful 15 minutes in which you wondered what you were doing there, someone finally greeted you but you still felt snubbed by having been ignored for so long.
For most people, such experiences create self-doubts as they question whether anyone really cares about them. Eventually, though, the pain and hurt subside, particularly if something happens that negates the original experience of rejection. Your sister-in-law may very well apologize for having not greeted you when you arrived, explaining that something else was going on that required her attention.
When the person experiencing rejection is high in a certain form of narcissism, though, the scenario may unfold very differently. According to Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Michal Weiss and Jonathan Huppert (2021), the grandiose type of narcissist is known to respond to rejection with “self-enhancement, dismissiveness, and devaluation of the source of threat” (p. 2). Those high in vulnerable narcissism, in contrast, respond to rejection with self-deprecation and feelings of being victimized.
The “Mask Model of Narcissism” and Responses to Rejection
A theoretical question running through the decades of scientific work on narcissism is whether grandiose narcissism is actually an elaborate cover-up for feelings of inadequacy. This would mean that, at heart, those high in grandiose narcissism are disguising high levels of vulnerable narcissism. Inwardly, those with grandiose narcissism would respond to rejection with the same levels of pain and suffering as those high in vulnerable narcissism, even if their outward behavior suggests otherwise.
This line of reasoning is behind what’s called the “Mask Model” developed by University of South Florida’s Jennifer Bosson and colleagues (2008). Grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism, in this approach, “may represent two manifestations, or two regulation strategies, of the same underlying sense of worthlessness and inferiority” (p. 1).
To peer behind the mask of those high in grandiose narcissism, the Israeli research team compared their outward (explicit) and inward (implicit) reactions (called “interpretation bias” or “IB”) to experimentally-induced situations involving social rejection. If the Mask Model was supported, people high in grandiose narcissism would show the same implicit IB as those high in vulnerable narcissism after an experience involving rejection. Masking that implicit IB would be an explicit IB, in which the grandiose narcissistic individuals slough off those negative experiences.
Testing the Mask Model in the Lab
From an initial sample of 1105 undergraduate participants, the research team selected 120 individuals, randomly assigned to two conditions, based on how they scored on a standard measure of narcissism. The sample ranged in age from 17 to 34, and 65 percent were female.
The key measure of explicit IB asked participants to indicate how they would respond to each of 16 ambiguous situations. Each situation was resolved in either a positive or negative way, and participants were asked to rate the extent to which they believed the resolution would apply to them. As an example, consider your own response to this sample item, with its two possible meanings: “Someone looks at you standing in an elevator because they think you look attractive/weird.” Your score would consist of your ratings to the “attractive” option vs. the “weird” option in this example.
As you can see, then, the explicit IB measure taps into your conscious response to a situation as you clearly are aware of how you rated yourself. To get to the implicit IB of their participants, the authors used another instrument based not on self-report exactly, but on the length of time it took participants to respond to sentences conveying information relevant to the self but varying in whether they were negative or positive.
To make this more concrete, here is one example of the implicit IB measure. You’re listening to a sentence on headphones that describes a social situation. The sentence is missing the last word, such as, “As you walk past a group of people, you hear them laugh because they are discussing…”
You next see a word on the screen that could complete the sentence but it may or may not be grammatically correct. You are then asked to decide whether it is or is not. In 40 of the situations, the last word has negative implications, which in the above example would be the word “you.” In 40 sentences the last word is positive (“jokes”). A set of 20 neutral situations had a last word with no implications for the self (e.g. “While walking with a friend through the park, you decide to stop and rest on a…” with “bench” being the correct grammatical ending. The ungrammatical endings were simply variations on the last word such as “benches” following the “a” in the neutral sentence.
If you are someone whose implicit IB veers toward the negative, it should take you longer to make your decision about the last word’s grammatical correctness when that word is positive. As in other implicit bias measures, the assumption is that if you’re primed to see yourself in a negative light, you’ll have to stop and think for that extra second when a situation presents itself that shows you favorably.
Now, add on top of that the manipulation that Weiss and Huppert used to lead their participants to experience rejection. In what’s known as “Cyberball,” social psychologists developed a method that could be completely simulated in the lab. Imagine you think you’re playing a videogame involving ball-tossing with two other people. However, out of 50 ball tosses, only four of them give you a chance to throw the ball back, with the remaining 46 involving ball tosses between the other two people. In the control condition, you would see the game being played among three other participants and asked simply to count the number of tosses.
Are Grandiose Narcissists Secretly Hurt by Rejection?
The findings from the control condition suggested that those high in grandiose narcissism and those high in vulnerable narcissism responded to rejection as you might expect. Scores on the self-report test indicated that grandiose narcissistic participants had positive and the vulnerable narcissistic participants had negative explicit self-appraisals and there was no difference between the two types of narcissists on the implicit IB measure.
Following rejection, as expected, participants with high vulnerable narcissism scores indeed showed more negative implicit self-views. Clearly, the rejection triggered their feelings of inferiority even though this rejection was in simulated form only. For the grandiose narcissistic participants, however, the result of rejection was the opposite. Instead of showing more negative implicit self-appraisals, they actually appeared to respond with a bump up in their positive implicit views of themselves. These findings were in direct contrast to the Mask Model, which would have predicted that individuals with high grandiose narcissism scores would cover up their negative self-appraisals in response to rejection.
Faced with this unexpected pattern of results, the authors turned to previous studies not based on the Mask Model that could provide an explanation. One possibility they considered was that those high in grandiose narcissism showed a “healthy narcissistic manifestation” in which they responded to a threat with “automatic positive self-appraisals that help regulate self-esteem” (p. 8). This automatic response provides, in part, a shut-off valve that allows the individual high in grandiose narcissism to turn off incoming information with potentially negative implications for the self.
As the authors point out, it’s not possible to know what “really” was going on in the unconscious responses of the highly grandiose. Perhaps it is necessary to dig down even deeper into those implicit biases to find out whether masking is going on after all in the narcissist’s response to rejection. At least at the present level of analysis, though, the findings suggest that there’s less going on beneath the surface in terms of feelings of vulnerability than theories such as the Mask Model would suggest.
To sum up, no one really enjoys the experience of rejection. However, for the person with a strong sense of grandiosity, it may take more than rejection to penetrate their all-encompassing sense of their own superiority.
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Bosson, J. K., Lakey, C. E., Campbell, W. K., Zeigler-Hill, V., Jordan,C. H., & Kernis, M. H. (2008). Untangling the links between narcissism and self-esteem: A theoretical and empirical review. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2, 1415–1439. https:// doi. org/ 10. 1111/j. 1751- 9004. 2008. 00089.x
Weiss, M., & Huppert, J. D. (2021). Narcissistic reflections after social rejection: Grandiose and vulnerable narcissism in terms of explicit and implicit interpretation bias. Cognitive Therapy and Research. https://doi-org/10.1007/s10608-021-10245-1