3 Counterintuitive Ways Narcissism Is Not a Dark Trait

Subclinical narcissism may reduce stress and depression via mental toughness.

Posted Dec 06, 2018

In 2002, Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams published a landmark paper, "The Dark Triad of Personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy," and simultaneously coined a popular catchphrase, "Dark Triad" (DT). This terminology has been widely referenced for almost two decades. After their initial evaluation of Machiavellianism, Subclinical Psychopathy (SP), and Subclinical Narcissism (SN) at the beginning of the 21st century, Paulhus and Williams summed up their findings: "We conclude that the Dark Triad of personalities, as currently measured, are overlapping but distinct constructs." 

In the years since Paulhus and Williams first presented their pioneering concept of a "Dark Triad," there's been a wide range of research focused on unearthing specific nuances between the 'overlapping but distinct constructs' of SN, SP, and Machiavellianism.

Most recently, Kostas Papageorgiou, director of the Interdisciplinary Research in Resilience and Cognition Laboratory (InteRRaCt Lab) and lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, published two papers which present a strong case for reconsidering subclinical narcissism as solely a malevolent "dark" trait.

According to recent evidence-based findings from the InteRRaCt Lab, subclinical narcissism associates with three positive effects: (1) More Mental Toughness, (2) Fewer Depressive Symptoms, and (3) Lower Perceived Stress.

Source: djgis/Shutterstock

On Nov. 1, Papageorgiou and colleagues published a paper, "The Positive Effect of Narcissism on Depressive Symptoms Through Mental Toughness: Narcissism May Be a Dark Trait but It Does Help with Seeing the World Less Grey," in the journal European Psychiatry. On Nov. 15, Papageorgiou et al. published a follow-up paper, "The Bright Side of Dark: Exploring the Positive Effect of Narcissism on Perceived Stress Through Mental Toughness," in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

As a pair, these November 2018 papers dovetail perfectly and suggest that subclinical narcissism (SN)—which falls within a "normal" range of narcissism and is not synonymous with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)—is linked to higher degrees of Mental Toughness (MT), which seems to facilitate coping better with stress and being less depressed.

What Is Mental Toughness? 

In a 2002 paper, "Mental Toughness: The Concept and Its Measurement," Peter Clough of Huddersfield University and colleagues characterized MT as a composite of four interrelated but independent components referred to as "The 4Cs Model" of mental toughness:

  1. Control (life and emotion): The tendency to feel and act as if one is influential and keep anxieties in check.
  2. Commitment: The tendency to be deeply involved in pursuing goals despite difficulties that arise.
  3. Challenge: The tendency to see potential threats as opportunities for self-development and to continue to strive in changing environments.
  4. Confidence (in abilities and interpersonal): The belief that one is a truly worthwhile person in spite of setbacks, and the ability to push oneself forward in social settings.

Over the past few weeks, I've referenced the latest research by Kostas Papageorgiou and colleagues about the link between mental toughness and SN in three separate Psychology Today blog posts.

My first post, "Narcissism May Have Some Previously Unrecognized Upsides," was a recap of Papageorgiou's recently published research—which pinpointed mental toughness as a key player in facilitating the positive effects associated with SN, such as better academic performance among adolescent students and fewer depressive symptoms.

In two follow-up blog posts, "Don't Believe the Hype! 'Narcissists' Aren't Inherently Evil," and "Have We Underestimated the Harm Caused by Low Self-Esteem?" I looked at Papageorgiou's research on the positive effects of Subclinical Narcissism through the lens of my own life experience and other relevant research on self-esteem. Both of these posts include a first-person narrative that corroborates Papageorgiou et al.'s findings on a link between SN, Mental Toughness, Openness to Experience (OE), improved Challenge/Threat appraisals, and fewer depressive symptoms based on autobiographical anecdotal evidence.

A few days ago, Kostas Papageorgiou reached out to me via email with a friendly note introducing himself. During our subsequent email exchange, Kostas sent me the full PDF of his latest paper from Personality and Individual Differences on the possible link between SN, MT, and lower Perceived Stress (PS). Kostas also kindly offered to answer a few questions about his latest research for Psychology Today readers.

Q&A with Kostas Papageorgiou and Christopher Bergland 

Christopher Bergland: In your opinion, what is the most significant takeaway from your recent paper, "The Bright Side of Dark: Exploring the Positive Effect of Narcissism on Perceived Stress Through Mental Toughness," for the general reader?

Kostas Papageorgiou: Our most recent paper builds upon previous work from the InteRRaCt Lab that aims at communicating that it is nonsensical to perceive aspects of human nature (e.g., personality traits) as “pure evil.” In this instance, we showed in three studies, that grandiose narcissism may increase mental toughness (one’s ability to cope under stress) contributing significantly to lower levels of perceived stress.

Vulnerable narcissism, on the other hand, contributed to higher levels of perceived stress. In a nutshell, human nature is far too complex to be interpreted in a dichotomous way: Narcissism is simply neither bad nor good. Instead of demonizing parts of our personality or feeling guilty about having them, we need to concern ourselves with how to use them adaptively for our own benefit and the benefit of society.

CB: Based on your expertise relating to the adaptive benefits of Subclinical Narcissism (SN), can you elaborate on why narcissism in and of itself is not simply a "malevolent" or dark trait?

KP: Accumulating evidence suggests that narcissism may be somewhat unique among the Dark Traits in that some of its manifestations (e.g., grandiosity) are linked to personally and socially beneficial outcomes. For example, grandiose narcissism is linked to healthy self-esteem. It could be that in certain challenging circumstances narcissism acts as an exaggeration of healthy self-esteem boosting one’s confidence to the limits to facilitate the best possible solution to a problem. Indeed, our research has shown that out of the four components of mental toughness, the strongest correlate of narcissism is confidence.

After all, there is no trait that is simply “a malevolent trait” in the same way that there is no trait that is simply “good” or “beneficial.” For example, too much openness to experience may not be adaptive for an individual. Personality traits, like narcissism, are the products of evolution and to the extent that they appear at different levels in all humans, they may be adaptive or maladaptive depending on the context. Maybe we can use the terms “bad” or “good” to teach 2-year olds about morality but it is not logical to use such terms to describe our personality.

CB: What research are you currently working on in the InteRRaCt Lab? Does your team have any evidence-based papers in the pipeline for 2019 that may be of interest to Psychology Today readers in the months ahead?

KP: We are currently focusing on three different but interrelated streams of research:

  1. We explore longitudinally in adults the degree to which narcissism contributes to various outcomes in the areas of psychopathology and education via a number of traits and behaviors, such as mental toughness, engagement with physical activity and music.
  2. We investigate the role of narcissism within the broader spectrum of human personality. Using a new analytic technique (network analyses), we will soon present findings suggesting that narcissism may be a “bridge” between the prosocial and socially maladjusted side of human personality.
  3. We aim to understand the factors that contribute to the development of narcissism from childhood to adolescence and into adulthood. As such, we are currently exploring the degree to which parental adverse childhood experiences, personality traits and psychopathology, influence various outcomes, including levels of narcissism, in children and adults.

The main objective of our work is not to rehabilitate narcissists, but rather to contextualize them in a complex web of societal costs and benefits.

CB: Do you have any practical, everyday prescriptive advice for someone who wants to kick-start his or her levels of mental toughness and create an upward spiral of positive effects associated with Subclinical Narcissism? 

KP: I have come to the conclusion that, conventional social morality hierarchizes the value of honesty above modesty, when one says something negative about oneself; and modesty above honesty, when one says something positive about oneself. For example, in the absence of any information about my ability to cope with stress, most people would feel comfortable if I was to say that “I am the most fragile person you have ever met.” However, they may deem me to be a narcissist if I was to say that “I will survive nuclear destruction, if need be, I am the most resilient person you have ever met.” While in both scenarios the response is not modest, there is societal pressure to be modest about one’s positive attributes or else, one may be perceived as being “bad,” in other words a narcissist.  

So my advice would be to explore different domains (see, Openness to Experience) to find out what you are best at, (and when you do), do not succumb to societal pressure to be modest (see narcissism) about your abilities; seek challenge (see mental toughness’ component of Challenge) and approach it with confidence (see mental toughness’ component of Confidence); perceive change (see mental toughness’ component of Change) as an opportunity to grow and ultimately take control of your life (see mental toughness’ component of Control) by evaluating rather than blindly accepting societal norms, it is easier than you think.

Kostas — Huge thanks for sharing some insights about your research and taking the time to answer these questions. Much appreciated! 


Kostas A. Papageorgiou, Foteini-Maria Gianniou, Paul Wilson, Giovanni B. Moneta, Delfina Bilello, Peter J. Clough. "The Bright Side of Dark: Exploring the Positive Effect of Narcissism on Perceived Stress Through Mental Toughness." Personality and Individual Differences (First published online: November 15, 2018) DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2018.11.004

Kostas A. Papageorgiou, Andrew Denovan, Neil Dagnall. "The Positive Effect of Narcissism on Depressive Symptoms Through Mental Toughness: Narcissism May Be a Dark Trait but It Does Help with Seeing the World Less Grey." European Psychiatry (First published online: November 1, 2018) DOI: 10.1016/j.eurpsy.2018.10.002  

Kostas A. Papageorgiou, Margherita Malanchini, Andrew Denovan, Peter J. Clough, Nicholas Shakeshaft, Kerry Schofield, Yulia Kovas. "Longitudinal Associations Between Narcissism, Mental toughness and School Achievement." Personality and Individual Differences (First published online: April 25, 2018) DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2018.04.024

Ying Lin, Julian Mutz, Peter J. Clough, and Kostas A. Papageorgiou. "Mental Toughness and Individual Differences in Learning, Educational and Work Performance, Psychological Well-being, and Personality: A Systematic Review." Frontiers in Psychology (First published online: August 11, 2017) DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01345

Kostas A. Papageorgiou, Ben Wong, Peter J. Clough. "Beyond Good and Evil: Exploring the Mediating Role of Mental Toughness on the Dark Triad of Personality Traits." Personality and Individual Differences (First published online: June 24, 2017) DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2017.06.031

Alexander P. Christensen, Katherine Cotter, Paul Silvia, and Mathias Benedek. "Scale Development via Network Analysis: A Comprehensive and Concise Measure of Openness to Experience." (Preprint submitted to PsyArXiv: August 24, 2018) DOI: 10.17605/OSF.IO/NV4YH

Delroy L. Paulhus and Kevin M. Williams. "The Dark Triad of Personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy." Journal of Research in Personality (First published online: November 19, 2002) DOI: 10.1016/S0092-6566(02)00505-6

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