What Narcissists See in the Mirror

They see someone off-the-charts superior to others. But why?

Posted Apr 09, 2016

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A core characteristic of narcissism is the tendency for people high in this personality trait to view themselves in the most positive light possible. For women, this may involve trying to bolster their feelings of attractiveness, given the constant message purveyors of physical attractiveness communicate about the need for women to look beautiful and sexy. For men, the self-focus translates into the need to do better than everyone else, and the tendency to exploit others, as shown in a large-scale analysis of existing studies conducted by University of Buffalo psychologist Emily Grijalva and colleagues (2015).

If the need for self-enhancement is at the core of narcissism, what is its cause? Do people high on narcissism need to make themselves look as successful as possible to cover up the gnawing hole in their self-esteem? Another extensive analysis of the available literature conducted by Grijalva, along with University of Illinois psychologist Luyao Zhang (2016), examined the ability of people high in narcissism to engage in the kind of critical self-scrutiny that can temper an over-inflated sense of importance.

Grijalva and Zhang were particularly interested in “self-insight self-enhancement,” which involves comparing the way you rate yourself with the way others rate you. They also wished to examine which features of narcissism would be most subject to a self-enhancement bias. Would people high on narcissism be more likely to emphasize their “agency,” or extraversion and arrogance, or their “communal” qualities, such as honesty and agreeableness?

Before we embark on this analysis, it’s worth pausing to make sure you understand the way in which narcissism is defined in personality psychology. First of all, it is not a “thing” but a trait that can range from high to low. A small degree of self-enhancement can actually be healthy because it buffers you from the worries and self-doubt that can erode feelings of confidence. You can shrug off slight disappointments or failings if you have a solid enough sense of self.

When narcissism starts to creep into the high or dysfunctional end it leads you, in the words of Grijalva and Zhang, to have “unrealistically high levels of self-esteem… [that you maintain] by using a mutually reinforcing system of interpersonal and intrapersonal self-regulatory strategies” (p. 4). In other words, you distort your failures and shortcomings into successes and don’t allow them to penetrate your evaluation of your strengths vs. your weaknesses. The authors state, “Evidence suggests that narcissists genuinely believe that they are more attractive, intelligent, creative, and better in a myriad of ways than available evidence can support” (p. 5).

The form of self-enhancement bias studied by Grijalva and Zhang, or self-insight, is just one of two ways to measure this core quality of narcissism. The other measure of self-enhancement has people compare their own view of themselves with the way they see other people. Ironically, most psychologically healthy individuals tend to perceive themselves as better than the “average” person; people high on narcissism see themselves as off the charts compared to others. The problem with measuring self-enhancement through this kind of social comparison is that the researchers don’t actually know just how agreeable, friendly, or successful you are. The key comparison, Grijalva and Zhang argue, remains one in which your self-estimation is compared with the ratings others make of your various qualities.

Looking across the data from 36 samples across all relevant studies, that produced 171 correlations, Grijalva and Zhang subdivided the analyses according to whether they were examining agentic vs. communal qualities. Agentic qualities included such traits as arrogant and extraverted, as well as the tendency to exaggerate own abilities, feel intelligent, behave impulsively, show leadership, be power-oriented, and be manipulative. The communal qualities included being honest and agreeable, as well as being fair, likable, reliable, supportive, and open to the feedback of others.

After applying all of the appropriate controls for statistical significance (and then some), Grijalva and Zhang reported observing a “small but consistent” (p. 17) relationship between the overall tendency toward self-enhancement and narcissism. However, that agentic-communal distinction did make a difference in evaluating the findings. Narcissists in particular distorted, in a positive direction, their qualities in areas such as leadership, intelligence, attractiveness, extraversion, and ability to accomplish things. They also saw themselves as more likable and conscientious than others did which, as you will recall, are two of the communal traits. However they didn’t particularly over-inflate their sense of agreeableness.

In general, these findings support the theory of narcissism, which predicts that people high on this trait are more likely to see themselves as agentic, or powerful and dynamic, than others. The way that narcissists try to feel good about themselves is to try to dominate others. Narcissists don’t particularly care whether they get close to people, but they do want to make sure they get their way.

It is unfortunate that the authors were not able to parse the data by gender, because that could address the question of whether men high in narcissism aspire more to dominance and women more to social acceptance. Another unexamined question is whether women high in narcissism need to see themselves as more attractive than others believe them to be.

It’s possible that there is no gender difference in self-enhancement biases with regard to attractiveness as University of Wisconsin Eau Claire psychologist April Bleske-Rechek et al. (2008) observed in their article title, “Narcissistic men and women think they are so hot—But they are not.”

To sum it up, if you’re trying to make sense of the behavior shown by one of your more narcissistic friends or intimate partners, it’s helpful to keep in mind that they have a particular need to distort the way they see themselves that makes them think they have more power over others than they do. However, they also tend to think they’re more likeable than you or others might see them. If you truly care about them, or if you’re one of these people yourself, you can provide support and an occasional reality check. Finding their fulfillment in their actual rather than the over-estimated qualities may ultimately provide them, or you, the opportunity to develop a sense of self-esteem that is internally strong and healthy.

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Bleske-Rechek, A., Remiker, M. W., & Baker, J. P. (2008). Narcissistic men and women think they are so hot—But they are not. Personality and Individual Differences, 45, 420-424. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2008.05.018

Grijalva, E., Newman, D. A., Tay, L., Donnellan, M. B., Harms, P. D., Robins, R. W., & Yan, T. (2015). Gender differences in narcissism: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 141(2), 261-310. doi:10.1037/a0038231

Grijalva, E., & Zhang, L. (2016). Narcissism and self-insight: A review and meta-analysis of narcissists’ self-enhancement tendencies. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(1), 3-24. doi:10.1177/0146167215611636

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, 2016