One of the more frustrating features of dealing with people high on narcissism is their constant need to present a favorable impression. Whether it’s dressing up for even the most insignificant occasion, such as going to the gym, or wanting random strangers to like them, narcissists seem determined to put forward the best face possible. They may spend hours in front of the mirror fixing their hair and putting on their makeup and put out far more than they can afford on clothing, jewelry, and shoes, although they’ll deny the actual effort they put in to achieve the perfect look. Researchers who study narcissism naturally worry, then, that these individuals will be even more likely to lie than the average person on tests that tap into those very narcissistic tendencies they're trying to measure.
The concern over narcissists, and their tendency to “fake good,” or answer in ways intended to cover up their real personalities, led University of Georgia psychologist Chelsea Sleep and colleagues (2017) to investigate. The research teams noted that “although narcissism is associated with self-enhancement and potentially distorted or inaccurate perceptions about the self, relatively little is known about whether these narcissistic traits affect the validity of responding on psychological questionnaires” (p. 1060). This is a rather puzzling situation because you might think the first step a researcher would take when investigating people known for such self-aggrandizing, who additionally lack little insight about themselves, would be to check out their tendencies to lie on questionnaires.
To address this gap in the literature, the Georgia team examined three existing data sets using not only the typical undergraduate sample, but additionally a sample of inmates from a correctional facility in Michigan. There were 482 and 228 students in the two university samples, respectively, and 702 prisoners who were tested upon their entry to the prison. All three samples completed a standard narcissism measure (the Narcissism Personality Inventory, or NPI), a 40-item test used to diagnose narcissistic personality disorder. The 3 factors in the NPI include Grandiose Exhibitionism, Entitlement/Exploitativeness, and Leadership/Authority. Two additional narcissism measures included items intended to assess the vulnerable as well as the grandiose components of the trait. Participants also completed three standardized psychiatric diagnosis questionnaires to assess various factors related to narcissism and other pathological personality traits. Finally, the researchers administered the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 (MMPI-2), a widely-used assessment measure particularly designed for clinical settings.
Three of the measures administered to these samples included built-in scales of social desirability, or the tendency to lie in order to look good to the researchers. With the literally hundreds of questions included in all of these measures, you might think that the narcissistically inclined would be caught out at some point in their efforts to manipulate the image they presented to the researchers. You might think, furthermore, that this would be especially true for the prisoners, who may have somehow connected the testing to the treatment they would experience under incarceration. The findings showed that, to the contrary, the more narcissistic individuals in the study were not likely to put on that false positive front in their self-reports of behaviors and symptoms.
There was an important distinction in the Sleep et al. study’s results with regard to the vulnerable vs. grandiose forms of narcissism. You can tell from the terms themselves that the vulnerable narcissists don’t really “believe” in their own superiority. Whatever show they put on to the outside world to portray an image that they seem better than they feel is, just that, a show. Inside, they feel weak and flawed, and the more weak and flawed they feel, the more intensely they have to put on this false front. When their responses to the narcissism personality scales were compared to their scores on the measures of lying to look good, those high in vulnerable narcissism were more willing to admit to feeling emotionally fragile, anxious, and depressed.
As the researchers note, it’s important to keep in mind that the conditions of testing were relatively “low-stake” (p. 1063). Although it’s true that the prisoners were being evaluated in a potentially high-stake setting, the fact that the questionnaires were administered by researchers would certainly have kept those stakes low.
These findings have important applications to your relationships with the people high in narcissism in your life. They aren't necessarily impervious to their weaknesses, nor do they unusually ashamed to admit to having narcissistic tendencies, as long as they don’t feel they have anything to lose in the process. Once the risks become higher, such as when they’re applying for a job or trying to entice new relationship partners, it is likely that all such bets are off. They’ll exploit and manipulate without hesitation, and if this involves lying, then so be it.
The situation is somewhat different when it involves people high in vulnerable narcissism who, by definition, are low in grandiosity. Again, if the stakes are low enough, they’ll admit to their true inner feelings of weakness and shame and recognize that they need admiration from others in order to feel good about themselves. This means that if they feel comfortable enough around you, they’ll at least be honest about their insecurities. When threatened, however, it’s fair to expect that they’ll retreat to their less appealing tendencies such as being totally self-absorbed, distrustful, avoidant, unhappy and perhaps even somewhat entitled.
Being truthful in the psych lab may not carry exactly the same implications as does being truthful in actual relationships and social situations. However, we can at least feel confident that the conclusions you read about narcissism based on psychological research are reasonably valid. If you’re trying to understand the narcissist in your life, or even yourself, it can therefore be reassuring to know that turning to the literature can help you gain important insights. Fulfillment in our relationships depends on people being honest with each other. The present research may help you gain some inroads into understanding, and even accepting, those whose narcissism may seem to get in the way of honest relationships.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Sleep, C. E., Sellbom, M., Campbell, W. K., & Miller, J. D. (2017). Narcissism and response validity: Do individuals with narcissistic features underreport psychopathology?. Psychological Assessment, 29(8), 1059-1064. doi:10.1037/pas0000413