When you think back on the events of your life, you’ll likely focus on the positive, like most people with a reasonably healthy sense of self. The further back in consciousness an event goes, the more distorted and faint it becomes in your memory — and also the more likely it is to be shaped to what you wished had happened. This is just part of the way that you are able to maintain your identity as basically a good person. You allow to blur out of focus or fade from memory altogether those times in which you were unintentionally neglectful of a loved one, careless in completing a task at work, or less than honest when you explained why you failed to respond to someone’s email. However, you may still let some version of reality return into consciousness, rather than erase all bad memories completely and rework them so that they become part of your life story.
People high in narcissism would seem particularly likely to remember their past events in ways that bolster their views of themselves as the best, the smartest, and the most successful. It is this ability to downplay their weaknesses and accentuate their perceived strengths which contributes over time to an increasingly distorted view of themselves that leads them to be less and less able to admit to their flaws. According to some theories of narcissism, these so-called grandiose types of narcissists are attempting to cover up essential, deep-seated feelings of insecurity. What differentiates them from vulnerable narcissists is their use of self-aggrandizement to disguise their true sense of inadequacy. It would therefore be the grandiose types who should dwell the most on their past exploits. They will read into almost any experience only the positive aspects, which then dominate their recall.
These ideas led Wayne State University’s Lara Jones and colleagues (2017) to examine autobiographical memories in people who varied in narcissism to discover just how far the grandiose types would go in remembering their past exploits. Studying “memory phenomenology,” the researchers attempted to discover how people high in narcissism would travel “back in time” and recall “the imagery, affect, physical sensations” of past events (p. 801). They asked participants to recall events that fit into these four categories based on whether where they fit into a two-dimensional scheme: agentic versus communal (thinking of yourself or others) and positive versus negative:
See what memories you can conjure up using this scheme. Which were the most distinctive?
The Wayne State team prompted their participants to recall these four types of memories. For each, participants answered questions about its impact, how well they could recall details, how confident they were that their memory was accurate, and whether they went over it in their minds or while talking to others. Additionally, the researchers measured the words participants used in their recall, and how long it took them to recall each type of memory.
Prior to the memory task, participants had completed a standard narcissism personality measure and a brief self-esteem scale. By measuring narcissism separately from self-esteem, the authors were able to examine whether people with healthy self-esteem but low narcissism would differ from people high in both self-esteem and narcissism.
The findings supported the prediction that people high in narcissism would in fact have better memories of the positive-agentic nature in which they remembered the times they were smart, attractive, and talented. Not only was their phenomenological experience stronger, but they recalled those memories more quickly than they did the memories in the other categories. Additionally, people high in narcissism were readily able to describe the events in which they were negative-communal — i.e., rude, annoying, and dishonest. It's possible that they took a kind of perverse satisfaction in knowing they behaved in ways that violated social norms. People high in self-esteem, but not narcissism, were more likely to remember the times that they were positive-communal — that is, nice to others, romantic, and sympathetic.
Looking at the words people used to describe their memories, those high in narcissism tended to use more “I” words in the “talented” memory category. In contrast, those high in self-esteem referred to themselves less often by the first-person singular pronoun. This effect was not particularly strong, but the authors felt it was worth noting. In looking at the tense used in describing their memories, people high in narcissism talked about negatively valenced events in the past tense, suggesting that they wanted to get it behind them. In looking at the number of times participants mentioned sex and money, people high in narcissism talked about their positive communal experiences (romantic experiences) more in sexualized terms than did other participants. As the authors noted, this result “may reflect the greater importance placed upon more agentic than communal sexual outcomes (physical pleasure over emotional intimacy)” (p. 811).
To sum up: This study suggests that you can use people’s words about their past as indicators of their levels of narcissism. It’s not so much the use of “I” in their recall that is the tipoff, but their ability to explain in detail the times they succeeded in showing others how much better they were. People high in narcissism don’t just distort their memories in a positive direction, but do so in a way that emphasizes their own contributions to their successes.
By the same token, if you don't want to appear unintentionally narcissistic when you’re the one doing the recalling and sharing your memories with others, take care to emphasize your communal as well as your agentic contributions, especially the positive ones. If you have to give a celebratory speech, for example, take care to thank other people, emphasize their role in creating positive outcomes, and don't go into lengthy detail about your own contributions. By the same token, use your memories of the past to learn from those experiences in which you didn’t succeed. Understanding your role in those situations can further help shape your memories over your lifetime in a way that ultimately can provide the most fulfilling life story.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Jones, L. L., Norville, G. A., & Wright, A. M. (2017). Narcissism, self-esteem, and the phenomenology of autobiographical memories. Memory, 25(6), 800-815. doi:10.1080/09658211.2016.1223848