Do Aggressive People Have Low Self-Esteem?
Ask someone on the street whether aggressive people have low self-esteem and they will probably say “yes.” But they are wrong. Then why does this view persist? The origins of this view are difficult to establish. There is no landmark study showing that aggressive people suffer from low self-esteem. There is no compelling theoretical reason to believe that aggressive people suffer from low self-esteem. Then how did this view become conventional wisdom? Perhaps it is based on intuition. Intuitively, having low self-esteem feels bad, whereas having high self-esteem feels good. Thus, people may conclude that people who feel bad are more aggressive. After all, there is a large body of literature showing that unpleasant events, which make people feel bad, increase aggression.[1]

Try this simple thought exercise. Think of the most aggressive person you know. How would you describe that person? Does that person have low self-esteem? Is that person shy, modest, full of self-doubt, prone to go along with others, and lacks a well-formed self-concept? Or is that person quite the opposite? I have asked hundreds of people to perform this thought exercise, and none of them have thought of a person with low self-esteem. A brief search through history produces results similar to those obtained in this thought exercise. The world’s most aggressive rulers did not seem to suffer from low self-esteem. For example, Genghis Khan used military force to acquire the largest contiguous empire in history. He told his people, “With Heaven’s aid I have conquered for you a huge empire. But my life was too short to achieve the conquest of the world.” Genghis Khan had a big ego—he felt entitled to rule the world! There are many other examples too, such as Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Attila the Hun, Saddam Hussein, and Napoléon Bonaparte. All of these leaders were aggressive, but none of them seemed to have low self-esteem. Thought exercises and historical examples are informative, but obviously they are not scientific evidence. In 1996, Roy Baumeister and his colleagues reviewed the scientific literature on this topic and found little support for the view that low self-esteem predicts aggression.[2]

Are Aggressive People Narcissists?
“I burn with love for me!”
— Narcissus

Roy Baumeister and his colleagues proposed that aggression most commonly stems from threatened egotism.[2] In other words, people with big egos become aggressive when other people threaten their inflated egos. Such forms of exaggerated self-love are characteristic of narcissism. The term narcissism comes from the Greek myth about a handsome young man named Narcissus who fell in love with his own image reflected in the still water. In its extreme form, narcissism is a personality disorder. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is defined as a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.[3] In its less extreme form, narcissism is found at subclinical or “normal” levels in the general population.[4]

Normal narcissism is typically measured using self-report questionnaires, such as the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), which contains 40 pairs of forced choice items such as the pair: “The thought of ruling the world frightens the hell out of me” (non-narcissistic) versus “If I ruled the world it would be a better place” (narcissistic), and the pair: “I am much like everybody else” (non-narcissistic) versus “I am an extraordinary person” (narcissistic).[5] Because the NPI is quite long (40 pairs of items), researchers have developed shorter measures, such as a 16-item version of the NPI,[6] and even a single item narcissism measure, i.e., “To what extent do you agree with this statement: I am a narcissist. (Note: The word ‘narcissist’ means egotistical, self-focused, vain, etc)”.[7] The Single Item Narcissism Scale (SINS) seems to perform as well as the much longer 40 and 16 item scales.[7] Apparently, narcissists are not afraid to admit to others that's what they are.

The threatened egotism hypothesis has gained abundant empirical support. For example, I conducted two experiments on this topic with Roy Baumeister.[8] Participants were given the opportunity to aggress against individuals who insulted or praised them, or against an innocent third person. The highest aggression levels were shown by narcissists who aggressed directly against the person who insulted them. People with low self-esteem were not more aggressive than others. These basic findings have been replicated many times.[9]

In another study [10], we had two samples of inmates from opposite coasts of the U.S. (N=18 violent offenders from California and N=47 violent offenders from Massachusetts) who were in prison for committing a violent crime—murder, aggravated assault, forcible rape, or armed robbery. All of these violent offenders were men. We gave them the NPI and a self-report measure of self-esteem called the Self Esteem Scale, which contains 10 items (e.g., “I feel that I have a number of good qualities” and “I am able to do things as well as most people”). We compared their narcissism and self-esteem scores with every other group of men who had taken these scales. For narcissism, we located 19 independent samples (N=1,707 participants) of non-offenders. For self-esteem, we located 69 independent samples (N=7,590 participants). The sample scores are given in the figure below, with narcissism scores on the left and self-esteem scores. As can be seen on the left side of the figure, the two samples with the highest narcissism scores were our two samples of violent offenders (23.0 and 21.4). Indeed, both violent offender samples scored higher on the NPI than a sample of celebrities who, who had a mean score of 17.84 on the NPI.[11] As can be seen on the right side of the figure, violent offenders did not have low self-esteem. Indeed, their self-esteem was in the middle of the pack.

Based on data from Bushman & Baumeister (2002)
Source: Based on data from Bushman & Baumeister (2002)

Conclusion
It is important to base beliefs on scientific evidence rather than intuition, common sense, gut feelings, hunches, instincts, intuitions, and premonitions, which can often lead us astray. Although many people believe that aggressive and violent people have low self-esteem, they do not. Aggressive people tend to be narcissists. Narcissists think they are special people who deserve special treatment. When they don't get the respect they think they are entitled to, narcissists lash out at others in an aggressive manner.

References

[1] Berkowitz, L. (1983). Aversively stimulated aggression: Some parallels and differences in research with animals and humans. American Psychologist, 38, 1135–1144.

[2] Baumeister, R. F., Smart, L., & Boden, J. M. (1996). Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: The dark side of high self-esteem. Psychological Review, 103, 5–33.

[3] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association.

[4] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association.

[5] Raskin, R., & Terry, H. (1988). A principal-components analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory and further evidence of its construct validity. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 54, 890-902. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.54.5.890

[6] Ames, D. R., Rose, P., & Anderson, C. P. (2006). The NPI-16 as a short measure of narcissism. Journal of Research in Personality, 40(4), 440–450.

[7] Konrath, S., Meier, B. P., & Bushman, B. J. (2014). Development and validation of the Single item Narcissism Scale (SINS). PLOS ONE, 9(8), e103469. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0103469 

[8] Bushman, B. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Threatened egotism, narcissism, self-esteem, and direct and displaced aggression: Does self-love or self-hate lead to violence? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 219-229. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.75.1.219

[9] For a review see Bushman, B. J., & Thomaes, S. (2011). When narcissistic ego deflates, aggression inflates. In W. K. Campbell & J. D. Miller (Eds), The handbook of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder: Theoretical approaches, empirical findings, and treatments (pp. 319-329). New York: Wiley.

[10] Rosenberg, M. (1965). Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[11] Young, S. M. & Pinsky, D. (2006). Narcissism and celebrity. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 463-471.

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