We've all dealt with narcissists at some time or another, but we usually have the option of walking away if they get too annoying. Usually.  

The rise of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram has provided greater greater opportunities to stay in contact with people around the world.  Unfortunately, narcissists have quickly discovered how useful social media can be in sharing words and images with countless people worldwide. A new analysis explores how narcissists, compared with people in general, make use of social media.

Before we look at what this research found, we should probably begin with some background. Narcissism is usually defined as "extreme selfishness, the pursuit of gratification from self or others, and an inflated admiration for one's own qualities." First introduced by Freud in his 1914 essay on narcissism, it has since become a favorite topic for researchers and therapists. It has also been included in various editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (usually under the term narcissistic personality disorder) and is regarded as part of the Dark Triad of personality traits along with psychopathy and Machiavellianism.

While there are different ways of classifying narcissists, two categories of narcissism, which have become an important part of research, are:

  • Grandiose narcissism—usually characterized by extreme confidence in their own superiority. These narcissists are prone to going into a vindictive rage against anyone who dares to criticize them. They have no sense of shame and have often grown up with the knowledge that they are superior to everyone else. As adults, they may have multiple affairs and typically pride themselves on how admired they are by the people around them. They can also be very aggressive in establishing dominance over other people.
  • Vulnerable narcissism—people high in vulnerable narcissism tend to be more emotionally sensitive (often to the point of being neurotic). They are distressed whenever they don't get the treatment they feel they deserve and often have problems with fear of rejection or being abandoned.  In a real sense, vulnerable narcissists are over-compensating for poor self-esteem or a history of neglect that can go back to early childhood. They can often shift from feeling superior to feeling inferior depending on how their lives happen to be going at any particular time.

For reasons that are still unclear, narcissism seems to be on the increase in modern society. A recent book by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell makes a compelling case that the United States, among other countries, is experiencing a narcissism epidemic. Along with reality television shows such as the Real Housewives franchise and My Super Sweet Sixteen, we are seeing a proliferation of media stars whose only claim to fame rests in the indulgent lifestyles that they lead.  

Then there is the role that social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can play in allowing people to broadcast information about themselves to a worldwide audience, not to mention allowing them to solicit positive feedback in the form of "likes" in the process. 

Nunosilvaphotography/Shutterstock
Source: Nunosilvaphotography/Shutterstock

How people prefer to use social media seems to depend on what kind of needs are being fulfilled. For example, while everyone enjoys posting selfies, narcissists seem to prefer taking it to extremes, often to the point of posting inappropriate selfies to show off their physique or physical attractiveness or else to show how great their lives are. Narcissists also prefer posting under their own name to ensure that they get full credit for their posts (unless they need to attack people who have offended them, then anonymous posting on Twitter or 4chan comes in handy.)  

To get a better sense of how narcissists use social media, Campbell and Jessica McCain of the University of Georgia reviewed more than 62 research studies looking at grandiose and vulnerable narcissism and how it can relate to online activity. Their research, which was recently published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture, combines data on more than 13,000 participants in the different studies they examined. 

All of the participants had completed one or more personality tests designed to measure different aspects of narcissism and, in some cases, related traits such as psychopathy and Machiavellianism. To measure social media use, four main criteria were adopted: time spent on social media, frequency of status updates, number of friends or followers, and pictures of self/selfies uploaded. The researchers also combined data on age, which region of the world the participant lived in, and the social media sites being used.

What they found was a small but significant correlation between overall social media use and grandiose narcissism (but not vulnerable narcissism). People scoring high in grandiose narcissism appeared to have more friends, posted more frequent status updates, and posted more pictures of themselves than non-narcissists did.  This relationship seems to fluctuate depending on cultural differences (the link between social media use and narcissism seemed particularly strong in Russian users for some reason) but no real difference was found in terms of which platform was preferred or age of the user. 

In discussing their findings, Campbell and Jessica McCain suggest that narcissistic individuals may be particularly drawn to social media as a way of soliciting compliments and other positive feedback that can reaffirm their own views about themselves. Also, since online relationships tend to encourage wide but shallow networks which fits the kind of relationships narcissists often prefer.  

Unfortunately, these results tend to be limited by the cross-sectional designs of the studies that were examined. This means there is no way to determine whether narcissists are just naturally drawn to social media or if, possibly, the nature of social media can actually be making users more narcissistic (perhaps it's a little of both).

While more research is definitely needed, and this research hardly means that everyone who spends time using social media (myself included) is a narcissist, it does show why social media use can be particularly appealing for people with narcissistic tendencies. 

So spare a thought about that new selfie you're planning to post. What kind of message are you really sending with it?

References

McCain, J. L., & Campbell, W. K. (2016, November 10). Narcissism and Social Media Use: A Meta- Analytic Review.  Psychology of Popular Media Culture.  . Advance online publication