In a recently published research paper with the title "You Probably Think this Paper's About You", (who says researchers lack a sense of humor?), a couple of surprising findings about narcissists emerge.
But before we go there, a quick rewind is in order to explain why this research was conducted. For decades, psychologists have debated whether narcissism is a form of self-delusion, a cognitive bias, or a self-serving social strategy. The DSM-IV, the psychology Bible, defines pathological narcissism two ways: (1) as a true personality disorder - that is, "an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior" that strongly affects one's perception and interpersonal relationships, and (2) a "grandiose state of mind in young adults that can be corrected by life experience."
The second definition does not rise to the level of "personality disorder" so we'll put it aside for this discussion. The first definition is more relevant, and the one we normally invoke when commenting on the narcissists in our lives.
The question is, are pathological narcissists blind to their affliction? In the parlance of the DSM-IV, is narcissism a true personality disorder or a character disorder? If it's a true personality disorder, then it's accurate to say that a narcissist is not merely unwilling to change, but unable to -- at least without help. If it's a character disorder, then unwillingness trumps inability. In both cases, a narcissist may be aware of how others see them, but we would expect the greatest awareness to come from those unwilling to change. Hallmark behaviors of character disorder include dismissing what others think and willingly choosing to proceed as desired, consequences be damned.
And that distinction brings us back to the research at hand, which concluded that highly narcissistic people are absolutely aware that others do not share their inflated self-view. They are also aware that they make positive first impressions that deteriorate over time, and they have insight into their narcissism (participants in this study described themselves as "arrogant"). These findings were confirmed whether the narcissists were interacting with new acquaintances or well-acquainted coworkers.
The biggest takeaway is that narcissists appear to have less biased "meta-perception" (how they perceive others perceive them) than they do self-perception. While this finding doesn't prove that narcissism is in all cases a character disorder, it does support the argument that narcissists know they have a problem--or at least they know that others think they have a problem--and often choose to do nothing about it.
The same could be said, of course, of many alcoholics, drug addicts, and compulsive gamblers -- though in those cases the brain's reward system is off-kilter for other reasons. But perhaps narcissism isn't too dissimilar from a compulsive behavior that gives the "user" a high despite the fallout with others. If nothing else, this helps explain Charlie Sheen, most of the rest of Hollywood, and about 60% of everyone running for office.
Copyright 2011, David DiSalvo