Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. An example of "Victory disease"--arrogance from short-term victory undermining long-term success

So far, I’ve primarily discussed the benefits of dark side characteristics, especially narcissism. Today, I’d like to spend a bit of time discussing the downside of subclinical narcissism, and also discuss a bit about the circumstances under which the pros turn into cons. I’ve mentioned before that, over time, other people come to see individuals high in narcissism as arrogant and hostile, but why is this?

First, let’s think about the reasons narcissists get ahead in the first place, and then place those into a couple of different time horizons, short-term versus long-term. So, narcissists self-enhance: they present the most impressive version of themselves that they can. In the short term, this can generate excitement and enthusiasm in their audiences. People come away from initially meeting a narcissist impressed and interested, they might think something like, “What a great guy!” or “She’s so exciting!” On the other hand, narcissists chronically self-enhance: they rarely turn this particular switch off. This behavior likely becomes grating over time, leaving their audiences thinking more along the lines of, “Wow, he really thinks he’s special doesn’t he?” This is one way that longer-term acquaintances of narcissists begin to view them as arrogant.

In addition, it’s worth keeping in mind that this is enhancement. While a narcissist is also likely to play up their legitimate achievements, they will try to cast all of their experiences as wins. They’re motivated to constantly portray themselves in the best possible light. This means that they may try to showcase achievements that aren’t their own, or even objective failures, as big wins to outsiders. This will obviously be off-putting to anyone who knows what really happened. In the short term, this may seem like an unlikely, or one-off behavior, and be dismissed or forgiven. Over time, it becomes a pattern that distances the narcissist from potential allies.

From a more active perspective, a narcissist may become angry or hostile if their exceptionally positive self-views are challenged. This makes them very sensitive to criticism, whether constructive or otherwise. When the narcissist is faced with realistic feedback, they’re likely to come off as “thin-skinned” to observers.

Additionally, like the clinical variant of Narcissist Personality Disorder, subclinical narcissists don’t just self-enhance; they actively want to feel superior to other people. This can often lead them to denigrate other’s accomplishments, to hijack attention directed at others’ success, or, potentially to sabotage their rivals. This is a dominant—even domineering—characteristic. In the short term, this sort of behavior allows narcissists to capture attention, which can help them to advance their positions. Over time, though, this sort of relational aggression gets noticed, and people are not going to typically respond positively to it. Thus, in the long run, the narcissist doesn’t just seem full of him-or herself, but also actively hostile towards others. 

In the coming weeks, I hope to move away from our recent focus on narcissism, to explore some of the other aspects of the dark side of personality. We will start with the other main components of the Dark Triad, Machiavellianism and psychopathy, but then we will move onto characteristics such as paranoid personality, obsessive-compulsive personality, and histrionic personality, among others. 

About the Author

Seth Spain

Seth Spain, Ph.D., an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Binghamton University, is an industrial/organizational psychologist who studies the dark side of work.

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