I have just about given up on narcissism.
Sure, it’s extraordinary powerful for explaining some people’s behavior, and sure, it’s complex and fascinating. But it is also mired in an enormous amount of myth, misinformation, and confusion, and fighting against it is beginning to feel like wading through mud.
The latest example comes from essayist Kristin Dombeck, who writes that narcissism is just something people use to label others so they can feel better about themselves. As anyone who has been in a relationship with a narcissist knows, narcissism is unfortunately real, and has real consequences. With thousands of research articles on the topic, not to mention thousands of stories from people who have been hurt by narcissists, it is incredible anyone is still debating this.
Dombeck also perpetuates a number of other myths about narcissism that are completely wrong, but just don’t seem to want to die.
For example: That narcissism is a cover for low self-esteem. At least for grandiose narcissism – which is the type Keith Campbell and I write about in The Narcissism Epidemic – the research is extremely clear: Narcissism is linked to high self-esteem, not low. Even when self-esteem is measured subtly with implicit measures, narcissism is linked to high self-esteem.
According to Minnesota Public Radio, Dombeck writes, “When Twenge and her collaborators compared narcissism scores to self-esteem scores, they discovered that both rose together. This raised the problem of what they were finding, given that narcissism had long been considered a cover for low self-esteem. Rather than doubting what they were measuring was narcissism, Twenge decided that 100 years of qualitative research had been wrong.”
This is so factually incorrect it’s laughable. There was no “problem.” The Narcissistic Personality Inventory – the measure used in the study showing rising scores – has always been correlated with high self-esteem. That’s been found since the early 1990s. I didn’t “decide” anything – this research was done by others, most of it years before we did our study.
I’m also not exactly sure what she means by “100 years of qualitative research.” Freudian theories are not research. In addition, we were very explicit in the book that we were focusing on grandiose narcissism, not the vulnerable narcissism often pondered by clinicians.
The idea that most narcissists are actually insecure is not just wrong – it’s dangerous. If they are really just covering for a shattered self, many people think, they can be cured with love. Unfortunately that’s not true for the majority of narcissists, and giving them more love usually leads to heartbreak.
Dombeck also seems to believe that we should “doubt” whether what we were measuring was narcissism. The NPI, which we used in the study, is the measure of narcissistic personality used in 80% of research studies. Almost everything we know about how narcissists behave is based on this measure. If it’s not narcissism, then what is?
At another point in her essay, she mentions a teen featured on MTV’s show My Super Sweet Sixteen, whom we featured as an example in The Narcissism Epidemic. (The teen wanted the street blocked off for her party even though there was a hospital that patients would then not be able to access). “Two years later, she became exhibit A in The Narcissism Epidemic,” Dombeck wrote. “Allison was typical, they argued, of the generation now poised to rule the world -- a.k.a. Generation Me.” Except we never claimed she was typical. She’s an extreme example, not the average. Describing her as “exhibit A” is also a gross exaggeration: the data on narcissism and its correlates was exhibit A.
People also still link to studies from 2008 and 2010 that purportedly show that narcissism has not risen – even though they both show the same rise we found when the data are analyzed correctly (see here and here). The last paper was published in 2010, so the so-called “debate” has been over for six years. Yet it still comes up. Even if you decide to set aside our study showing the rise in NPI scores, there is still an overwhelming amount of evidence (detailed here) for rising positive self-views, plus a newer study from Korea here.
No matter how false they are, the myths about narcissism just don’t seem to die. It doesn't seem to matter how much evidence there is. I could keep fighting these myths, or I could move on. I’m choosing the latter – I think I’m done with narcissism.