Is S/he a Narcissist, Machiavellian, or Just Self-Centered?

What motivates the desire to get ahead? Can someone be too self-focused?

Posted Sep 30, 2014

Let’s face it. Many people are out for themselves – trying to get ahead, to take advantage, and to get as much as they can. When does looking out for Number One go too far? Here are three related personality constructs that all involve self-focus but have different motives and profiles.

Narcissism is extreme selfishness. The narcissist has an inflated view of self and believes that his or her talents and accomplishments are superior to those of others. Narcissists are arrogant, expect to be the center of attention, and lack empathy.

Machiavellianism is the motivation to manipulate others for selfish gains. Machiavellians are exploitative and see others as a means to a selfish end. Typically, Machiavellians are skilled at manipulating others – they possess a form of social intelligence (i.e., knowing what makes others tick and how to influence them), but they lack emotional intelligence (i.e., ability to understand emotions, particularly the emotions of others).

A third, and more extreme, form of self-focus is psychopathy (or sociopathy). The best way to think of psychopathy is that there is a complete lack of conscience – an unawareness of how one’s behavior affects others. Anything goes. There is a total disregard for others, and for the consequences of one’s action.

Taken together, the three – narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy – are sometimes referred to as the Dark Triad. As personality constructs, these traits are typically referred to as “subclinical,” meaning that they do not reach the level of disorders.

But what about individuals who are merely self-centered, focusing much more on themselves and their own gains than on others? Clearly, some level of self-focus exists in all of us, and it can change across the lifespan. For example, as a group, teenagers and young adults tend to have more self-centeredness than older adults. That may be advantageous as young people begin their work careers.

In leadership research, there is evidence that many successful leaders have moderate levels of narcissism – they have a strong sense of self and a drive to get ahead, but clearly too much narcissism is bad and eventually leads to dysfunctional and “toxic” leadership.

What is the antidote for becoming too self-centered? As parents, we need to instill a sense of empathy and concern for others in our children. That is why schools and colleges try to build a culture of service and giving back in our young people. It helps fight against excessive self-centeredness.


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