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The Charlie Sheen Debacle: Why Are Narcissists So Charismatic (At First)?

Watch out for these tell-tale signs of the manipulative narcissist.

In today's post, I'm going to veer away from the usual introversion/extroversion axis, to talk about a different but equally fascinating phenomenon: narcissism.

The latest Charlie Sheen mess (in which the astronomically paid TV actor with a history of domestic violence ranted on syndicated radio against everyone from his boss to Thomas Jefferson) has to make you wonder: why are we so fascinated by narcissistic jerks? Even if a person has acting talent and a nice square jaw, shouldn’t we be able to see through his grandiosity and contempt for others, and automatically find him unworthy of attention?

Here’s one answer, based on a set of studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and reported on by Scott Barry Kaufman in his wonderful blog, Beautiful Minds:

We watch people like Charlie Sheen BECAUSE they are narcissistic, not in spite of it.

The first study asked groups of students to work together in a series of 2.5 hour sessions. By the seventh session, the narcissistic students were rated by their classmates as less agreeable than others, less well-adjusted, less warm, and more arrogant. But in the original meeting, these same students had been rated as MORE agreeable and better adjusted.

This was the Charlie Sheen phenomenon, and just what you’d predict: narcissists are popular at first; only later do they get into trouble interpersonally. Narcissists have high levels of self-importance, grandiosity, and superiority to others; they famously have trouble with long-term relationships.

So then why are they so popular at first? A second study set out to answer this question. This time, 73 college freshmen who had never met each other took turns standing up in front of the room and introducing themselves. Then they evaluated how likable each speaker was and how much they’d like to get to know the speaker better.

The researchers found, as expected, that the most narcissistic students (those who had scored high on a narcissism questionnaire) tended to be better liked. Not only that, but the type of narcissism that was most predictive of popularity was the most malignant kind. It turns out that there are many different kinds of narcissism, some of them more benign than others. On the more harmless end of the spectrum are narcissists who seek out leadership roles. On the most corrosive end are those who enjoy manipulating and exploiting people.

It was the manipulators and exploiters who were the most popular upon introducing themselves!

This is very strange when you think about it, but the explanation is pretty straightforward. Narcissistic exploiters tend to have four attractive characteristics that are on blatant display when you first meet them.


  • dress neatly and flashily
  • have charming facial expressions
  • have self-assured body language
  • are verbally witty and find interesting and colorful ways to introduce themselves

In fact, the research suggests that if you meet someone at a cocktail party who has all four of these qualities, s/he is more likely than not to be a narcissistic manipulator!

What on earth are we supposed to do with this information? Kaufman suggests, with his tongue only partly in cheek, that we train ourselves to seek the company of people who have the opposite of these qualities when you first meet them:

“My message to all those who are sick of being duped by narcissists, assholes, chauvinistics, etc. is to change the script entirely. Girls, next time you go to a club, …give the guy a chance who approaches you and isn’t smooth at all but seems like he is genuinely interested in you. Give those a chance who don’t at first display all four super attractive qualities and see if after talking to them for a little while and you’ve given them a chance to open up a bit, if they start to naturally turn on the qualities you are seeking in a potential mate/friend…The appeal of the bad boy, the allure of the narcissist, the attraction of the jerk, etc. etc. is such a re-ocurring theme across humanity that I’m happy to see some real empirical research finally shedding some light on these issues.”

I have another idea. I think that good guys and gals might also consider borrowing a page from the narcissistic playbook. It’s not that hard to dress neatly and flashily, at least some of the time. You can also practice your charming facial expressions in the mirror, and develop self-assured body language (according to the studies, this is partly a matter of standing up straight and standing in a manner that is “dominant” rather than “withdrawn.”)

This all sounds very exhausting. And this time it’s my tongue that’s partly in cheek. But as of this writing, Sheen just broke a world record by accumulating 2 million followers on Twitter over the weekend. And do we really want to cede the playing field to the Charlie Sheens of the world?

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