Nick Hobson Ph.D.

Ritual and the Brain


Why the Narcissist in Your Life Is So Hard to Understand

New research attempts to better grasp the complex traits of narcissists.

Posted Mar 20, 2018

When early researchers started looking at what the “narcissistic personality” entailed, they drew on features of self-centeredness, vanity, and a lack of empathy on one hand, and feelings of inferiority and shame on the other.

So, society formed this image of the narcissist—a person who is arrogant and pretentious but secretly insecure. Contradictory, right?

So contradictory, in fact, that researchers today fail to agree on whether narcissists possess high or low self-esteem. Decades of research muddied the narcissism waters.

Greater clarity is needed to truly understand this personality type and to resolve these disparate past findings. This was the aim of a group of scientists at Iowa State University in their creation of the Narcissism Spectrum Model (NSM): to reconcile both vain and vulnerable personality features in better understanding the complex behaviors and cognitions of narcissists.

A model that entails all qualities of a narcissist

To do so, the scientists first deconstructed narcissism. First and foremost, the NSM model refers to narcissism as entitled self-importance, meaning that a narcissist would be someone who puts their own needs above those of others. A great deal of evidence states that self-centeredness and self-importance are at the core of narcissistic personalities.

By putting self-entitlement smack-dab in the center of the model, we’re able to look at both ends of the spectrum—to consider both grandiose and vulnerable traits together.

Furthermore, the model assumes that narcissistic features develop over an individual’s lifetime, which further suggests that different life pathways and environmental differences can change how one’s personality develops between the two opposite ends. In other words, a classic narcissist may be arrogant and egocentric in a social setting, but inhibited and self-conscious at work.

Validating the model

To test the model, the team of researchers gave surveys to a group of young adults. These surveys included scales of narcissistic features.

The results were consistent with what the NSM predicted. The sample reflected feelings of entitlement, as well as feelings of shame. However, they also revealed that these entitled people show varying depictions of grandiosity and vulnerability. So, people can show mostly arrogance or fragility, or even a mix of both. It provides further evidence that narcissism can be viewed from a multidimensional perspective.

Rather than a contradiction in terms, the revised model accounts for the two (seemingly) opposite personality features. It’s precisely because narcissists are self-centered that they can be both arrogant and vulnerable. Ultimately, all they care about is themselves.


Zlatan, K., & Herlache, A. D. (2017). The Narcissism Spectrum Model: A Synthetic View of Narcissistic Personality. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 22, 3–31., doi:10.1177/1088868316685018.