Narcissism

The Latest and Simplest Way to Spot a Narcissist

What narcissists do that non-narcissists do not in the era of COVID-19.

Posted Sep 22, 2020

People high in narcissism make your life difficult, if not somewhat unendurable. If you’ve been taken advantage of by a person with narcissistic traits, you know how easily they can manipulate you into thinking you can trust them. When you ultimately find out they didn’t have your best interests in mind at all, you feel let down if not defeated. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to detect narcissism in a person before all this materializes?

COVID-19 has provided a remarkably easy way to spot a person high in narcissism before the relationship gets started. It’s as easy as looking at someone’s face when you’re in a public setting. Is the face covered or not? Obviously, a facemask covers your face. If you think your face is attractive, the mask definitely cuts into your ability to impress other people.

Oddly enough, some people think the facemask gives them a good look. In July 2020, President Donald Trump claimed that he thought his black mask gave him the appearance of the Lone Ranger. Even so, he notably eschews wearing a mask in public, contributing to the political divide that’s emerged with regard to facemask use.

It’s possible that the mask-less people you might meet aren't making a political statement but just don’t want to cover what they regard as their appealing facial features. Before jumping to conclusions, though, it would be nice to know what the evidence might be supporting facemask use and its possible links to narcissism. Given the relative recency of the need for face coverings, there are no direct investigations of this question. However, a 2019 study by University of Toronto’s Miranda Giacomin and Nicholas Rule comes remarkably close to providing an answer, one that you eventually can use in what might ultimately become a post-COVID era.

Noting that “Making accurate first impressions can prevent costly interpersonal mistakes,” the Canadian authors suggest that if you could get to the “dark” personality tendencies involving high narcissism lying underneath “charismatic veneers,” you could avoid such “toxic individuals” (p. 373). Perhaps surprisingly, Giacomin and Rule ultimately settled on the eyebrows as the part of the face that might provide the giveaway regarding an individual’s true personality. If the eyebrows are so informative, then you would be able add what shows above the facemask as you form that all-important first impression.

To understand how the U of Toronto authors came to this conclusion, their rationale provides an important backdrop to the study. Being able to “spot a narcissist,” as the authors note, involves interpreting the relevant cues that you can see in physical appearance. These cues include wearing stylish and expensive clothes, but even without these adornments, a narcissist carries an “enduring physical signature” (p. 374). Although eyebrows can be fussed with to a certain extent, they still remain somewhat fixed and could therefore add to that instantaneous impression they broadcast to others.

The first step in the U of Toronto study was for the authors to find out which eyebrow types were most strongly linked to narcissism. They did so by asking a sample of participants to complete a standard narcissism measure, which has items such as, “If I ruled the world it would be a better place,” “I like to show off my body,” and “I like to have authority over other people.” Participants in this first phase of the research posed for closeups which then became digitally manipulated to isolate the different parts of the face. These cut-up photos were then used to determine which regions provided the closest link to narcissism scores, comparing eyebrows alone to those showing the entire face, the top half, the bottom half, the eyes plus eyebrows, and the full face upside-down.

After comparing all regions of the face, the authors found that it was indeed the eyebrows that alone provided strong cues for the grandiose form of narcissism (e.g. “If I ruled the world”). This first study was suggestive, but the sample was small and the methods required further refinement, such as obtaining more faces of men. In the remaining series of studies using online adult participants, Giacomin and Rule employed a series of the methodological controls needed to confirm the first set of findings.

Across the remaining series of three studies conducted in this investigation, the Canadian authors were able to demonstrate not only that eyebrows alone provided distinctive narcissism cues, but that if one set of eyebrows from a narcissist were swapped in a photo with the eyebrows of someone who was a non-narcissist, the eyebrows still remained the most salient predictor of narcissism ratings.

What, then, is it about eyebrows that provides this distinctive cue to the individual’s personality? Using three coders to rate the importance of specific eyebrow features, the Canadian researchers honed in on the three dimensions of grooming, distinctiveness, and femininity. The strongest specific indicators of grooming were whether the two eyebrows matched, how shaped they were, and how plucked or trimmed they were. On distinctiveness, the main cues were distance between the two eyebrows, darkness, thickness, denseness, and just plain distinctiveness. Eyebrows that were arched were the most likely to be seen as feminine.

In answering the question “Why eyebrows?” the authors suggest their importance in providing nonverbal cues. The raised eyebrow means one thing, the eyebrows drawn together something else, and the raising of both eyebrows yet a third nonverbal meaning. Eyebrows are also remarkable in helping you identify the faces of celebrities, as determined in prior research involving familiarity ratings of such divergent people as Richard Nixon and Winona Ryder. Without the eyebrows, participants in these studies had trouble identifying these very recognizable individuals.

In terms of narcissism, people use their eyebrows to increase their likeability and potential to be recognized. When they shape their eyebrows, then, they try to shape their impression. 

With or without a facemask, you now potentially have the ability to make a snap judgment about a person’s level of narcissism. Returning to the question of the actual wearing of the mask, it would seem to be a logical extension of the Giacomin and Rule study to regard a person’s decision to flaunt public health guidance as an even more evident narcissism indicator. As many public service announcements state, wearing a mask protects not just you, but the people who are around you.

To sum up, finding out who’s going to try to charm and manipulate you at first glance is a very adaptive skill. Using these very evident facial cues, from masks to eyebrows, can help you decide in a glance to steer clear and instead move on to people who will ultimately provide you with more fulfilling relationships.

Facebook image: Dobrunov Nichita Alex/Shutterstock

References

Giacomin, M., & Rule, N. O. (2018). Eyebrows cue grandiose narcissism. Journal of Personality. doi:10.1111/jopy.12396