How to Spot a Narcissist
Welcome to the contradictory universe of narcissism.
By Scott Barry Kaufman published July 5, 2011 - last reviewed on December 9, 2016
Portrait of the Narcissist as a Young Man
As he tells it, the man was a 21-year-old on break from college and eager to try a new sex act with his girlfriend. Well, technically she was not his girlfriend because "she thought we were dating. I knew better, but she was way too hot to bother correcting." He convinced a friend to hide in the closet and film the act so as to record his prowess for posterity. The plan went amok and the woman fled his apartment wrapped only in a fouled sheet. How do we know this intimate detail? It's on his Web site.
The man in question, Tucker Max, has built a publishing empire out of such moments, cataloging them online and in books that have sold more than 2 million copies. Max, who spawned the literary genre "fratire," boasts that he gets about five sexual offers a day via email, Facebook, and Twitter alone.
"This is the norm for pretty much any male celeb," says Max. "I'm just the first guy who ever wrote stuff down in a really funny, really honest, really compelling way. I'm famous for this sh*t."
Tucker Max and his ilk stoke our attention and our ire —sometimes in equal measure. They are a decidedly mixed bag; therein lies one of the many paradoxes of narcissism and the primary reason narcissists are so difficult to identify and understand. If narcissists were just jerks, they would be easy to avoid. The fact that they are entertaining and exciting as well as aggressive and manipulative makes them compelling in the real world and as subjects of psychological scrutiny.
A cross section of the narcissist's ego will reveal high levels of self-esteem, grandiosity, self-focus, and self-importance. They think they are more physically attractive and intelligent than just about everyone, and would rather be admired than liked. They are enraged when told they aren't beautiful or brilliant but aren't affected much if told they are jerks.
Odious as these qualities may be, we've all got a narcissistic streak within. Narcissism is a stable trait that varies in degree from person to person. Some aspects, including confidence and self-sufficiency, are healthy and adaptive. It is only at the extreme end of the spectrum that narcissism becomes a disorder, often because toxic levels of vanity, entitlement, and exploitativeness are on display. The idea that narcissism is a constellation of traits that exists on a continuum, rather than a single, dichotomous label (you are or are not narcissistic), is reflected in plans to jettison the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder in the forthcoming DSM-V, the diagnostic manual for clinicians.
Narcissists thrive in big, anonymous cities, entertainment-related fields (think reality TV), and leadership situations where they can dazzle and dominate others without having to cooperate or suffer the consequences of a bad reputation. "A narcissist monk would not be good, but to be Kanye West and a narcissist is fantastic," notes University of South Alabama psychologist Peter Jonason, an expert on mating psychology and the darker side of human nature.
Narcissism tends to peak in adolescence and decline with age. Psychologist Frederick Stinson and his colleagues conducted face-to-face interviews with 34,653 adults and found that men are more narcissistic than women across the lifespan. Male and female narcissists both share a marked need for attention, the propensity to manipulate, and a keen interest in charming the other sex. This bent is so strong that some psychologists, including Jonason and graduate student Nicholas Holtzman of Washington University in St. Louis, argue that narcissism may have evolved as a strategy to secure sexual partners in the short-term. The ways in which narcissists of both genders pursue their quarry reinforces this possibility.
Women who score high on tests of narcissism consistently dress more provocatively than their more modest counterparts; male narcissists resort to displays of wit and braggadocio —in other words, both narcissistic men and women engage in time-tested sexual strategies. They also report more short-term hook-ups and a greater desire for this type of union. This relentless short-term focus is a key to both their dark charm and to the predictable downward trajectory of their relationships.
Beware the Opening Gambit
Narcissists will be thrilled to hear that as a group they are rated as more attractive and likable than everyone else at first appearance. Simine Vazire of Washington University and her colleagues found that narcissists have a distinct physical signature. They're considered more stylishly clad, cheerful, and physically appealing at first sight than are those who score lower in narcissism. In Vazire's study, the narcissistic women were impeccably groomed and the men were more chiseled than their non-preening peers. Indeed, a range of studies find a robust link between narcissism and physical attractiveness, and narcissists' tactics for standing out are well-documented, often by themselves. Case in point: the VH-1 self-declared pickup artist Mystery, who sports platform shoes, black fingernails, and just enough odd accessories (goggles/velvet hat) to give shy women a built-in icebreaker.
While narcissists often love the sound of their own voice, they don't always sound pretty to others. Nicholas Holtzman and Michael Strube found that subjects who scored higher in narcissism engaged in more disagreeable verbal behaviors, arguing and cursing more—and using more sexual language than their more modest counterparts.
Narcissists' language and demeanor is often geared toward one objective: to maintain power in an interaction. Psychologist Anita Vangelisti of the University of Texas at Austin found that tactics in the narcissists' toolbox include bragging, refocusing the topic of conversation, making exaggerated hand movements, talking loudly, and showing disinterest by "glazing over" when others speak.
In the sexual realm, promiscuity is a key strategy that allows narcissists to maintain control. Think the "principle of least interest," in which the partner with the least interest in a relationship has the greatest power. "I allow a woman to feel the gift of really wanting me whenever I feel she needs to feel that," notes Mystery in The Pickup Artist: The New and Improved Art of Seduction. "Every three weeks or so I remind her that I continue to have options, and continue to choose her."
Promiscuity is a key behavioral ingredient also, because narcissists are always searching for a better deal. Psychologists Joshua Foster at the University of South Alabama and W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia found that when narcissists think their partner is committed, they are even more willing to cheat, presumably because they feel that they are more likely to get away with it. And narcissists get a rush out of convincing partners to do things or engage in sexual acts that they would normally eschew.
Because control is so important to narcissists, they can abruptly lose their charm if destabilized or threatened. This two-faced behavior is often the first clue to their true character. They get angry when rejected, overreacting to small slights and punishing those who do not support their grandiose image of themselves. One study even found that when spurned, highly narcissistic individuals "punished" other research participants who had nothing to do with the rejection itself.
Narcissists get away with these unsavory antics because, at least initially, they are so charming. Psychologist Mitja D. Back of Johannes Gutenberg-University in Mainz, Germany, and his colleagues deconstructed the "charismatic air" that many narcissists exude: attractiveness, competence, interpersonal warmth, and humor. Among a pool of college students, those reporting higher levels of entitlement tended to be the most popular students in the class. In a separate study, Back and his colleagues found that while students expected charming individuals to like others more, people with "self-centered values" actually dislike others more.
Clearly, narcissists are easily misread. The picture is further complicated by the fact that, as Back and his colleagues demonstrate, both extraverts and narcissists have an interpersonal style that endears them to others. So to conclude that a person may be narcissistic based on energetic and self-assured body movements, friendly facial expressions, and original introductions would be to dismiss many non-narcissists.
Narcissists' manipulative bent can be a lever for social influence as much as for exploitation. This is why narcissism and leadership often go hand in hand. The fun-loving narcissist may enjoy widespread networking and dominating a social group not because they want to exploit every person in their path, but simply because they desire the positive reinforcement of others. More intentionally exploitative behavior is considered Machiavellian and, at the extreme, psychopathic.
Together with narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy form a cluster of distinct but related traits known as the "dark triad." In this disagreeable constellation, narcissism is the gentlest star. Narcissism is linked much more tightly to extraversion than are the other two, suggesting that narcissism may be the most positive, social, and outgoing component of this triad. And when narcissists do behave negatively and aggressively, they tend to do so in response to social exclusion. Machiavellian and psychopathic types are more hostile to physical provocation.
Solving Core Narcissistic Riddles
In 1984, psychologist Robert Emmons posed the original narcissistic paradox: He noted that narcissists simultaneously devalue others even as they need others' admiration. Back's research on narcissism now allows psychologists to resolve this long-standing paradox. It appears that narcissists seek out people who maintain their high positive self-image, at the same time intentionally avoiding and putting down people who may give them a harsh dose of realism. "Seeking admiration is like a drug for narcissists," notes Back. "In the long run it becomes difficult because others won't applaud them, so they always have to search for new acquaintances from whom they get the next fix." This could explain why narcissists so frequently change their social contexts and maintain only weak ties to others.
Another long-standing mystery concerns the developmental pathway to narcissism. Is narcissism the result of indiscriminate parental praise, or of coldness and rejection? Freud believed narcissism resulted from some combination of the two. Recent research by Lorna Otway and Vivian Vignoles suggests that Freud may have been right: The whiplash combination of parental coldness and excessive parental admiration is more strongly related to maladaptive narcissism than is either attitude alone.
The researchers argue that this "combination of childhood experiences may help to explain the paradoxical combination of grandiosity and fragility that is so characteristic of adult narcissists." The narcissist who receives indiscriminate praise from his or her caregiver as well as signals of coldness and rejection may come to distrust the praise and exist in a perpetual state of insecurity. Back argues that peers also contribute to this dynamic, in that their positive first impressions fade: "Narcissists are popular so they get positive feedback, but are then devalued in the long term," when people learn their true colors.
Inconsistent feedback can breed a deep craving for admiration in a person with narcissistic tendencies —hence the quest for fleeting ego boosts. In the sexual realm, a narcissist may be satisfied just knowing a person finds him or her attractive. "I feel so much better about myself when I know that a girl likes me enough to sleep with me," notes Mystery in his book.
Even the narcissist's awareness that they are narcissistic is paradoxical. Graduate student Erica Carlson and her colleagues found that college students scoring high in narcissism rated themselves more intelligent, physically attractive, likable, and funny than others, as well as more power-oriented, impulsive, arrogant, and prone to exaggerate their abilities! In other words, they knew exactly how others viewed them. The study found that narcissists were even aware that their reputations worsened over time. They just didn't care.
How can narcissists maintain their inflated self-image even though they know how they are perceived by others? Carlson argues that such people "might think arrogance is a positive trait, like extraversion." Narcissists may also have unique coping mechanisms that allow them to reframe negative reactions. "They know that in certain situations [such as on first meeting] they are better than others and they use this positive information to generally reinterpret other experiences," notes Back. Narcissists may conclude that others are just jealous ("haters!"), or just not smart enough to realize how "bitchin'" they really are.
Proceed with Caution: The Narcissist as Romantic Partner
The narcissistic blend of flash and callousness, light and dark—coupled with a relentless focus on short-term objectives—ensures no shortage of sexual and romantic partners at the outset, many of whom will leave the relationship hurt and baffled. Once again, first impressions quickly go sour. Campbell and his colleagues found that people who date narcissists are highly satisfied for about four months, at which point they report a rapid decline in relations. Ironically, the four-month mark is when people start to reach peak satisfaction when dating non-narcissists. Yet the initial excitement and charm offered by the narcissist is hard to resist. "When I eat chocolate cake, 20 minutes later I'm under my desk wanting to die," jokes Campbell. "When I eat broccoli, in 20 minutes I feel good. But given the choice I always eat the cake."
In the long term, both men and women get frustrated with narcissistic partners, but since more men are interested in short-term flings, narcissistic women don't tend to bother men as much as narcissistic men frustrate women.
Narcissistic men tend to attract women who crave drama. Empathic women who are "caretakers" may also be drawn to narcissistic men, thinking erroneously that they will be able to alter negative traits.
Women's attraction to narcissistic traits may also depend, in part, on where she is in her ovulatory cycle. In a study conducted by Steven Gangestad at the University of New Mexico, 237 women watched videotapes of men compete for a lunch date. On days when women were at high fertility, they were much more attracted to displays of social presence (e.g., composure, eye contact) and competitiveness (e.g., derogation of competitors), both of which signal the confidence that is the narcissist's hallmark.
Men with narcissistic tendencies place much more emphasis on physical appearance than on an empathic partner, and not merely for the arm-candy factor one might expect. Narcissists are interested in "tens" [gorgeous women] in part because they believe such women may be most susceptible to their manipulative tactics! "Players" like Mystery argue that the interest of a great-looking woman is piqued by playful yet ambiguous comments ("negs") because such a woman is so used to being approached through flattery and to being in control of an interaction. "Not so fast! It's too early in the relationship for you to touch me like that," or "You have interesting eyes" are two such lines. "A neg is not an insult, just a judgment call on your part," argues Mystery in The Pickup Artist: The New and Improved Art of Seduction. "The better-looking the girl, the more aggressive you must be."
Narcissistic men walk an especially fine line when it comes to attracting women, because assertiveness is sexy, whereas dominance, often laced with aggression, is not. The key may be where the narcissist's boldness is directed. Psychologist Lauri Jensen-Campbell found that dominance alone isn't sexually appealing, but the interaction of dominance and prosocial behaviors is very attractive. Psychologist Jeffrey Snyder found that male dominance was attractive (for both a short-term and long-term affair) in the context of an athletic competition, but not when men used force or threat of force in informal decision-making among peers. Women appear to be very attuned to cues that men may direct their aggression toward a female.
In the realm of friendship, Jonason and his colleagues find that narcissistic women seek out higher-status opposite-sex friends whereas narcissistic men tend to have other male friends, sometimes called "wingmen," who also have a short-term mating strategy and can help each other exploit women. "Women are looking to get something from the guys, and guys are looking for a teammate to take advantage of the world," notes Jonason.
Perhaps the greatest paradox of all is that narcissism is neither absolutely good nor bad. Narcissism can be adaptive or maladaptive, appealing or appalling, depending on how charm and cunning are deployed. Anyone can mix and match narcissistic traits —including confidence, self-sufficiency, and assertiveness —with more communal traits such as cooperation and empathy, to be effective in any situation.
Still, you may be wondering whether you are are a full-fledged card-carrying narcissist. You could always go online and take the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) to find out if this is the case. But if you truly are a narcissist, you probably already know it —and you don't care!
Read Scott Barry Kaufman's PT blog: "Beautiful Minds."
5 Signs of a Stealth Narcissist
Flashy clothing and sky-high confidence are the "public" face of narcissism. Here are a few additional cues, some contradictory, in keeping with the narcissist's paradoxical nature.
Bragging about one's perfect family (no one's family is perfect).
Hypergenerosity in public to demonstrate that one has power, but coldness once the camera is off.
Hypersensitive and insecure. This includes imagining criticism where it doesn't exist and getting depressed by perceived criticism."Vulnerable" narcissists are self-centered and overly defensive.
Prone to a vast array of negative emotions including depression, anxiety, self-consciousness, and shame owing to not being given their "due." Such feelings can be an indication of egocentricity and self-absorption.
Repeatedly puts down other people, especially inferiors and strangers. Loves to talk about him or herself and mentions others mainly to name-drop.
Are You in Love With a Narcissist?
If you find yourself repeatedly pursuing people who need to be the center of attention, consider how to de-narcissify your encounters:
- Slow down. Don't put so much stock in your initial attraction. Be open-minded to non-flashy people.
- Observe a variety of settings. Extraverts can be very hard to distinguish from narcissists. Assess a person in multiple contexts before getting in too deep, and solicit honest input from friends.
- Consider the venue. If you frequent bars and clubs, you are more likely to encounter narcissists on the prowl.
- Examine why you may be attracted to narcissists. If you are searching for an ambitious person who is not "too nice," you are likely drawn to narcissists. What needs of yours do narcissists exploit?
- Get out as soon as you can. Don't try to change him or her. Remember, this person enjoys being a narcissist. The more emotionally attached you get, the easier it will be for the narcissist to manipulate you.
- Take control of the situation. "The situation you are in does not necessarily reflect your personality," says W. Keith Campell in When You Love a Man Who Loves Himself. "Responsibility is the ability to respond."