One Emotion at the Heart of Narcissism

Emotional systems underlying dimensions of narcissism are examined.

Posted Oct 29, 2020

Source: Pixabay/Goumbik

If you had to describe a narcissistic person using only one emotion-related word, what word would you choose? Self-confident? Proud? Shame-prone? Envious? Jealous?

In a paper published in the August 2020 issue of Personality and Individual Differences, Sauls and Zeigler-Hill of Oakland University suggest anger lies at the emotional core of narcissism.

Emotion systems

Some research suggests basic emotion systems influence the development of personality, including narcissistic personality disorder. In other words, narcissistic personality development seems to depend in part on the intensity and frequency of emotions and how the person copes with these emotions.

The emotional systems, according to the Affective Neuroscience Personality Scales (ANPS), consist mainly of the following:

  • Anger (easily feeling irritated)
  • Caring (being softhearted and nurturing)
  • Fear (experiencing anxiety and indecision)
  • Playfulness (being playful and joyful)
  • Sadness (crying, feeling lonely)
  • Seeking (being curious and enjoying exploration)

So, how might emotion systems be related to narcissistic traits—grandiosity, entitlement, vanity, and a tendency to exploit others?

To answer this question, we first need to distinguish different aspects of the narcissistic personality and examine them separately.

Though there are different ways to define narcissism and distinguish between varieties of narcissism, there has been increasing agreement that the dimensions of the narcissistic personality include:

  • Assertive or extraverted narcissism: Self-enhancing and self-promoting.
  • Antagonistic or disagreeable narcissism: Self-protective and self-defensive.
  • Vulnerable or neurotic narcissism: Distressed and unhappy.

Investigation of the link between narcissistic traits and basic emotions

With this information in mind, let us briefly review the present investigation.

The authors conducted two experiments. The characteristics of the samples are described below.

Study 1: 747 students (163 men); average age of 20 years; mostly White.

Study 2: 304 Mechanical Turk workers (150 men); average age, 33 years; mostly White.

The first experiment examined the association between basic emotional systems and the three dimensions of narcissism. Measures included Brief Affective Neuroscience Personality Scales, the Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Questionnaire, and the Narcissistic Vulnerability Scale.

The second experiment attempted to replicate the results of the first and increase its generalizability. In addition, using the Five-Factor Narcissism Inventory, it evaluated the associations between the emotion systems with narcissistic traits. Measures consisted of Brief Affective Neuroscience Personality Scales and Five-Factor Narcissism Inventory.

Correlations between emotion systems and dimensions of narcissism were calculated. And multiple regression analyses were conducted to evaluate unique associations between dimensions of narcissism and the emotional systems.

Source: Pixabay/sabinemondestin

Key findings on the emotional core of narcissism

Researchers found the assertiveness/extraversion dimension of narcissism was linked with positive emotions; also with anger and the absence of sadness and fear.

In contrast, neurotic or vulnerable narcissism was characterized by negative emotions and the absence of positive emotions.

The disagreeable or antagonistic dimension of narcissism was associated with anger and a lack of fear, but also with a lack of positive emotions.

The only emotion linked with all of the three dimensions of narcissism, however, was anger. Therefore, the authors concluded, anger may be the “emotional core of narcissism.”

Let us look at the above findings in a little more detail to see if they make intuitive sense.

Anger and successful narcissists

Consider assertive or extraverted narcissism, which was linked with positive emotions and the absence of fear.

Individuals who are high on this form of narcissism are often among the most successful narcissists (e.g., better functioning at work and in relationships). But why? Perhaps because positive emotions (e.g., joy, interest) motivate them to explore, try new things, and build resources that will help them experience more fulfillment. Furthermore, the presence of only low levels of fear could mean the motivation to avoid undesirable and dangerous outcomes does not stop them from going after what they desire.

But narcissists also experience negative emotions, the main one being anger. Indeed, previous studies have also found anger, hostility, and rage are central to characterizations of narcissism.

Why do narcissists feel angry?

A previous study suggests narcissists may experience anger and rage in reaction to many behaviors because they perceive these behaviors as threatening to their position of authority or inflated sense of entitlement.

Take the example of driving. As Bushman and colleagues note, “The task of driving can often be frustrating, with such obstacles as traffic jams, construction zones, and disrespectful motorists.” Yet, the majority of “drivers brush off such frustrations and go on their merry way. In contrast, narcissists become angry and aggressive when they don’t get the respect they think they deserve.”

And the frequent experience of anger can be dysfunctional. Zeigler-Hill and Sauls note anger may explain many unpleasant behaviors performed by people with narcissistic traits. Indeed, anger often narrows the “thought-action repertoires of individuals.” In other words, anger limits how an individual with a narcissistic personality could respond to frustrations.

When enraged, the narcissist sees others as threats (e.g., to his or her status, rights, freedoms), and thus may behave aggressively toward them. This might provoke others, too, creating a cycle of anger, aggression, and destructive behaviors.