Which Is the More Narcissistic Sex?
Research has the answer, and it's not even close.
Posted Mar 07, 2015
If you've ever wondered whether men or women are more narcissistic, the scientific evidence is in, and the men "win."
Before discussing why we can confidently make this statement, it's worth reviewing the terminology: People who are high on the trait of narcissism tend to be self-focused, exploitative of others, low in empathy, and in need of attention. However, it's important to realize that not all narcissists are equally convinced of their own greatness. “Vulnerable” narcissists hold a weak self-image under their veneer of self-assurance. Those who tend toward the more exploitative end of the continuum, in contrast, seem to have a firmer sense of their own (fantastic, they believe) attributes.
Whether vulnerable or exploitative, a person high on narcissism is likely to expend a great deal of energy on looking good to others, which, in turn, requires a certain amount of preening and prepping. Narcissists, indeed, do like to look at themselves in the mirror and invest excessive amounts of time and money on their appearance.
If you were to look take a casual glance at the gender slant in the marketing of cosmetics, clothing, and other appearance-enhancing products, you would be certain that it’s women who deserve the narcissism prize. However, if you stop and examine the drug and department store aisles of products directed toward men, you’ll see plenty of products aimed at the narcissistic male. The desire to look good may just take a different form in males than in females.
Consider the simple example of footwear: Men will spend hundreds of dollars on colorful sneakers endorsed by a sports icon if they think it will make them look "cool." At the other end of the casual-to-dressy spectrum, the suit a man buys typically costs two to three times as much as one in which a woman will invest. We won’t even begin to talk about cars intended to appeal to men’s macho instincts, designer jewelry, and appointments with the hairstylist.
But this is just anecdotal evidence—what do the psychological data say? SUNY-Buffalo psychologist Emily Grijalva (2015) and her team of collaborators analyzed the data from more than a half-million adults studied from 1990 to 2013 using the well-established Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). Not only were Grijalva and her team able to examine gender differences, but they also had the data to look for trends across the 23 years covered in the research on gender differences across age groups, and age trends in general.
The NPI goes beyond mere self-absorption to examine the darker side of narcissistic personality tendencies:
- The darkest is the Exploitative/Entitlement factor, associated with a host of negative behaviors including aggression, counterproductive work behaviors, cheating, and expecting others to provide repayment for supposed insults (being “narcissistically wounded”).
- Leadership/Authority is the second component of the NPI, referring to an individual’s desire to lead and exert power over others. People who score high on this component agree with statements such as, “I would prefer to be a leader,” and, “I like having authority over people.”
- Third, the Grandiose/Exhibitionism factor measures what you might associate most readily with narcissism—vanity, self-absorption, claims of superiority, and a desire to show off. Items from this scale include, “I like to display my body,” and, “I like to be the center of attention.”
These components fit the profile of the overtly narcissistic individual who has, or appears to have, an inflated self-view. As indicated above, the vulnerable narcissist, by contrast, has a façade of narcissism constructed over an inner sense of inferiority. Turning to another well-regarded test, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) allowed Grijalva and team to examine the vulnerability pole of the narcissism dimension in separate analyses.
This background shows why it’s theoretically possible for men to outscore women on at least two, if not all three of these narcissistic qualities. If for no other reason than gender role socialization, in which men are expected to show their dominance, leadership, and aggressiveness, the narcissistic male’s behavior can be highly socially rewarding. Women may be punished for trying to outdo male partners, at work, or in the home. Exhibitionism may be more rewarded in women, conversely, because they may be pressured to show their bodies to advantage to attract romantic partners. Vulnerability may also be more of "a female thing” because, again, the socialization that many girls experience may cause them to doubt or question their own abilities.
How do the data bear out these predictions? Through the magic of meta-analysis, a sophisticated statistical technique for sifting through vast amounts of data, Grijalva and team ran the statistics from the hundreds of studies on hundreds of thousands of participants over those 23 years of the study. Men outscored women not just on the first two, but all three of the NPI scales tapping the exploitative, dominant, and grandiose sides of narcissism. The men were particularly likely to receive high scores on the Exploitative/Entitlement scale compared to women, but as a whole, men came out ahead—or behind, depending on how you view narcissistic tendencies.
Perhaps surprisingly, men and women came out as equal on the vulnerable pole of the narcissism dimension; feelings of insecurity are not reserved for women. What’s more, there were no age differences within the gender gap in narcissism. A narcissistic aging man is as likely to worry about his receding hairline as his aging female counterpart is to fret about her wrinkles. This is particularly interesting in view of the similarity between genders on that appearance-sensitive component of narcissism.
Finally, the Grijalva analyses supported other studies, in that the scores from newer studies on college students (with millennials as participants) were in the range of those from older studies. Thus, narcissism shows no gender gap, nor does it seem to be especially problematic among today’s young adults.
There are important practical applications of the findings, according to Grijalva and the study team: The most significant, perhaps, is that the higher entitlement scores of men may be driving the consistent gender gap in salaries. Men, particularly those on the high end of the exploitation dimension, have no trouble demanding to be paid what they believe themselves to be worth. On the other hand, because exploitative narcissism is linked to counterproductive work behaviors, men may also be likely to engage in aggressive acts that jeopardize their career progress.
There’s nothing very nice about extreme narcissism, but there may be some distinct advantages in a world that rewards self-promotion and dominance. Furthermore, there are healthy forms of narcissism that can boost your resilience and self-esteem. If you recognize yourself as the highly exploitative narcissistic male, or the partner of one, though, these advantages may quickly become liabilities. Recognizing where these tendencies come from is the best way to tame them and even use them to your advantage.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015
Grijalva, E., Newman, D. A., Tay, L., Donnellan, M. B., Harms, P. D., Robins, R. W., & Yan, T. (2014). Gender Differences in Narcissism: A Meta-Analytic Review. Psychological Bulletin, doi:10.1037/a0038231