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3 Core Facets of Narcissism, From Malignant to Adaptive

New research provides insights into narcissism’s complex features.

RUBEN M RAMOS/Shutterstock
Source: RUBEN M RAMOS/Shutterstock

There seems to be no end to the fascination with narcissistic personality. Given that narcissism as a personality disorder is technically not highly prevalent, the attention it receives from both psychologists and the public seems disproportionate compared to, for example, depression and anxiety disorders.

At a February 2018 meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association, narcissism was the topic of a considerable number of papers and presentations, as well as casual talk at various receptions. In particular, the psychoanalysts interviewed for the New York Times commented extensively on the “malignant” form of narcissism. Although abiding by the Goldwater Rule that prohibits mental health professionals from diagnosing politicians, the topic of Donald Trump also became part of the conversation.

That ironic tendency of narcissism to become a topic demanding constant attention was aptly summarized by Zlatan Krizan and Anne Herlache of Iowa State University, who note in the opening of their 2018 study that “the narcissistic personality stubbornly persists in puzzling psychologists attempting to understand it, all the while perplexing clinicians attempting to treat its pathological manifestations." Scholars, they note, disagree about (a) narcissism’s key features, (b) how the features are organized, and (c) what accounts for their organization.

The list of features thought to be part of narcissism tends to focus on grandiosity and self-aggrandizement, the Iowa State researchers observe, but it also involves a considerable degree of insecurity and vulnerability. These contradictory features “have awkwardly co-existed throughout the history of the construct." A resolution, Krizan and Herlache believe, is to define narcissism as simply “entitled self-importance." Narcissists, in other words, think they’re more important than everyone else and feel they deserve special treatment.

This definition doesn’t rule out investigations of whether narcissists have high or low self-esteem, are good or poor leaders, or are prone to shame. However, self-importance as a core narcissistic feature does, the authors believe, cut across various theoretical lines and make it possible to move on to the other two core issues.

Once you accept this proposition, the question then becomes why it is that people develop different levels and organizations of narcissistic traits. What processes in early childhood lead individuals to become who they are? The Iowa State researchers maintain that to answer this question requires distinguishing between the orientations of boldness and reactivity. The boldness orientation involves seeking rewards. The reactivity orientation revolves around a desire to avoid threats.

The narcissism spectrum model that the Iowa State psychologists develop incorporates as its central core the dimension from low to high self-importance or entitlement. Imagine a vertical line from low to high in order to visualize this component of the spectrum. Now draw two arrows pointing upwards toward the right and to the left, each at a 40-45 degree angle. The right-facing arrow is the vulnerability factor, defined in terms of defensiveness and resentment. The left-pointing angle is the grandiosity factor, reflecting hubris and exhibitionism.

Both arrows, or vectors, are arranged such that as you move from bottom to top (i.e., to people with more or less narcissism), grandiosity and vulnerability start to split further and further apart. The higher the individual's self-entitlement and grandiosity, the more and more separation occurs between grandiosity and vulnerability. Those who are most self-entitled are either almost all grandiose or almost all vulnerable.

To test their model, Krizan and Herlache administered several narcissism inventories to samples of young adults and observed the interrelations among the scores, testing out statistical models that compared a single factor with others that involved two, and then three. The findings showed that different measures captured different elements of the narcissism spectrum, with some veering more toward grandiosity and others toward vulnerability.

Apart from this methodological contribution of the paper, the findings also suggest that grandiose and vulnerable narcissism variants aren’t just flip sides of the same phenomenon. As the authors predicted in their spectrum model, the more narcissistic the traits within the individual (i.e., the more entitled and self-important), the more likely that individual will be one or the other type.

In the words of the authors, “We fully agree that the bloated and entitled self-concept of grandiose individuals is a key driver of their haughty, exhibitionistic, and—at times—derogatory behavior. However, as elucidated earlier, there is little evidence that hidden fragility necessarily underlies such grandiose self-views." You are one or the other as you move up the narcissistic scale, so the more grandiose you are, the less likely you are to be vulnerable.

Using the narcissism spectrum model, the personality researchers then address the question of how “adaptive” or healthy narcissism differs from its pathological counterpart. They believe that although people high in the vulnerable dimension show greater distress than those high in the grandiose dimension, neither person at the high ends of the central self-importance dimension are off the hook. They do not, as has been the considered wisdom for decades, believe in the “hallmark narcissism ‘meme’” that grandiosity always masks vulnerability.

However, it is possible for people high in narcissism to shift their mode of satisfying their needs for attention and recognition. A businessperson high in grandiose narcissism who’s managed to become sufficiently successful will never display anger until he or she is thwarted. At that point, anger will erupt and “overshadow any impression of charm or social confidence."

The psychoanalysts meeting in New York City who engaged in lengthy debates about the variants of narcissism were operating from the “mask” model rather than the spectrum model, and therefore boiled all narcissistic tendencies into one single dimension. The Iowa State researchers believe it is best to avoid all terminology that attempts to separate narcissists into types, but instead to regard narcissism in terms of degrees from low to high in self-importance or entitlement, with variants dependent on which of the grandiose or vulnerability poles are more evident.

To sum up, our interest in narcissism is unlikely to disappear very soon. Many people have had to experience sufficient maltreatment at a personal or social level by those high in narcissism. This new method of understanding the narcissistic personality places self-centeredness front and center, providing a useful way to characterize narcissism’s two underlying dimensions. When you're dealing with the most narcissistic of all individuals, the grandiosity might not be masking any deep-seated insecurity. The narcissistically vulnerable person who becomes enraged when deprived of status and attention is, conversely, driven by feelings of insecurity, and insecurity alone. Life with the highly narcissistic may not be easier for you, but it may become a bit more comprehensible.

LinkedIn image: pritsana/Shutterstock


Krizan, Z., & Herlache, A. D. (2018). The narcissism spectrum model: A synthetic view of narcissistic personality. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 22(1), 3-31. doi:10.1177/1088868316685018

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