The Newest Way to Understand the 5 Facets of Narcissism
A new study shows which of the 5 features of narcissism may actually be healthy.
Posted Feb 29, 2020
Everyone believes they understand the meaning of the term “narcissist,” as it is certainly one that is applied widely to everyone from celebrities to politicians. Although psychology’s understanding of what constitutes a narcissist is reasonably well-established, there is still considerable controversy regarding its basic underlying dimensions. You may already know about the difference between a “grandiose” and “vulnerable” narcissist, a distinction based on the idea that some people with narcissistic qualities seem to have a truly inflated sense of self (the grandiose) but others have deep-seated insecurities about their true self-worth (the vulnerable). Indeed, there’s also the view that grandiosity is just a cover for those deep-seated insecurities.
Another key feature involves the distinction between a set of qualities (traits) that can range from high to low versus a psychiatric diagnosis that requires the individual to meet a set of specified criteria. Psychology researchers tend to prefer to view narcissism as a continuous quality that can be described according to a set of trait-like adjectives that individuals use to rate themselves in self-report questionnaires. Yet there remain different proposals about the underlying dimensions of such ratings. A newly-published study by the University of Western Ontario’s (UWO) Matthew Brown and colleagues (2020), as part of a project conducted at the University of Notre Dame, attempted to refine both the measurement of narcissism and better describe its underlying dimensions.
Theoretical considerations aside, the most widely-used questionnaire measure of narcissism remains the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). The 40-item version of the NPI can be scaled in a variety of ways, but the basic items ask test-takers to make a choice between two fixed alternatives that are scored as either representing narcissism or not (e.g. “am essentially a modest person” vs. “modesty does not become me”). As a result, the NPI doesn’t offer the same opportunities for comparing differing dimensional approaches. To overcome this limitation, other authors had suggested taking away the paired options and attaching simple rating scales to the items that reflect the narcissistic choice. However, as Brown et al. report, there is insufficient evidence on whether the scores would fit that proposed three-dimensional framework. The purpose of their study was to administer the rating-scale version of the NPI to determine how it would perform compared to the original forced-choice measure.
Brown et al. tested their measure on both an undergraduate sample (527 participants, 71% female) and an online clinical sample (700 participants, 69% female, average 33 years of age). In addition to completing the new version of the NPI, participants also rated themselves on the Five Factor Model personality traits, a questionnaire on drug use, an inventory of anxiety and depressive symptoms, and additional clinically-oriented personality rating scales that assess the “dark” side of narcissism (i.e. psychopathy and Machiavellianism). As you can see, then, this was a comprehensive study whose multiple measures can provide an understanding of how the revised NPI performs when subjected to statistical scrutiny.
After comparing the two samples in the ways they responded to the NPI and the related personality measures, the authors concluded that the NPI factored into 5, not 3, dimensions. See how you would rate yourself on sample statements from each of the five narcissism dimensions:
- I can make anybody believe anything I want
- I can usually talk my way out of anything
- I can read people like a book
- I am going to be a great person
- I will be a success
- I think I am a special person
- I like to display my body
- I like to look at myself in the mirror
- I like to look at my body
- I see myself as a good leader
- I like having authority over people
- I prefer to be a leader
- I will never be satisfied until I get what I deserve
- I know I am good because everybody keeps telling me so
- I wish somebody would write my biography
After thinking about how you would respond to these items, consider how well they apply to someone you know, or someone in public life, who you consider to have narcissistic qualities. What might be particularly interesting, as you do this thought experiment, is to contemplate the personalities of some of those public figures who you read about in the media as they strive to achieve political office, become celebrities, or even try to lure you into following their YouTube channels. Instead of just calling someone a “narcissist,” you may be able to get a more nuanced way of understanding their narcissistic qualities.
In addition to contemplating how well the five NPI scales describe the narcissistic personality, you might also think about which of these dimensions are more adaptive than others. Seeing yourself as a good leader, if you seek a career in public service, might be useful. People who wish to be leaders but don’t see themselves as having leadership qualities would seem doomed to a life of disappointment in themselves. Similarly, a healthy degree of self-confidence can also be adaptive, no matter which future you envision for yourself, even it involves a certain degree of superiority. People who are vain may be a bit annoying, particularly if they seem interested only in how they look and dress, but they don’t seem to have any ill intent or a desire to step on other people.
Supporting this line of thinking, the Notre Dame researchers were able to use correlations on the NPI with the other study’s measures to distinguish empirically between adaptive and maladaptive narcissism traits. The negative relationships between neuroticism and both leadership and superiority subscales suggest that these qualities, to a degree, can indeed be adaptive. Vanity, to the extent that it taps extraversion, also seemed to have some adaptive features. All three of these qualities may be viewed as self-focused rather than aimed at seeking success at the expense of others. It’s the manipulativeness and grandiose fantasy scales that can set the stage for the pathological form of narcissism.
To sum up, it’s clear that narcissism will continue to provide a source of fascination and debate among personality researchers. However, it’s also clear that there may indeed be some healthy features of having a robust sense of self that can support your efforts to achieve fulfillment as you pursue your goals.
Brown, M. F. D., Stanton, K., & Watson, D. (2020). Replicable factor structure and correlates of an alternate version of the narcissistic personality inventory. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment. doi: 10.1007/s10862-020-09790-y