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Narcissism

Can a Little Narcissism Be Good for Your Health?

New research examines whether there are health benefits from narcissism.

Key points

  • Most people in good psychological health tend to engage in at least some self-enhancement.
  • New research examines the possible pathways between a slightly inflated self-image, or a small dose of narcissism, and physical health.
  • Within bounds, seeing yourself as slightly better off than everyone else has the potential to boost your physical and your psychological health.

The tendency for people to engage in at least some degree of self-enhancement seems nearly universal. There is almost a built-in bias leading the “average” person to see themselves as better off than well, the "average."

Perhaps this is a form of self-protection aimed at allowing you to handle some obstacles that come your way, including those that can threaten your health. However, not everyone has this bias. People prone to depression take the opposite approach, seeing themselves as defective compared to everyone else. The view you have of yourself compared to others could ultimately improve or worsen your psychological health. Might this also have a downstream negative effect on your physical health?

According to a new paper by the University of Southampton’s Constantine Sedikides (2022), “self-evaluations on most dimensions—especially ones that are personally important—are more favourable than external indicators suggest they should be” (p. 1). What’s more, “there is little debate about the existence of self-enhancement both in Western and Eastern cultures.” Not everyone self-enhances to the same degree, however, making this quality a “stable individual difference” (p. 2).

The question Sedikides posed is whether people high in this quality, who tend to rate high on psychological health, will also be likely to experience boosts to their physical health, both in terms of self-ratings and objective biomarkers.

What is self-enhancement, and why might it be so good for you?

To begin, the Southampton U. psychologist entertains four possible ways to define self-enhancement. See which one makes the most sense to you:

  1. You evaluate yourself as better in some relevant way than the other people you know.
  2. Your self-evaluation is more favorable than the evaluation others objectively make of you.
  3. You are high in the quality of grandiose narcissism, reflecting “inflated self-views and pomposity” (p. 2).
  4. You give yourself high ratings because you want to look good to the researcher (social desirability).

Now ask yourself why any of these options might be beneficial to your health. Remember, at its core, self-enhancement involves deviation from reality in a direction that puts you in the most favorable light possible. If it’s to affect your health in a positive way, self-enhancement would need to contribute to some actions that people take that actually help them reduce their chances of getting a chronic disease while also helping them to feel better about their health in general.

As Sedikides suggests, those high in self-enhancement might very well be the individuals who show greater commitment and persistence when it comes to engaging in health-promoting behaviors.

Consider the form of self-enhancement involving narcissism. Might not individuals high in this quality also work hard to avoid anything that would detract from their appearance? Even if they're pursuing good health for the "wrong" reasons, they can still benefit in terms of physical health as a secondary outcome of their desire to have an attractive body.

Self-enhancement could also work in the opposite direction. People with inflated views of themselves could potentially decide that they’re invulnerable and not take preventive measures to preserve their health, such as undergoing regular screenings. Again, this might reflect the effect of narcissism, but it might also occur in people who see themselves as healthier than they really are compared to how they perceive others (number one above) and how others see them (number two above).

The socially desirable form of self-enhancement could also come into play, but only for ratings of health, dependant on how individuals score their own health (vs. objective biomarkers). In this case, self-enhancers just gloss over anything wrong so that they seem to present a favorable picture of their test results. They might prefer not to admit to themselves, either, that they’re less than perfect.

Testing Self-Enhancement’s Effects on Health

Noting that each form of self-enhancement could contribute to physical health, Sedikides approached the problem by conducting a meta-analysis, or large-scale review, of previously completed studies. Beginning with a set of nearly 2,400 studies (both published and unpublished), his meta-analysis team (consisting of Tara Lesick, Christopher Stockus, and Ethan Zell) narrowed the field down to 87 studies including 22,415 participants whose findings could be translated into “effect sizes,” or the extent of the relationship between self-enhancement and physical health.

The overall self-enhancement scale derived from these studies reflected a combination of narcissism, optimistic bias, social desirability, illusory self-beliefs, self-superiority beliefs, and subjective age (imagining yourself as younger or older than you really are). The research team also evaluated the contribution of comparative judgments of self to others and social desirability.

As outcome measures, Sedikides included biomarkers such as blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol, telomere length (a cellular aging measure), presence of diseases, body mass, physical symptoms, as well as self-ratings of health.

Feeding these complex indicators into their overall meta-analysis, the Southampton results produced a disappointing relationship of near zero. However, this overall lack of correspondence between self-enhancement and health masked the independent contributions of the specific measures used to quantify self-enhancement. Most notably, self-other comparisons appeared to have the strongest relationship to self-rated health, meaning that people who saw themselves as better than others also rated their health along more positive lines.

Overall, self-enhancement doesn’t help, but it also doesn’t hurt physical health, especially when measured via objective indices. In other words, you won’t run into any risk by allowing yourself to have a slightly inflated view of yourself. Based on previous research linking psychological health to self-enhancement, though, you might, in the process, give yourself a mental health boost by seeing yourself in what might be an unduly flattering light. The high end of self-enhancement might be narcissism, but somewhere in the middle may be the adaptive qualities of lack of self-criticism.

Using Self-Enhancement to Your Benefit

In looking for a relationship between self-enhancement and objective physical health in this very large dataset, the Sedikides team ultimately came up short. Normally, the lack of a relationship becomes uninterpretable when this occurs in the context of a single study examining a single set of variables. With this many contributions to the mix, the lack of a relationship in the overall meta-analysis might yet have meaning. As the author concluded: “self-enhancement may have both positive and negative pathways to health (that cancel each other out) or may have no association with health” (p. 12). Why not hedge your bets and focus on the pathways that could benefit your physical functioning?

The positive pathway from self-enhancement to physical health could involve engaging in health-promoting activities to be better than your friends, neighbors, or even fellow gym aficionados. Without lording it over them, you have nothing to lose by trying your hardest (within limits) to show off your physical strength and agility. At the same time, though, judicious use of self-enhancement would involve recognizing that your body will not be able to ward off every possible age-related change or disease. Your outstanding gym performance and appearance can only be maintained if you can avoid injury or chronic illness.

To sum up, a healthy dose of narcissistic self-enhancement may have its benefits. Long-term fulfillment means that your physical and mental health remains in optimal shape. Doing what you can to preserve both can not only reflect but also help promote an optimally positive self-image.

References

Sedikides, C. (2022). Self‐enhancement and physical health: A meta‐analysis. British Journal of Social Psychology. https://doi-org.silk.library.umass.edu/10.1111/bjso.12577

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