Charmingly Toxic: Personality Theory and Narcissism
The Five Factor Model can shed light on what makes a narcissist.
Posted Dec 26, 2020
Personalities are influenced by an incredible array of factors: genetics and family traits, external environments such as school and work, trauma, and even culture and societal impact. Research has shown that personality traits can sometimes change over the course of an individual’s life—someone could, for example, become more introverted or extraverted with age. Additionally, an individual can gain personal insight and drive to improve an undesirable trait, such as neuroticism.
However, it is the unchangeable and negative traits that define a personality disorder or the hallmarks that identify a disorder. In short, personality is a dynamic and highly organized set of characteristics that makes a person who they are. So, what traits identify a narcissist?
Personality has always been described with adjectives: brave, chatty, clever, grumpy, or untidy, for example. Narcissists are generally identified as encompassing the traits of dominance, grandiosity, self-absorption, combativeness, and exploitativeness. Using the Five-Factor Model (Costa & McCrae), which conceptualizes personality into five universal traits identified by the acronym OCEAN: Openness, Consciousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism, one can attempt to classify the narcissistic personality traits.
All the factors are interconnected, with some adjectives and ethics being seen across different personalities. Each specific factor of the Big Five has its own etiology along with pros and cons. Additionally, many of the traits have associations with each other. Individuals can possess charming and persuasive traits while also being highly neurotic; again, it is the persistent and consistent traits that make a person who they are.
High Extraversion and the Narcissist
Per the Big Five, a narcissist would most likely register as having low agreeableness and high extraversion (McGreal, 2015). Those who are extraverts are frequently described as being the “life of the party” and are energetic, assertive, and friendly. Those registering with high extraversion also tend to have lower mortality rates; however, “whether extroversion is defined by positive mood and sociability versus impulsivity and sensation-seeking may result in different relationships with age, health, and death” (Sharp et al, 2019, p.126).
Individuals with high extraversion are also found in leadership roles or other self-bestowed places of power and direction. They may not have earned the position, but they strongly feel they deserve it no matter what. Extraverts who also embody other narcissistic traits will most likely surround themselves with people who are easily influenced and bullied or are otherwise non-confrontational.
Neuroticism is characterized by the ability to be comfortable with oneself. Those with high neuroticism scores tend to be prone to anxiety and worry and suffer from low self-esteem. They may be moody and easily made to feel jealous and insecure. High Neuroticism is linked to poor job performance and possibly substance abuse, addictions, and exploitative behaviors such as shoplifting or sexual affairs. These traits can be connected to those with narcissistic tendencies due to their self-serving fulfillment. The overblown ego of a narcissist is often a cover for the crippling self-doubt and low confidence they secretly possess. However, this trait can overlap with that of high extraversion, which would allow the narcissist to skillfully cover up his or her low self-esteem with the popular, bombastic exterior.
Combined with the traits of low agreeableness, those with levels of high neuroticism also tend to lose their composure when angered or confronted. The need to defend themselves and come out on top as being right outranks the comfort of others or what the truth really is. Truth doesn't matter as long as they are seen as right.
Jamie, 28, describes a friend as a neurotic narcissist. "She engaged in multiple affairs during her marriage, but said it was because her husband didn't pay enough attention to her. The affairs weren't wrong—her husband was wrong for ignoring her, and he should have blamed himself. It didn't make sense to anyone but her. She truly feels blameless."
Low Agreeableness of the Narcissist
Those with low agreeableness scores are reported to be rude, callous, and manipulative as well as combative and defensive. These individuals often attach themselves to partners with high levels of agreeableness. People who score highly as agreeable tend to favor tradition, avoid selfish pleasures, and focus on family. It reflects how well someone gets along with others and describes someone as modest, humble, and sensitive.
Unfortunately, this may also mean the individual can be a pushover and not have a very strong ability to stand up for themselves or strongly voice their opinion (Hochenberger, 2019). People who are agreeable tend to try and avoid conflict and do whatever necessary to keep things calm.
Nora, a 30-year-old health worker, is an individual ranking high in agreeableness. Her compassionate nature makes her an excellent caregiver but also makes her susceptible to low agreeableness people taking advantage of her. Her ex-partner ranked as a low agreeable person and displayed many narcissistic traits; not only did Nora suffer silently from this emotional abuse, but her experience also displays the negative effects of being an agreeable person and not having the ability to stand up for oneself.
By linking themselves to a partner (or child, friend, parent, etc) with high agreeableness, the narcissist is ensuring there is always an available punching bag. People with the prosocial behavior of agreeableness are very trusting and cooperative and look for the good in others no matter what. Therefore, agreeable people who find themselves entangled with a narcissistic individual will most likely cower to demands and instruction. Agreeable people are also more likely to accept and tolerate the various types of abuse from the narcissist to keep the peace and please their partner. In contrast, narcissists and those with low agreeableness have very little to no concern for others and cannot place the needs of others ahead of their own.
Low agreeableness scores can be associated with personality disorders or similar traits. The APA describes a personality disorder as an “enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible... is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment” (2013, p.645). Prosociality is a dispositional trait related to having sympathy for others, respecting rules, and feeling guilt over misdeeds (Mikolajewsku, Chavarria, Moltisanti, Hart, & Taylor, 2014, p.1259). This trait could be associated with the Big Five personality factors of agreeableness (feeling guilt, being sympathetic) and conscientiousness (following rules, having a sense of duty to respect said rules).
Although the theories on personality and trait expression are abundant and varied, researchers generally agree that cognition, emotions, interpersonal motivations, and behaviors are all affected by personality. Personality is what is shown consistently over a period of time and strongly influences expectations, self-perceptions, values, and attributes (Kumari et al, 2019). The Big Five Factors can also play a role in predicting how an individual will react to people, problems, and stress. Narcissistic traits and the diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder are rooted in several overlapping personality theories and trait theories. Although there is no cure for those with NPD, individuals who are entrapped by a narcissistic relationship can work on healing and empowering themselves so they can be strong enough to leave the relationship.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-V). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Hochenberger, K. L. (2019). Big five characteristics: Etiology, analyzation, and comprehension of personality. Unpublished manuscript.
McGreal, S. A. (2015). Personality's 'big one' and the engima of narcissism. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/unique-everybody-else/201511/personalitys-big-one-and-the-enigma-narcissism
Mikolajewski, A., Chavarria, J., Moltisanti, A., Hart, S., and Taylor, J. (2014). Examining the factor structure and etiology of prosociality. Psychological Assessment 26(4), pg.1259-1267.
Sharp, E., Beam, C., Gatz, M., and Reynolds, C. (2019). Openness declines in advanced of death in late adulthood. Psychology & Aging 34(1), 124-138.
Kumari, A., Singh, R., Mehra, M., Mishra, A. (2019). Does being a boy or girl matter fo personality development? Study of personality of adolescents from different social classes across gender. International Journal of Current Microbiology and Applied Sciences, 8(7), 122-131.