Narcissists embark on the never-ending hunt to bolster their superior self-image. They look for external ways to increase their standing to prove to themselves and others that they are exceptional. With social status in particular, narcissists take one of two roads to win points: They build themselves up, or they tear others down.
As pointed out in a recent paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science, narcissists scan the horizon of status opportunities and choose the “admiration pathway” to promote themselves or the “rivalry pathway” to derogate others. Take “Jim” for an example — he’s bold, and when he sees a chance to perform, he’ll do it to gain admiration. “Bob,” on the other hand, doesn’t have what it takes to perform, so he bullies people to earn “respect,” in a sense, which could include putting down Jim for performing.
Essentially, narcissists love to climb social hierarchies so they can benefit from the prominence, respect and influence that accompanies people at the top. Of course, narcissists aren’t the only ones who are motivated to pursue this type of status — it’s quite normal for people to want to be admired and esteemed. However, narcissists have an insatiable, ongoing desire to inch higher and higher, and their status motive is often stronger than other motives, such as the desire to get along with others.
In the paper, Stathis Grapsas of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, as well as leading narcissism researchers from the University of Amsterdam and the University of Munster, unpack what they call the “status pursuit in narcissism,” or the SPIN model. It’s a fascinating framework to consider how narcissists appraise social situations, look for status and respond accordingly.
Grandiose narcissists, in particular, have agentic and antagonistic personality traits and tend to see themselves as superior. As Grapsas and colleagues put it, “Viewing oneself as superior implies viewing others as inferior; viewing oneself as entitled to special privileges implies viewing others as not.” Those with narcissistic traits tend to see leadership, fame and wealth as important and want to protect their reputation and influence others — at the expense of other qualities — and brag about their status more.
In the SPIN model, narcissists look for social situations that could benefit them and give them a higher status. They pay attention to cues that signal dominance in a group and then determine what could give them more “points,” whether by promoting themselves or taking down others. Since social hierarchies change, narcissists watch these dynamics and continue to assess their next moves, which builds a habit through repetition. In short, narcissists learn how to regulate the situation and create a stable system for themselves.
The SPIN model builds on previous models, looking to make a prediction about when and why narcissists choose an assertive, self-praising tactic or an antagonistic, attacking tone. The model makes sense — if a narcissist observes the potential for admiration and notes the cues that could lead to status, then self-promotion is the answer. On the other hand, if the narcissist sees the potential for rivalry and any hindrances to a better status, then self-promotion won’t work as a tactic. Demeaning someone else is the better way to get that status.
This new model offers several interesting possibilities for future narcissism research, especially the timeline of status-seeking and when individual differences in narcissism can emerge. For instance, narcissists tend to select public social settings over private ones so they can boost status in a way that others can see. They also tend to pursue public-facing careers that allow them to be at the center of attention, hence the higher levels of narcissism recorded in actors, celebrities and politicians.
The model suggests that admiration is the “default mode” for narcissists, and rivalry tends to come out when they can’t self-promote to gain status. We see this now as narcissistic leaders across the world who have been thwarted in their attempts to gain praise and status for controlling the pandemic or economic losses, for instance, are lashing out at others with insults and anger.
In practice, the SPIN model gives us a new lens to understand how different people look for status and how status-focused environments may boost or hinder narcissistic qualities. Parents who heap praises on their kids, social groups and sports teams that derive status from competitions, and workplaces that praise high-status positions could create opportunities for status-seeking behaviors over people’s lifetimes. Narcissists may thrive in these situations. Future studies that look at this “lifelong socialization,” as Grapsas and colleagues say, could help us understand why some people become more narcissistic than others.
Beyond that, this look into the self-regulatory processes of narcissists could shed light into what psychologists call the “dark” and “light” sides of narcissism. Status-seeking could be seen as relatively benign, and putting down others would be more harmful and darker. By pulling apart the motives that way, we may be able to better understand why people act the way they do, the potential social consequences, and what we can do about it.
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Grapsas S, Brummelman E, Back MD, Denissen JJA. The “Why” and “How” of Narcissism: A Process Model of Narcissistic Status Pursuit. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2020;15(1):150-172. doi:10.1177/1745691619873350.