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Why Are Narcissists (Initially) So Popular?

Breaking down the popularity of the narcissist

While I like to keep the main focus of my Beautiful Minds blog on actual beautiful minds, I do like to talk time to time about not-so-beautiful minds. In my view, covering the full gamut of human thinking and behavior can inform the extraordinary thinking that does contribute positively to society.

Today's focus is on a particular type of a not-so-beautiful mind: the narcissistic mind. A lot has been said about narcissists on Psychology Today blogs, and there has been a lot of important empirical work on the topic. But a very recent set of studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP; the flagship journal for social psychologists) by Mitja D. Back and colleagues really caught my attention because I found the results extremely alarming. (Before I continue, I must thank my dear friend and collaborator Louisa Egan for bringing the study to my attention).

Narcissism involves unusually high levels of self-esteem, grandiosity, self-focus, and self-importance. Emmons (1984) distinguishes four facets of narcissism: Leadership/Authority (those who enjoy being a leader and being seen as an authority), Self-Absorption/Self Admiration (those who admire their own physical appearance and personality), Superiority/Arrogance (those who overestimate their own abilities), and Exploitativeness/Entitlement (those who enjoy manipulating and exploiting others and expect favors from others). Please note that these four facets are only moderately related to one another and there is a lot of variability amongst narcissists in terms of how their narcissism is expressed.

Narcissists don't play well with others, and this becomes clearer in the long-term. Narcissists don't tend to do well in long-term relationships, and suffer from all sorts of intra- and interpersonal problems. Paulhus (1998) found that after the seventh roughly 2.5 hour student work group session, narcissists were rated by the other members of the group as less agreeable, less well adjusted, less warm, and more hostile and arrogant.

But here's the kicker (or paradox). In that same study, Paulhus found that after the first meeting, narcissists were rated as more agreeable, conscientious, open, competence, entertaining, and well adjusted by the other members of the group. What a contrast to what the group members thought of the very same narcissistic individuals on the seventh day!

What's going on here? What's so attractive about narcissists, at least initially, that explains their popularity? What cues are they broadcasting? Which facets of the narcissist are most related to their popularity?

In a series of four very clever studies, Mitja D. Back and colleagues sought out to determine why narcissists are popular at "zero acquaintance". They propose that narcissists are more popular at first sight because of the cues they produce, which people at first acquaintance can use to "thin-slice" and form an impression of that person without any further information about that person.

They investigated four cues which they hypothesized based on prior research (Berscheid & Reis, 1998) would be related to the popularity of narcissists at first sight and why people often describe narcissists as having a "charismatic air": attractiveness, competence, interpersonal warmth, and humor. In the researcher's own words:

"we assume that narcissism predicts all of the four relevant cue domains-attractiveness, from their flashy and neat attire; interpersonal warmth, from their charming glances at strangers; competence, from their self-assured behavior; and humor, from their witty verbal expressions. As a result, they thus should enjoy greater initial popularity than non-narcissists (p. 134)."

Their first study involved 73 freshman psychology students who had never met each other before. At the beginning of an introductory session, each student was randomly assigned a seat number. Then, one by one, students took turns in a round-robin fashion going to a marked spot on the floor and introducing themselves, after which the other freshman evaluated how likeable they found the person, and the extent to which they would like to get to know the person. Each introduction was videotaped and four groups of independent observers rated various physical cues, nonverbal body cues, nonverbal facial cues, and verbal cues of the speaker that were hypothesized by the researchers to relate to attraction. After all the students gave their introduction and the session was over, the students were given a number of surveys to fill out at home, including a self-report narcissism questionnaire.

What did they find? As expected, narcissists tended to be more liked at first sight. Also as predicted, narcissists exhibited neater and flashier appearances, more charming facial expressions, more self-assured body movement, and more humorous verbal expressions.

But what they report next really shocked me. Not all facets of narcissism were equally predictive of popularity. In fact, the Leadership/Authority facet was almost completely unrelated with first impressions. They found that the facet that most strongly predicted popularity was the Exploitativeness/Entitlement facet. Additionally, while all of the facets of narcissism were substantially related to all of the cues that were rated by the observers, the Exploitativeness/Entitlement facet had more consistent and stronger correlations with the cues than any of the other facets!

In three other studies, the researchers found a striking consistency in this pattern of results. Narcissists with a sense of entitlement and a tendency to exploit others tended to be more popular at first sight for uninvolved perceivers who just watched the video of the introduction and were thus exposed to the full information of the target's behaviors but didn't have to actually make an introduction themselves (Study 2), perceivers who were only given physical and nonverbal information of the speaker (no audio condition, Study 3), and for perceivers who just had physical information only (body only condition, Study 4).

Also interestingly, in all of these conditions, all the cues that were available were all that were necessary to produce the pattern. For instance, in the just body condition (Study 4), flashy and neat clothing was all that was needed to show a correlation between the Exploitativeness/Entitlement facet of Narcissism and popularity. In other words, when the only cue was fancy dress, fancy dress predicted popularity, and those with this style of dress tended to score higher in the Exploitativeness/Entitlement facet of Narcissism.

Narcissism Paradoxes

I find these results disconcerting, but more on that in a second. As the researchers note, these findings help solve some paradoxes in the field (see Emmons, 1984). One paradox concerns the adaptive value of narcissism. How can the most maladaptive facet (Exploitativeness/Entitlement) of an already maladaptive interpersonal trait (narcissism) also be the most effective trait in impressing others?

The researchers speculate that paradoxically,

"the positive social reactions that narcissists evoke in others at first sight might play an important role in maintaining their problematic interpersonal behavior and intrapersonal coping mechanisms that are dysfunctional in the long run."

So the positive feedback that narcissists receive at first acquaintance confirms their superiority and strengthens their search for similar situations that will allow them to get similar responses. I think Back and colleagues are right on the money when they say that "being admired by others is like a drug for narcissists." The problem for narcissists is that their addiction to admiration

"hinders them from establishing relationships or from sticking with social contexts in which they are embedded for a longer period of time...the positive interpersonal reactions narcissists evoke at zero acquaintance are an important part of the vicious interpersonal cycle that narcissists experience."

But what about the narcissist who could care less about maintaining deep and meaningful relationships? Well, since most narcissists don't care about the long-term (they tend to be more impulsive anyway), their desire to exploit others and their sense of entitlement is adaptive for them in the short-term, even if it hurts others. Indeed, Back and colleagues do show that narcissists scoring high on the Exploitativeness/Entitlement facet are more popular at zero acquaintance. As the researchers note, the consideration of the different facets of narcissicm as well as the varied situational circumstance that these facets can display themselves (short term vs. long term) can be combined to more fully understand the social consequences of narcissism.

Another paradox, which Emmons (1984) called the narcissistic paradox, is the narcissts' tendency to simultaneously devalue others while at the same time needing the admiration of others. As Morf & Rhodewalt (2001) put it, as narcissists

"yearn and reach for self-affirmation, they destroy the very relationships on which they are dependent."

Back and colleagues note that narcissists can ‘solve' the paradox by only relying on positive feedback from those with zero acquaintance whom they do not have to value.

"Because others truly like narcissists at first sight, they contribute to the maintenance of the narcissists' most paradoxical mindset."

In light of this, I think blogging is a terrific arena for narcissists, if not the best arena imaginable. Narcissistic bloggers can get a constant stream of admiration from complete strangers in the form of comments after each blog post. The blogger doesn't have to value the commentator or form a relationship with the commentator. In fact, the commentator is helping to feed the narcisstic blogger's addiction for instant admiration. And comments that are too critical can easily be deleted.

Another paradox lies in the developmental pathway to narcissism, especially the role of parental reactions. Which type of parent contributes to the narcissistic child, the parent who overvalues the child (as some researchers have speculated) or the parents who undervalues the child (as other researchers have speculated)? As Back and colleagues note, a combination of both overvaluation and devaluation can contribute to narcissism. The overvaluation/devaluation combo has been suggested by Freud and has received some recent empirical support (Otway & Vignoles, 2006). According to Back et al.,

"The existence of both excessive but indiscriminate parental praise as well as continuous implicit parental messages of coldness and rejection, rather than warmth and acceptance, ‘may help to explain the paradoxical combination of grandiosity and fragility that is so characteristic of adult narcissists' (Otway & Vignoles, 2006, p. 113)."

A fourth paradox noted by Back and colleagues that is also related to the other paradoxes is the narcissist's lack of insight. Back and colleagues suggest that it is this short-term positive feedback that contributes to the narcisst's lack of self-criticsm because they don't see a need for it.

"Because of their ongoing selfishness, they do not get affective support in the long run, and they do not manage to develop intimate relationships. As a consequence, their self stays vulnerable, making immediate admiration even more necessary, and so forth. In research on as well as treatments of narcissists' self-insight, one should focus on both the intrapersonal mechanisms of narcissists and the social reactions that narcissists actually receive."

My recommendation

Back to the fact that I find the results of the Back and colleague's study very disconcerting. Why do some people keep falling for narcissists? What can we all do to safeguard ourselves from being duped? These are not simple questions, and the JPSP study makes things all the more complicated. This is why.

We tend to be attracted to people who possess the four qualities (flashy and neat dress, charming facial expression, self-assured body movements, and humorous verbal expression) that narcissists tend to (initially) possess. And to complicate matters, the JPSP study suggests that if someone at first encounter has all four qualities, chances are they are a narcissist. And not just any kind of narcissist, but the very worst kind- the kind that enjoys exploiting others while feeling a sense of entitlement in doing so.

So what are we supposed to do, intentionally go for those who show the traits that are exactly the opposite of what is generally considered attractive?

*Yes, that's precisely what i'm suggesting!*

My message to all those who are sick of being duped by narcissists, assholes, chauvinistics, etc. is to change the script entirely. Girls, next time you go to a club, approach every single guy you see who looks shy and awkward and is standing in the corner of the dance floor sipping his drink too fast. Give the guy a chance who approaches you and isn't smooth at all but seems like he is genuinely interested in you. Give those a chance who don't at first display all four super attractive qualities and see if after talking to them for a little while and you've given them a chance to open up a bit, if they start to naturally turn on the qualities you are seeking in a potential mate/friend. If they truly aren't attractive after getting to know them, then you might want to look elsewhere, but give them a chance. (OK, I admit what I'm calling for here sounds like an en mass revenge of the nerds scheme. Well, why not? It's my blog and I can pontificate if I want to!)

I'm being a bit tongue-in-cheek here, but too many people are too hard on themselves for falling for the jerk time and time again (yes I'm talking to you too Jen Kim: don't be so hard on yourself, you're a terrific person!). The JPSP study suggests that there is a definite rational reason why you fall for these kind of people- they do tend to have attractive qualities. They just also tend to be jerks. Surely people want to end up with someone who genuinely has attractive qualities, but it might be sensible to assess the person in multiple contexts first before getting too involved.

This is the most sensible advice I can think of at this moment. I'm totally up for suggestions though. The appeal of the bad boy, the allure of the narcissist, the attraction of the jerk, etc. etc. is such a re-occurring theme across humanity that I'm happy to see some real empirical research finally shedding some light on these issues.

© 2010 by Scott Barry Kaufman


Back, M.D., Schmukle, S.C., & Egloff, B. (2010). Why are narcissists so charming at first sight? Decoding the narcissism-popularity link at zero acquaintance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 132-145.

Berscheid, E., & Reis, H. T. (1998). Attraction and close relationships. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (4th ed., Vol. 2, pp. 193-281). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Emmons, R. A. (1984). Factor analysis and construct validity of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Journal of Personality Assessment, 48, 291-300.

Morf, C. C., & Rhodewalt, F. (2001). Unraveling the paradoxes of narcissism: A dynamic self-regulatory processing model. Psychological Inquiry, 12, 177-196.

Otway, L. J., & Vignoles, V. L. (2006). Narcissism and childhood recol- lections: A quantitative test of psychoanalytic predictions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 104-116.

Paulhus, D. L. (1998). Interpersonal and intrapsychic adaptiveness of trait self-enhancement: A mixed blessing. Journal of Personality and Social
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