Do Narcissists Show Off Their Partners on Social Media?

Research examines why narcissists share their relationships on social media.

Posted Jul 22, 2019

C_Scott via pixabay | CC license
Source: C_Scott via pixabay | CC license

People often say that social media is the perfect medium for narcissists to run wild. They can broadcast their images and accomplishments to hundreds, even thousands, of people, and curate the perfect image. A lot of research has shown narcissists are more likely to use social media as a way to tell their friends about themselves.

More than that, what they share is more likely to be about showing off. They brag, post especially attractive photographs of themselves, and take more selfies, especially revealing ones. But how do their romantic partners fit into all of this showing off? Do narcissists post information about their relationships to show off an attractive partner or good relationship? Or do they downplay their partner because it would take attention away from themselves?

My colleagues and I recently conducted two studies, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, to examine why narcissists post about their relationships on social media, and whether or not they're more likely to share their relationships when they have a physically attractive partner.

We examined the partner's physical attractiveness because research suggests that for narcissists, that's an especially desirable quality in a romantic partner. Narcissists may use high status or physically attractive partners as "trophies" that they can show off to others. We wondered if this behavior would be evident in how they presented their relationships on social media.

In our first study, we surveyed 248 adults who were currently involved in romantic relationships. In order to measure how much they shared their relationship on social media, we asked them to report on how frequently they posted photographs of their partner, as well as whether they had a couple photo as their profile picture, and a linked relationship status on social media. Participants also rated their partners' level of physical attractiveness.

We also asked our participants why they shared relationship information on social media. Specifically, we examined two motivations: Self-enhancing and Communal, asking people to rate how much they felt each of a series of statements described their reasons for sharing relationship information social media:

Self-enhancing motives were:

  • It will make other people jealous
  • It would increase my social status
  • It would impress others

Communal motives were:

  • It shows my appreciation towards my partner
  • It displays my commitment to my partner
  • It shows how much I love my partner

We measured narcissism, using a measure called The Narcissistic Admiration Rivalry Questionnaire. According to the theory behind this measure, narcissism has two dimensions:

  1. Narcissistic admiration, which involves trying to impress others and be unique, and can lead narcissists to have social successes by charming others
  2. Narcissistic rivalry, which involves devaluing other people and trying to be superior to them, which can lead to aggressive behavior that creates social difficulties

We found that it when it came to their reasons for posting about their relationships, those high in both narcissistic rivalry and narcissistic admiration were more likely to post about their relationship for self-enhancing reasons—that is, as a way to show off. We also found, somewhat surprisingly, that higher narcissistic admiration was also associated with a greater tendency to post about the relationship to show love and commitment.

But what about the idea of the hot, "trophy" partner?

Surprisingly, we found that the partner's level of physical attractiveness was unrelated to how likely narcissists were to share their relationships on social media. However, we wondered if this may have happened because we had asked participants to rate their own partners' attractiveness, and people are often quite biased in that respect, with most people rating their partners as highly attractive. So for our second study, we did an experiment where people evaluated hypothetical partners who varied in physical attractiveness.

In our second study, 425 undergraduate students saw a photo of an average-looking, or very attractive person, and were asked to imagine that person was their romantic partner. They were then asked how likely they would be to share that relationship on social media by posting photos of the partner, having a linked profile status, or using a couple photo as their profile photo. We found that participants in the attractive partner group were more likely to share the relationship on social media, but this tendency was unrelated to narcissism. So again, we found that narcissists were not especially likely to share their relationship on social media when they had a very physically attractive partner.  

We also did a more direct test to see if narcissists are likely to show off an attractive partner. The participants in the attractive partner condition were shown two additional full-body photos of the attractive partner: One sexy shot in a bathing suit, and the other in normal clothing. We then asked participants which photo they would be most likely to share. This time, we did find some evidence that compared to those who are not narcissistic, narcissists were more willing to share sexy photos of their partner.

So what did we learn?

When narcissists do choose to share their romantic relationships on social media, they are more likely to do it as a way to show off. They are also more willing to share sexy, revealing photos of their partners. However, in both studies, we didn't find any support for the idea that narcissists are more likely to share their relationships on social media when they have a good-looking partner. This might be because their behavior is complicated when it comes to showing off a "trophy" partner.

On the one hand, some narcissists might be happy to show off their hot partner to the world, whereas other narcissists might not want to show off an attractive partner too much because it would distract attention away from themselves. So ultimately, we end up with no effect due to these opposite tendencies. So if someone is narcissistic and isn't showing off their partner on social media, we still can't be sure if it's because they don't think their partner is hot enough to show off, or because they don't want any attention to be pulled away from themselves.