The Promiscuous Narcissist

Across the globe, narcissism corresponds to short-term mating.

Posted Jun 27, 2018

Goodluz/Shutterstock
Source: Goodluz/Shutterstock

Narcissism has emerged as a major trait that is being studied in the behavioral sciences. And for good reason. Narcissism is one of three traits in the “dark triad” — a cluster of traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy) that predict all kinds of antisocial behaviors and adverse psychological outcomes (see Jonason et al., 2013).

Variously defined (see Corry et al., 2008; Raskin & Terry, 1988), narcissism basically boils down to a large focus on oneself, leading to such resultant attributes as overconfidence, entitlement, vanity, and exhibitionism.

In a recently published article on the evolutionary psychology of narcissism, renowned behavioral scientist Dave Schmitt, along with dozens of collaborators (Schmitt et al., 2017), explored narcissism from an evolutionary functional perspective. In short, these researchers, who studied more than 30,000 young adults who came from 53 different nations, asked the question of whether an ultimate function of narcissism, which can be a pretty despicable trait, pertains to success in the domain of short-term mating.

The evolutionary reasoning here (see Geher, 2014) is essentially this: Evolved traits that are found as pretty common within a species likely have some kind of adaptive function. So the question here is: Does narcissism have an adaptive function? In spite of the obvious costs associated with narcissism, does this trait somehow lead to an increased likelihood of survival and/or reproduction? This is the evolutionary function or adaptationist question.

Schmitt hypothesized that narcissism corresponds to increased success in the domain of “short-term mating,” with short-term mating corresponding to promiscuous behaviors that facilitate the frequency and success of brief sexual encounters. In short, a narcissist may not make the best marriage partner, but a narcissist may well be a fine short-term fling.

Schmitt’s Cross-Cultural Exploration of Narcissism

To examine this functional hypothesis, Schmitt designed a relatively straightforward study. More than 30,000 young adult participants (many of whom were college students) from 53 different nations completed a survey that included measures of narcissism, along with various measures of short-term mating behaviors (such as having desires for multiple partners, being OK with one-night stands, and a history of having sexual interactions with married individuals).

Importantly, a hallmark of Schmitt’s research pertains to cross-cultural data. That is, David Schmitt likes to collect a lot of data from people all over the world! This interest in collecting cross-cultural data relates to Schmitt’s focus on the study of evolved psychological adaptations. In short, if you are going to make the case that some feature of our psychology is, in fact, a product of our evolutionary heritage, then you should be able to provide evidence that the process you are studying plays out the same across human cultural groups. Only via this kind of data collection can we begin to make a case that behavioral quality is, in fact, a human universal.

Well, the cross-cultural approach that Schmitt took in this research worked. The basic findings (summarized below) played out with great similarity across cultures. From Iceland to Taiwan, Cypress to Ethiopia, and beyond.

The basic predictions regarding the relationship between narcissism and short-term mating emerged — and the same patterns were generally found across all the world regions that were included in the study.

Here are some of the basic findings obtained in this research:

  • Narcissists, across all world regions, report having high levels of short-term mating interests.
  • Narcissists, across all world regions, report being relatively likely to engage in “mate poaching” (trying to have sexual interactions with someone who is already in a pair bond).
  • Narcissists, across all world regions (except for Africa), report relatively high levels of sociosexuality (which roughly corresponds to promiscuity).
  • Narcissists, across all world regions (except for Africa), report relatively high levels of HIV-risk-taking behaviors.

Bottom Line

Narcissism is a hot topic in the behavioral sciences, partly because it can be a problematic psychological attribute to deal with. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense to ask why narcissism exists in the first place. Based on the research reported here, it looks like the adaptive function of narcissism lies in its connection to short-term mating. Across the entire globe, narcissists are more likely to engage in short-term mating tactics compared with their less-narcissistic counterparts. Looking for a brief sexual fling? I guess you might want to look for a narcissist at the bar tonight!

References

Corry, N., Merritt, R.D., Mrug, S., & Pamp, B. (2008). The factor structure of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Journal of Personality Assessment, 90, 593-600.

Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Jonason, P. K., Kaufman, S. B., Webster, G. D, & Geher, G. (2013). What lies beneath the Dark Triad Dirty Dozen: Varied relations with the Big Five. Individual Differences Research, 11, 81-90.

Raskin, R., & Terry, H. (1988). A principal-components analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory and further evidence of its construct validity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 890-902.

Schmitt, D. P., …. Geher, G., … Hearns, K. et al. (2017). Narcissism and the Strategic Pursuit of Short-Term Mating: Universal Links across 11 World Regions of the International Sexuality Description Project-2. Psychological Topics, 26 (1), 89-137.