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The Difference Between Narcissism and High Self-Esteem

New research on social-evaluative anxiety.

Key points

  • Narcissism refers to feelings of superiority and entitlement. High self-esteem refers to a positive, subjective evaluation of self-worth.
  • Narcissism and high self-esteem both involve positive self-perceptions, but they also differ in important ways.
  • Research finds that children predisposed to narcissism (vs. high self-esteem) show higher physiological arousal during a social-evaluative task.
  • These results suggest narcissists, despite their sense of superiority, dread negative evaluation and rejection in social-evaluative contexts.
Source: sasint/Pixabay

Published in Psychophysiology, a recent study by Brummelman et al. examines the early physiological indicators of high self-esteem and narcissism.

Narcissism vs. High Self-Esteem

Narcissism and high self-esteem have certain characteristics, such as positive self-perceptions, in common. Not surprisingly, many people assume narcissists have high self-esteem. However, this is not necessarily true.

In other words, narcissism and self-esteem are distinct. Whereas self-esteem refers to a person’s subjective evaluation of their value and worth, narcissism refers to feelings of self-centeredness, self-importance, superiority, grandiosity, and entitlement. A person with high self-esteem thinks, “I am good.” A narcissist thinks, “I am special,” or “I am the best.”

The study by Brummelman and colleagues, described below, attempted to determine whether narcissism and self-esteem also have different physiological precursors.

Investigating the Physiological Indicators of Narcissism and Self-Esteem

Sample: 71 children (46 percent male; 88 percent Dutch).

Procedure: When children were 4.5 years old, they came to the lab with their parents and were asked to perform a song in front of their parent, a camera person (who was recording the performance), and the experimenter.

During the anticipation phase, which lasted two minutes, children were instructed to sit on the podium until it was time for them to perform. After singing, there was a recovery phase, which lasted one minute. During this period, children were again instructed to sit on the podium. These phases were not videotaped.

Measures: Throughout the performance, anticipation, and recovery periods, researchers recorded the children’s physiological responses, such as their electrocardiogram (ECG), heart rate variability (HRV), and electrodermal activity.

At age 7.5 years old—which is when individual differences in self-esteem and narcissism start to emerge more clearly—children came back to the lab to complete questionnaires that assessed narcissism (the 10-item Childhood Narcissism Scale) and self-esteem (the six-item Global Self-Worth Subscale of the Self-Perception Profile for Children).

What the Researchers Found

Children predisposed to narcissism “showed elevated skin conductance levels during anticipation of the task.” Skin conductance remained high throughout the performance and did not return to baseline during recovery. In contrast, “children predisposed to higher self-esteem levels showed lowered skin conductance throughout the procedure.”

The results support the view that narcissistic children are “more fragile and prone to social-evaluative concerns,” whereas children with high self-esteem “are more secure and able to feel comfortable in social-evaluative contexts.” The children generally “experienced a steep increase in skin conductance when going from anticipation to performance,” but “this increase was attenuated for children predisposed to high narcissism levels.”

In other words, the actual performance did not appear to make narcissistic children much more anxious. Why?

Perhaps narcissistic children were already nearly as apprehensive and worried as they could be, so there was not much room for any additional increase in anxiety.

Another possibility is that narcissistic children experienced the performance phase as positive, despite their anticipatory anxiety. Being the center of attention and receiving grandiose praise may have been an especially positive experience for narcissistic children.

After all, this is how all children were introduced before their performance: “Ladies and gentlemen, today we have a special performance by the famous [child's first name], who will sing [name of song]!”

Narcissism, Self-Esteem, and Social-Evaluative Anxiety

As noted, children predisposed to narcissism (vs. children with high self-esteem) tend to show greater skin conductance activity when anticipating or performing a socially evaluative task, such as performing in front of an audience. Note: Skin conductance is related to sympathetic arousal—the fight-or-flight response.

This makes sense because narcissists are more likely to experience hyperarousal in situations where they feel exposed to social judgment or anticipate such exposure.

To be clear, self-confident children in the study also experienced fight-or-flight responses. Specifically, the skin conductance activity of children with high self-esteem increased from anticipation to performance. However, their skin conductance levels were lower initially and remained below the levels of low self-esteem children.

Self-confident children’s response makes sense if we remember that a basic function of self-esteem is to gauge social acceptance and valuation. Thus, highly self-confident children do not expect rejection if they fail at a task. Even when their performance is criticized, they still expect to be accepted and treated as valued individuals.

Source: Gilmanshin/Pixabay

Origins of Narcissism and High Self-Esteem

What are the developmental origins of narcissism and high self-esteem? Research indicates both are partly heritable and partly learned through interaction with agents of socialization, particularly parents.

To illustrate, narcissistic children are more likely to have parents who overvalue them and believe they are special.

Yet, these children do not enjoy unconditional acceptance because they are valued and accepted only if they live up to their parents’ often unrealistic standards. Such conditional approval may explain narcissistic children’s intense social-evaluative concerns.

In contrast to parental overvaluation, parental warmth and responsiveness are linked with supportive, sensitive, affectionate, and nurturing behavior—with unconditional approval and acceptance of the child. Indeed, parental warmth is more likely to encourage the development of high self-esteem.

Warm and responsive parents set aside time to spend with their children, show enthusiasm for what their children are interested in, and share their positive emotions.

In this way, responsive parents communicate acceptance of their children for who they are, as opposed to conditional acceptance for them for meeting their parents’ perfectionist standards.


The present research shows narcissism and self-esteem are distinct constructs. Specifically, narcissism can be “predicted by physiological hyperarousal during anticipation of social exposure,” whereas “self-esteem [is] predicted by an overall state of reduced arousal.”

This means narcissists are more likely than those with high self-esteem to experience arousal and anxiety in social-evaluative situations. They have stronger fears of being rejected, mocked, or humiliated; and of being devalued if they fall short of the evaluator's criteria.

Individuals with high self-esteem experience performance anxiety too, and anticipate possible criticism, along with praise, in evaluative situations. At the same time, they feel accepted, valued, and loved regardless of their social performance. This allows them to feel secure in who they are, no matter what.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: fizkes/Shutterstock

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