A 2018 study by researchers Giacomin and Rule has determined that people can identify grandiose narcissists** by the distinctiveness of their eyebrows.1
Though narcissists can be likable at first, they lose some of their charm once it becomes clear that they are more interested in attracting attention and admiration, and much less interested in intimacy and other aspects of a fulfilling relationship.
Given that grandiose narcissism is associated with aggressiveness and a tendency to exploit others, it is important to be able to identify this personality trait in others early on. But how?
Previous research has shown that narcissism can manifest itself in people’s appearance.2 For example, narcissists are more likely to look attractive; to wear clothes that are expensive, stylish, and flashy; and to have an organized and neat appearance.
Previous research had concluded that people can detect grandiose narcissism by looking at emotionally neutral faces. The present investigation attempted to determine what specific features of the target faces allowed people to do so.
Giacomin and Rule first examined participants’ perceptions of target faces as a whole. But participants were able to detect narcissism even in upside-down faces.
The researchers then determined that the cues to identifying narcissists resided in the eye region — specifically, the eyebrows.
Using image manipulation, they confirmed their results, observing that a non-narcissist donning a narcissistic person’s brows was judged as more narcissistic, and that a narcissistic person viewed with a non-narcissist’s brows was judged as less narcissistic.
They further discovered that people considered femininity, grooming, and distinctiveness in judging the presence of narcissism in target faces. But only distinctiveness was related to accurate judgments.
In short, the authors concluded that accurate judgments of narcissism depend mainly on the distinctiveness of the target’s eyebrows.
But ... eyebrows?
Eyebrows help us express many emotions and communicate social messages, even unintentional ones. As Giacomin and Rule observe, brows “provide high-contrast lines that can reveal involuntary expressions or gestures from far away.”
In addition, brows can help us recognize faces. In one study, for instance, it was found that the absence of eyebrows in familiar faces, such as celebrity faces, significantly impacted recognition. Indeed, it appeared that the absence of eyebrows, as opposed to eyes, resulted in a significantly greater difficulty in face recognition.3
Eyebrows may be particularly important to people high on the personality trait of grandiose narcissism. Why? Because they have a strong desire for admiration and recognition and, as a result, might “seek to maintain distinct eyebrows to facilitate others’ ability to notice, recognize, and remember them; thereby increasing their likability and reinforcing their overly positive self-views.”1
Eyebrows also influence mate selection and attractiveness; plucking, waxing, coloring, Botox injections, and permanent tattooing are some examples of how people attempt to accentuate the fullness and the arch of the brow.
And given that narcissists are very competitive and often successful in mate selection (mainly when it comes to acquiring short-term sexual partners), their eyebrows could “signal this prowess to others.”
**Note: Narcissism can be conceptualized as a psychopathology (i.e., a personality disorder) or as a personality trait. While a particular individual may or may not meet the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, we all have some levels of the trait of narcissism. The authors of the present study also conceptualized narcissism as a personality trait, not as a pathology. So when they mention narcissists or non-narcissists, they are simply referring to people high or low, respectively, on the trait of narcissism.
1. Giacomin, M., & Rule, N. O. (in press). Eyebrows cue grandiose narcissism. Journal of Personality. doi:10.1111/jopy.12396
2. Vazire, S., Naumann, L. P., Rentfrow, P. J., & Gosling, S. D. (2008). Portrait of a narcissist: Manifestations of narcissism in physical appearance. Journal of Research in Personality, 42, 1439 –1447.
3. Sadr, J., Jarudi, I., & Sinha, P. (2003). The role of eyebrows in face recognition. Perception, 32, 285–293.