Let us begin with the definitions of narcissism and self-esteem. Narcissism is associated with being “immodest, self-promotional, self-enhancing, and entitled.”1 Narcissists are high on trait egoism and low on communalism (e.g., cooperativeness).
In an article published in the August issue of the Journal of Personality, researchers Giacomin and Jordan argue that one reason we like narcissists is that we overestimate narcissists’ self-esteem (initially).4 Let us examine their studies and findings in detail.
Studies: Narcissism, Self-Esteem, and Liking
First, from a sample of 47 undergraduates, Jordan and Giacomin selected five individuals with high self-esteem and high narcissism, five with low self-esteem and high narcissism, and five with high self-esteem and low narcissism. The combination of low self-esteem and low narcissism, being relatively rare, was not included.
The researchers then examined the reactions of study participants (called perceivers) to the above individuals (called targets) in the following studies:
In the first investigation, researchers recruited 128 undergraduate students (36 males). These perceivers viewed the pictures of the above targets (or their pictures plus their supposed interview transcripts). The perceivers then rated various characteristics of the targets.
Results showed that compared with targets with equal self-esteem but lower narcissism, narcissistic targets were perceived to have higher self-esteem. So even when two targets had the same actual self-esteem, the narcissistic one was perceived to have higher self-esteem.
In addition, participants favored narcissists despite being aware of the fact that narcissists are more egoistic than non-narcissists. Therefore, it was perceptions of self-esteem, not narcissism, that mediated the effect of liking.
For the second study, 194 undergraduates (32 males) viewed the same 15 target photographs. Some students viewed the targets’ pictures only, while others also received information about the targets’ self-esteem and/or narcissism (as either high or low).
The results of this experiment again showed that participants liked high-narcissism targets more than low-narcissism targets, despite the correct perception that high-narcissistic targets were more egoistic than low-narcissism ones. In addition, participants overestimated the self-esteem of targets with high narcissism.
However, in conditions where the perceivers were provided with information on a target’s narcissism, perceivers liked high-narcissism targets less than those with lower narcissism. Why?
Perhaps because they could no longer focus solely on the target’s assumed high self-esteem. Alternatively, since narcissism is a socially undesirable characteristic, perceivers might have felt obligated to report less liking of high-narcissism targets.
In the third investigation, the perceivers (225 heterosexual female undergraduates) saw Tinder profile pictures of new targets (20 male undergraduate students). Aside from rating the targets’ narcissism and self-esteem, these students had to indicate whether they would like to meet the individuals pictured. The results again showed that those with greater (compared to fewer) narcissistic tendencies were more liked and assumed to have higher self-esteem.
In summary, participants liked narcissists more than they liked non-narcissists, even when they accurately perceived the narcissists’ level of narcissism, knew what narcissism implies (more egoism), and disliked narcissism itself.
The participants liked narcissists perhaps because they overestimated narcissistic targets’ self-esteem and/or downplayed narcissistic targets’ narcissism (i.e., egoism). So the next question is why the perceivers assumed being a narcissist meant having exceptionally high self-esteem.
Why Do People Think Narcissists Have Very High Self-Esteem?
One possibility is that people believe narcissism equals very high self-esteem. So once they perceive narcissism in an individual (e.g., notice the person is acting selfishly), they assume the individual must have very high self-esteem.
A second possibility concerns cues (e.g., fashionable clothes, showing cleavage, certain hairstyles, and facial details like distinct eyebrows) related to narcissism, which give the impression of higher self-esteem. Yet research shows that wearing expensive clothing or showing cleavage is more strongly associated with narcissism (the entitlement/exploitativeness component in particular) than with self-esteem.5 A third explanation is that narcissists desperately want to be liked, so they try to appear more self-confident than is really the case.
Let us consider one last interpretation of the relation between narcissism and high self-esteem, one involving the perceivers themselves: Since narcissists are initially popular in social circles and have a greater number of (superficial) connections than others, the perceivers may be motivated to view narcissists more positively than they should, because they hope that by associating with narcissists, they too can attain a similar social status.
1. Miller, J. D., Lynam, D. R., Hyatt, C. S., & Campbell, W. K. (2017). Controversies in narcissism. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 13, 291-315.
2. Donnellan, M. B., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Robins, R. W. (2011). Self-esteem: Enduring issues and controversies. In T. Chamorro-Premuzic, S. von Stumm & A. Furnham (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of individual differences (pp. 718-746). Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell
3. Brown, R. P., & Zeigler-Hill, V. (2004). Narcissism and the non-equivalence of self-esteem measures: A matter of dominance? Journal of Research in Personality, 38, 585–592.
4. Giacomin, M. & Jordan, C. H. (2019). Misperceiving grandiose narcissism as self-esteem. Journal of Personality, 87(4), 827-842.
5. 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.