One of the most intriguing features of people with ample traits of narcissism is that they can appear to be extremely attractive. When unaware of the dynamics that produce this quality, people who meet individuals high in narcissism are likely to find themselves drawn to these individuals. Although their extreme self-focus, egocentrism, and tendency to manipulate people and situations will eventually come to the surface, the first impression you form of someone high in narcissism is likely to be very positive.
There is a tendency to label people high in narcissism as “narcissists,” but in reality the trait of narcissism is a quality that everyone possesses, more or less, to some degree. In its most extreme form, and when it leads to dysfunctional behavior, narcissism becomes the core of a disorder known as narcissistic personality disorder. In popular parlance, these distinctions become lost and we talk about “narcissists.” However, it’s more accurate to talk about people who do not have the personality disorder as being “high in narcissism.” For the purpose of brevity, I use the term “narcissist” but please keep in mind that it’s preferable to think of narcissism as a dimension rather than as a discrete set of categories.
Let’s return to the question of why you might be attracted to a narcissist. In part, it's because these individuals have figured out how to draw attention to themselves through humor, charm, and sociability, or some combination of the above. Narcissists, by definition, expend time and effort looking good, which feeds our tendency to feel positively about people who are attractive. Imagine the center of attention at a social gathering or even business meeting—it’s likely you’d readily become drawn into his or her circle of admirers.
It’s one thing to be attracted to a narcissist and another to remain close to that person over time. Those same qualities that make narcissists so appealing at first can become infuriating as the weeks, months, and years go by. You will not be able to count on this personality to be there for you when things get rough. They will not have your best interests at heart, and they will probably try to get you to do things for them and never repay your generosity. They won’t confide in you about their fears and worries, and you’ll feel that you never really get to know them. Why wouldn’t you just break off the friendship? Chances are most people would do just that; they would eventually get fed up and seek out a more rewarding, reciprocal relationship.
Those who remain friends with narcissists may have saintly qualities that make them willing to overlook these shortcomings. If you’re one of these forgiving individuals, you may continue to hold out hope that your friend will change. Perhaps you see your friend’s narcissistic behavior as a way of covering up a deep sense of feeling flawed or inferior. Maybe you’ve been friends with this person for years, and you know how rough his or her early life was. Your friend wouldn’t be this way without an overly harsh mother or father responsible for their neglect, humiliation, or abuse. Yes, your friend can be superficial, glib, and manipulative, but it’s only because they're trying to overcome their early upbringing.
Humboldt University of Berlin psychologist Ulrike Maaß and colleagues (2016) decided to investigate this question, proposing that “narcissists of a feather flock together.” As you can tell from these words, the theory driving the study was that friends of narcissists are themselves narcissists. In other words, the only people who can stand being friends with narcissists are other narcissists.
To test this theory, the German team asked nearly 300 pairs of best friends to complete a personality inventory in which they rated their friends on narcissism as well as the other “Dark Triad” traits of psychopathy and Machiavellianism. The key to the study was examining not only how friends corresponded on these undesirable personality qualities, but whether they would see greater correspondence in narcissism scores among those who themselves are narcissists.
As predicted, the findings showed that those who maintain long-term relationships with narcissists were high in narcissism themselves. In interpreting the findings, Maaß et al. concluded that narcissists “like what they have” (p. 378). Narcissists are not only tolerant of narcissism in their friends, they also are not turned off by the selfishness, arrogance, and bossiness that would drive non-narcissists away.
At the core of the study was the notion of “self-regulation” among people high in narcissism. According to this view, narcissists need to engage in a set of protective strategies to keep their weaknesses from being exposed. The findings suggest, as the authors conclude, that “Similar narcissistic friends might help each other to achieve such a rapport by respecting the same life strategy, avoiding conflicts, sharing the same mating behavior and preferences for competition, and displaying the same non-caring attitudes” (p. 378). These people create a group in which the “us vs. them” mentality allows them to continue to boost each other’s vulnerable self-esteem. Similar results also appeared for psychopathy and Machiavellianism, further suggesting that once you enter the Dark Triad, you seek people like you to minimize the risk of rejection.
If you have a narcissistic friend, do the results of the study mean that you too, must be a narcissist? If we define ourselves by the company we keep, and if that company behaves badly, are we just as bad? It’s possible that by reading this, you’ve now come to realize, or suspect, your own narcissistic tendencies. However, let’s return to the “saint” hypothesis that states that the true friend of a narcissist is someone who’s just plain loyal and forgiving. This concept is not adequately tapped in the measures used in this study.
Consider the possibility that if you are friends with a narcissist, there might be some unfortunate news about yourself you need to accept. However, if in being completely honest, you feel that your narcissism would barely rate a three on a seven-point scale, it’s also possible that you are one of those individuals who simply prefers to see the best in people. You’ve believed, perhaps for years, that your narcissistic friend needs your support and that eventually this support will translate into him or her leaving behind their narcissistic traits.
Whether you’re a narcissist, the opposite of one, or (like most people) somewhere in between, your life is heavily influenced by the quality of your friendships. Figuring out how to maintain those friendships can help you find this very special form of fulfillment.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016.
Maaß, U., Lämmle, L., Bensch, D., & Ziegler, M. (2016). Narcissists of a feather flock together: Narcissism and the similarity of friends. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(3), 366-384. doi:10.1177/0146167216629114