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Why Narcissists Need to Look Good So Badly

New research highlights the self-presentation needs of those high in narcissism.

Source: Zurijeta/Shutterstock

The need to look good is central to the motivational profile of people high in narcissism. There are many ways to look good, however: One is to appear attractive and scintillating, but another is to appear to run every show of which you’re a part. Looking to be as assertive as possible, then, can be a key strategy of the narcissist. An upcoming study to be published by the University of Alabama’s William Hart and colleagues (2017) shows which narcissists are most likely to promote themselves to others in assertive ways.

Before moving on to the study, it’s important to keep in mind that there are two forms of narcissism. In vulnerable narcissism, individuals feel deeply inadequate and seek attention and approval to validate and boost their weak self-esteem. In grandiose narcissism, individuals have an inflated sense of self and believe that they can do no wrong. They feel they are entitled to special favors, and react angrily and punitively to anyone who thwarts their ambitions or “deprives” them of the attention they’re convinced they deserve. Some theorists argue that both forms of narcissism derive from early childhood experiences in which individuals were treated harshly or punitively by parents. Scrape off the surface of the grandiose narcissist, according to this view, and you’ll find that weak inner core begging for approval.

This distinction between vulnerable and grandiose narcissism becomes important in understanding how people with each type seek to present themselves in a favorable light. In the Alabama study, people high in the two forms of narcissism were contrasted in their use of 12 different self-presentation tactics.

Reasoning that we’re most likely to try to defend our self-esteem when our image is threatened, Hart and his team proposed that people high in grandiose narcissism would, when someone threatens to make them look bad, “have a rather insensitive avoidance motivational system, which might suggest indifference rather than hypersensitivity to image threat” (p. 49). Instead, they respond more to opportunities to outshine everyone else, when they'll leap at the chance. They want to exert power over others and seek to cultivate their image with what the authors call “assertive self-presentation tactics” (p. 49). These include “entitlement, intimidation, blasting, and ingratiation” (p. 49). These individuals, when shown to be in the wrong, won’t apologize, but will justify their behavior as examples of their strength or other favorable attributes.

The picture is quite different, argue Hart et al., for vulnerable narcissists. They are prone to shame, highly neurotic, and cling to others, afraid of rejection. When threatened, they should be more likely than grandiose narcissists to become defensive (and not assertive). They’ll justify their actions, make disclaimers, and self-handicap (e.g., saying they didn’t really try that hard if they've lost). However, they’ll also avoid apologies, because to say they’re wrong makes them look even weaker. Instead, they try to gain sympathy and seem weak in order to gain the favors they seek.

Let’s look at some examples of these assertive versus defensive strategies of self-presentation, as indicated on the Self-Presentation Tactics Scale used in this study. Intimidation, a tactic used by grandiose narcissists, includes statements such as “I do things to make people afraid of me so that they will do what I want.” The disclaimers used by the vulnerable narcissist would include “When I believe I will not perform well, I offer excuses beforehand.” Similarly, in self-handicapping, the vulnerable narcissist would agree with this statement: “I do not prepare well enough for exams because I get too involved in social activities.”

Hart et al. conducted two related studies investigating the responses of undergraduates high in grandiose and those high in vulnerable narcissism on the Self-Presentation Tactics Scale. As predicted, the grandiose narcissists endorsed all the assertive self-presentation strategies, but especially the need for enhancement and the tendency to use blasting. In other words, as the authors concluded, grandiose narcissists want to look “immodest and fearless” (p. 55). Vulnerable narcissists, too, used some of the assertive self-presentation tactics favored by their grandiose counterparts. The vulnerable differed in their use of defense self-presentation, including making disclaimers, offering justification, self-handicapping, and excuse-making.

[As a side note, a third group of participants, who scored high on “exploitative narcissism” (using others to advance their own causes), were the only individuals in the study to use apologies as a self-presentation tactic. In other words, don’t always expect an apology from a person you suspect to be using you to be all that sincere.]

Now that we know how grandiose and vulnerable narcissists differ in self-presentation style, we can get to the question of their underlying motivational systems. Hart and his colleagues differentiated between two basic types of motivation — approach and avoidance. In approach motivation, you seek positive or pleasant goals, such as satisfaction of your sexual or appetitive urges. In avoidance motivation, you seek to avert a negative or painful outcome. Grandiose narcissists, Hart and his team argue, use assertive self-presentation styles because they are driven by approach motivation and don’t concern themselves with the possibility of unpleasant outcomes. The vulnerable narcissist, by contrast, will do anything to avoid the pain of looking weak. This is what drives them to be so defensive when they’re threatened. They’re trying to protect their wobbly and vulnerable inner core. It’s not just that they fear negative evaluation per se, but they also seek to protect their insecure feelings of superiority (p. 56).

To sum up, although we may conceptualize narcissism, in whatever form it takes, as relating to early experiences in the family, the present findings suggest that once developed, narcissism manifests in two patterns of relationships with others. The grandiose narcissist doesn’t seem motivated to avoid rejection, but just to try to maximize his or her pleasure in gaining attention and power. The vulnerable narcissist doesn’t just seek to avoid negative outcomes or even rejection, but to avoid outcomes that will reflect unfavorably on his or her self-image. To those of us who must deal with those high in narcissism, whichever form it takes, this insightful study suggests it’s best to be wary of their manipulative self-presentation strategies, even as we understand where they come from.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016


Hart, W., Adams, J., Burton, K. A., & Tortoriello, G. K. (2017). Narcissism and self-presentation: Profiling grandiose and vulnerable Narcissists' self-presentation tactic use. Personality and Individual Differences, 10448-57. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2016.06.062

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