Easy Ways to Tell Whether You’re an Inadvertent Narcissist
New research shows simple ways to identify and change your narcissism.
Posted December 12, 2017
It’s become very popular to use psychological principles to try to identify who’s a narcissist. As this is not a flattering term at all, it’s far more difficult to take an honest look at yourself to see if the term applies to you. An inadvertent narcissist is a person who behaves in highly egocentric and self-focused ways without having any insight into the source of these behaviors as coming from one’s own personality. One very obvious route to gaining this understanding comes from listening to yourself speak. In conversation, people give off cues to others about the inner workings of their minds. These same cues can be useful to you if you know how to listen to your contributions to conversations.
Well before narcissism became a term used widely in the public vernacular, University of Iowa Communication Studies professor Anita Vangelisti (now at the University of Texas) and colleagues (1990) conducted an insightful study into what they termed “conversational narcissism.” According to these authors, “conversational narcissism is typified by an extreme self-focusing in a conversation, to the exclusion of appropriate concerns for the other” (p. 251). In a series of studies on undergraduate samples, Vangelisti and her coauthors began by identifying the behaviors a narcissistic speaker might manifest, asking their participants simply to list as many behaviors as they could recall that would fit the definition.
After grouping these responses into a “behavior-based typology,” the research team moved on to ask another group of 32 dyads to take part in a role play in which one person was instructed to act like a conversational narcissist and the other person was not. The behaviors were coded into four major categories of self-importance, exploitation, exhibitionism, and interpersonal relationships. Participants rated themselves and each other, and the researchers used the videotaped conversations on a similar set of ratings. The following are the four categories along with examples of the most frequent forms of each that the research team developed:
- One-upping the other’s disclosure
- Questions that demonstrate superior knowledge
- Putting others down
- Shift responses that refocus the attention on the self
- “I” statements
- Longer time of talking
- Exaggerated hand/body motions
- Exaggerated facial expressions
- Loud tone of voice
- Touching the other
- Glazing over when the other person talks
- Looking over the other person’s shoulder (as if listening to another conversation)
- Poor listening
- Not asking questions of the other person
This list provides an excellent, behavioral way to turn the mirror back onto yourself as you analyze your own conversations. Listen to yourself speak and ask yourself how many of these behaviors characterize you? When someone tells you where they're from, for example, do you say "I went there on vacation," instead of finding out more about how the person moved to where he or she is now? Similarly, if someone tells you his or her occupation, do you say "I wanted to be that once as well," or do you ask about how much the person likes the occupation? These are common ways that narcissists steer the conversation back onto themselves from their conversation partners.
The next study in the Vangelisti et al. investigation provides yet another set of guidelines you can use in evaluating your conversations. This third study in the series examined the behaviors that people in conversations with a narcissist use to try to cope with the discomfort they experience when this is happening. Again, turning this onto yourself, by examining the behaviors of the people you’re talking with, you can perhaps gain even further insight into your inadvertent narcissism.
People talking to those who behave in a narcissistic manner, then, show the following sets of behaviors according to Vangelisti and her coauthors; the strategies include active and passive reactions:
- Confront the speaker, either by using sarcasm (“the conversation is going that way again") or overtly calling the speaker out
- Shift the topic to themselves or to another topic completely
- Maintain the floor (“look them dead in the eye and talk with a direct and meaningful tone”)
- Bring another person into the conversation
- Reduced response (by looking away)
- Demonstrate disinterest
- Leavetaking (“make bad excuses to leave”)
- Prepare mentally so as not to get upset
- Listen or pretend to listen till they run out of steam
- Ignore them by not answering questions or laughing at jokes
- Simply avoid the person
Further studies in the Vangelista et al. investigation went on to examine whether conversational narcissism is ever appropriate (it can be) and further, how it evolves over the course of the relationship between participants. For your purposes, though, the findings provide fairly direct guidance that you can use to examine your own conversational behavior.
Conversational narcissism isn’t limited, of course, to face-to-face interactions. What University of Derby’s Zaheer Hussain and colleagues (2017) call “problematic smartphone use” becomes a fertile ground for the conversational narcissist to take on a dominating role in conversations and online activity. You can, therefore, look at how you use your own cellphone as an additional clue to detecting your inadvertent narcissism. As Hussain et al. note, there is ample evidence to suggest that people high in narcissism show signs of addictive smartphone use.
In an Internet-based study carried out on 871 smartphone users (average age of 25 years), most of whom used their smartphones for Facebook and other social networking sites, higher narcissism scores were positive predictors of the type of smartphone use that the authors considered problematic. Heavy smartphone users were also lower in the personality traits of conscientiousness and emotional stability.
To find out whether you’re a problematic smartphone user, see how much you would agree with these statements: “I am preoccupied with my smartphone,” “I use my smartphone to escape or relieve a negative mood,” “I have jeopardized or lost a significant relationship, job, or educational career opportunity because of my smartphone use.” The British authors also noted that narcissism alone might not entirely predict smartphone use, but anxiety also plays a role.
Putting together the results of the two studies, we can now understand how your inadvertent narcissism might show up in your cell phone use as well as your ordinary day-to-day conversations. Narcissism can lead you to constantly call or text others, put up self-centered Facebook posts, and initiate long phone conversations in which you do most of the talking. Using the results of the Vangelista et al. study, you can also ask how others seem to respond to you. Are they not liking or commenting on your posts? Do they seem to wish to hang up as soon as possible? Do you pause long enough in your conversations to hear their responses? If you do, are those responses indicative of active or passive coping strategies with your narcissistic domination of the conversation?
Fortunately, with the behavioral approach advocated by the communication studies research team, you don’t need to take a personality test and score yourself to find out if you’ve taken on the qualities of an inadvertent conversational narcissist. Just listen to yourself, see how others respond to you, and then take stock of how people are responding to your heavy and self-oriented Facebook use. Enlist a friend or family member’s support to see if you’re improving in these behaviors. As you turn down your inadvertent narcissism, your fulfillment from mutually rewarding relationships will only gain strength.
Hussain, Z., Griffiths, M. D., & Sheffield, D. (2017). An investigation into problematic smartphone use: The role of narcissism, anxiety, and personality factors. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 6(3), 378-386. doi:10.1556/2006.6.2017.052
Vangelisti, A. L., Knapp, M. L., & Daly, J. A. (1990). Conversational narcissism. Communication Monographs, 57(4), 251-274. doi:10.1080/03637759009376202