How Narcissistic People Do (and Don't) Present Themselves

Research suggests approaches to improving their etiquette.

Posted Aug 18, 2018

Think about the people you know who are high in narcissism. Are they particularly polite? Or do they interrupt, take control of the conversation, and focus only on their own needs when in social situations? Who is the first to take a seat at the table? Who refuses to share a chocolate dessert? People high in narcissism can act in ways that others perceive as rude due not only to their self-entitlement and grandiosity, but also to their inability to see things from someone else’s point of view. The situation can be particularly rough when the individual also appears to be on a mission to make other people feel bad as they brutally seek to accomplish their own goals above all else.

New research on self-presentation tactics of people high in a version of narcissism suggests not only that they can be rude, but also why they’re rude. University of Alabama’s William Hart and colleagues examined the relationship between the personality traits associated with the so-called “Dark Triad” traits. “Regular” narcissism involves feelings of grandiosity, entitlement, and a preoccupation with validating one’s own self-esteem. Those high on the Dark Triad additionally have traits associated with psychopathy—including lack of impulse control, an inability to empathize with others, lack of remorse, a somewhat erratic lifestyle—as well as “Machiavellianism,” or the tendency to seek power, exploit others, and do what they need to do in order to get their way. According to Hart et al., the combination of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism should lead to “a relatively malignant approach to self-presentation."

Wouldn’t it be nice if people high on these traits could learn better ways to behave?  We’ll return to some practical implications of this study after looking more closely at the findings.

Hart and his colleagues recruited an online sample of 524 adults with a mean age of 48 (61% female) and asked them to complete a standard Dark Triad inventory assessing psychopathy and Machiavellianism along with the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Their measure of self-presentation tactics (SPTS) included 12 subscales intended to assess common behaviors that people use in social situations. Those 12 subscales divided into the two categories of “Assertive” and “Defensive.” Here are example of each of these subscales:

Assertive

Ingratiation: using flattery or agreement in order to be liked

Intimidation: provoking fear in others to gain influence

Supplication: appearing weak in order to get others to help you

Entitlement: taking undue credit for positive outcomes

Blasting: saying negative things about others to appear better by comparison

Exemplification: trying to serve as a positive role model

Defensive

Excuse-making: denying responsibility for negative outcomes

Justification: denying the undesirability of one’s own negative behavior

Disclaimer: lowering expectations ahead of time for poor performance

Self-handicapping: placing identifiable obstacles in the way of success in order to avoid seeming to fail

Apology: admitting guilt in order to convince others that the behavior doesn’t reflect one’s true character

Some of these assertive behaviors might strike you as particularly egregious, such as intimidation and blasting. The defensive behaviors are also irritating because they show how people try to manipulate you into seeing them as better than they are, even while admitting they are flawed. Offering a sincere apology is a form of positive social behavior, but not in the context of trying to twist things around so that the person doesn’t seem to be truly at fault.

Participants completed the SPTS in ways that allowed the researchers to evaluate tactic usage (how much people self-report using each approach), tactic logic (how useful is each tactic), and self-recrimination (how bad or guilty people would feel when using each tactic).  Across all 12 subscales of the SPTS, participants could thus be compared based on their narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy scores.

Starting with tactic usage, those with high Dark Triad (or DT) traits were generally most likely to use intimidation and least likely to use apology in their interactions with others. They did not think it was very beneficial to use exemplification (i.e. serving as a role model), nor did they think it was worth offering apologies, even if those apologies are self-serving. Those with high scores also were more likely to engage in self-recrimination if they used exemplification or apology as a self-presentation style. They stated that they use, and believe to be effective, self-handicapping.

In evaluating this pattern of findings, Hart and his coauthors concluded that “the DT constructs unite on a protean approach to using manipulation tactics." In other words, people high on the Dark Triad traits will adapt to what they believe to be the most effective means of using and exploiting others, and to having their needs for self-esteem fed by those around them. In the process, they could be exposed as liars and con artists, but they don’t seem to worry because they either think they won’t be found out or, if they are, believe they can make excuses and get out of trouble.

Let's return to the question of how to improve the manners of people who engage in these self-aggrandizing and exploitative behaviors. If you suspect that you might be high on these traits, then based on the findings, we can consider six potential ways of rethinking your own behavior:

1.       Challenge your beliefs that you’re most effective when you intimidate others or make excuses for yourself. Give way to someone else the next time you’re ready to insist on having that best seat in the house.

2.       Don’t think you can just make excuses in order to justify rude behavior. You may want to get to the front of the line because you’re in a hurry, but so are other people.

3.       Leave room in the conversation for other people to speak. You may believe that you are entitled to dominate a social situation. Even if you’ve been asked by other people to take the lead at a meeting, for example, give others ample opportunities to contribute.

4.       Stay away from "blasting" the people you don’t like. As a self-presentation strategy, it may make you feel better, but it can also produce resentment among everyone within earshot.

5.       Think of ways you can be a role model. What are the qualities you have that you think can inspire others? Take the high road whenever you can instead of always undercutting others.

6.       Be able to say you’re truly sorry. An apology that only lets you off the hook will likely be seen as fake. Part of etiquette involves social sensitivity, which in turn often involves humility if you’re caused harm.

If it’s true that people high in narcissism and the other Dark Triad traits have a “protean” or malleable approach to social situations, then this study of social presentation provides keys to achieving that malleability to turn manipulation into honesty and fairness in dealing with others. The process may take time and practice, but the fulfillment it provides will be well worth the effort.

References

Hart, W., Tortoriello, G. K., Richardson, K., & Breeden, C. J. (2018). Profiles and profile comparisons between dark triad constructs on self‐presentation tactic usage and tactic beliefs. Journal of Personality, doi:10.1111/jopy.12411