The Magnetic Power of the Narcissist Can Easily Draw You In
New research shows the reasons you're drawn to those high in narcissism.
Posted December 1, 2018
Being involved in a relationship with people high in narcissism can cause you endless grief. These individuals are self-centered, manipulative, and greedy for attention. Yet, they somehow end up in relationships and it's likely that you've been a victim yourself of their destructive magnetism. What drives your attraction to people high in narcissism? New research suggests that, at so-called “zero acquaintance” (i.e. when you first meet them), it's hard to resist people high in narcissism. Like moths to a candle flame, you can't help but be drawn to fall prey to their influence.
MacEwan University (Edmonton) psychologist Miranda Giacomin and colleagues (2018) studied what they call the "zero acquaintance effect" that makes narcissists so magnetic upon first meeting. People high in narcissism, they note, go out of their way to maximize their physical attractiveness through the fashionable and expensive clothing they wear, as well as by their unusual fastidiousness. These appearance-obsessed individuals go out of their way to be perfectly groomed and made up at all times, even if it's just to run out to the store and do a few errands. You observe their glamorous demeanor and feel compelled to get to know them. Ultimately, you will learn that all of this is a façade and that you will regret having made the decision to enter into a relationship. You may have already been in an unsuccessful relationship with such a person before. However, you suspend disbelief and go ahead anyway, ignoring the inner voice that tells you to run in the opposite direction.
Giacomin and her fellow researchers used a unique person perception rating method in which participants rated how much they were drawn to photographs of people (“targets”) who varied in their scores on measures they had previously completed of narcissism and self-esteem. The idea was that because the targets were known to be high or low in these qualities, the attraction that participants felt toward them just by looking at them would reflect this zero acquaintance effect. Indeed, although you might be able to judge a person as being high in narcissism based on the assertive and dominating behaviors they exhibit. However, as the authors maintain, it's also true that “people can perceive narcissism without observing any behavior, based on physical appearance alone.” This perception leads you to overestimate the narcissist’s self-esteem, “a socially valued trait, which contributes to unduly positive impressions of narcissist” (p. 2). You are drawn to people high in self-esteem, as the authors suggest, because you infer (rightly or wrongly) that they also possess many positive qualities and therefore you think you will like them.
Although there may be truth to the notion that people high in narcissism are also high in self-esteem, Giacomin et al. point out that this is not always the case by any means. Narcissism and self-esteem, they maintain, are separate qualities. The person perception method the Canadian research team used allowed them to compare observer ratings of photographs of targets who varied in these qualities on separate dimensions. The targets, then, were either high in narcissism and self-esteem, low in narcissism but high in self-esteem, and low in both narcissism and self-esteem (there was no condition involving high narcissism and low self-esteem).
In the first study, Giacomin and her research team asked participants to rate their attraction (liking) relative to the three categories of targets. To ensure that the targets actually were high or low in the psychological qualities under The targets themselves were drawn from an undergraduate sample so that they were comparable to the participants in age and status. The job of the participants was to answer a series of questions about the targets including their apparent self-esteem, narcissism, likability, potential for becoming a friend, personality attributes associated with “communal” qualities (such as caring and helpful) and “egoistic” attributes (manipulative, arrogant, attention-seeking). This first study's findings supported the prediction that participants would perceive the highly narcissistic individuals to be higher in self-esteem and, further, that the highly narcissistic would be regarded as higher in narcissism. Indeed, participants overestimated the self-esteem of targets who had actually scored high in narcissism. Ratings of likability supported the prediction that the highly narcissistic would be perceived as more likable. Even so, participants rated the highly narcissistic as less communal and more egoistic. As the authors conclude from this first study, “narcissists are well liked because perceivers focus on their apparently high self-esteem (which is socially valued) but largely disregard their high narcissism” (p. 6).
Following up on this initial set of findings, Giacomin and her collaborators went on to investigate how the targets would be evaluated if participants were informed (or not) about either their self-esteem, narcissism or both. When participants received no information about the actual narcissism or self-esteem of the target, they provided ratings similar to those in the first study (i.e. they overestimated the self-esteem of narcissists and gave them high marks on likability). However, when given information about the measured narcissism and self-esteem of the targets, viewers liked the highly narcissistic less favorably. Thus, when you’re made aware of someone’s narcissism, the zero acquaintance effect on likability disappears.
The third study in the series raised the stakes even higher, including a broader range of targets for their female participants to rate, and also adding Tinder-type profile statements (of men) to provide real-world generalizability. When you make a decision about whether to swipe right or left (i.e. to accept or reject someone), the question is whether your decision is influenced by the apparent levels of narcissism and self-esteem represented by your potential match. The authors predicted that, consistent with their previous findings, participants would find narcissistic men to be more “date-worthy” if they also seemed to have high self-esteem. The simulated dating app results supported this prediction, suggesting further that people are willing to turn a blind eye to an individual’s potentially high narcissism if they also believe that person to have high self-esteem.
These findings suggest that when you’re ready to be lured into a relationship with a person whose snappy appearance conveys apparent self-assuredness, you might want to think twice before going further. There’s something to be said for liking a person high in the social cachet of high self-esteem, but if high narcissism is involved, the price tag may, unfortunately, be high as well.
Another twist in the story the authors tell concerns the way that people high in narcissism manipulate the zero acquaintance effect. Realizing that high self-esteem is seen as a desirable trait, they may purposefully seek an image that projects this quality by being as attractive and fashionable as possible. However, the impact they have on others depends on what they believe will work. You, the perceiver, may wish to associate with someone high in narcissism/self-esteem because you think it will improve your own social standing. These are people who seem to be at the nexus of their social networks, and so by virtue of your relationship with them, you move closer to that nexus as well.
To sum up, once you recognize that people high in narcissism feed off the image of self-confidence they create in your eyes, you can learn to be less drawn into their spell. The zero acquaintance effect can remain, just that, and you’ll be spared the turmoil that a longer-term relationship may ultimately entail.
Giacomin, M., & Jordan, C. H. (2018). Misperceiving grandiose narcissism as self‐esteem: Why narcissists are well liked at zero acquaintance. Journal of Personality. doi:10.1111/jopy.12436.