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What Goes on Beneath the Surface When Narcissists Get Angry

New research suggests what makes narcissists so enraged when they fail.

You may know from your own experience how angrily people high in narcissism react when they encounter failure of any kind.

Perhaps you have a good friend who, despite having many positive qualities, can’t stand to lose. What’s more, this person seems to turn even ordinary interactions into competitive sports. Whose social media post gets the most likes? Who’s able to cook a better omelet? Who can grab the one remaining parking spot in a crowded lot? From your point of view, there’s no reason to engage in such ridiculous comparisons, but your friend constantly poses these challenges in the most mundane of contexts.

When the stakes are truly high, and a narcissist loses, the outpouring of rage may take on even greater proportions. A famous celebrity takes to social media to complain bitterly about not winning an award. A losing contestant in a game show turns away angrily and refuses to shake hands with the winner. You expect people who lose to admit to defeat and act graciously, potentially even gaining some humility from the experience. What makes the narcissist so incapable of accepting a hard truth?

University of Padova’s Emanuela Gritti and a team of international colleagues (2020), in a newly published study, sought to gain an understanding of what goes on beneath the surface when a narcissist encounters failure. Rather than rely on self-report questionnaire data alone, the Italian-led research team added the well-known Rorschach Inkblot Test, a so-called "projective" test in which the test-taker describes ambiguous stimuli. The idea is that the test-taker will respond in ways that reflect the unconscious aspects of personality.

The test itself contains five black-and-white and five colored inkblots (symmetrical patterns of patches of color). The administrator shows them one by one asking the test-taker "What do you see?" followed by questions based on the test-taker's initial responses. Raters then provide scores on a set of standard dimensions using pre-defined criteria to make the findings as objective as possible.

You're probably familiar with this test as it is often portrayed in the popular media, and you may think that it’s become outdated. However, clinicians and researchers continue to find it useful as a means of tapping into an individual’s unconscious emotions and motivations.

Simulating a failure experience for the 105 college students who participated in the study, the research team wanted to find out whether they would be able to detect narcissistically-motivated anger with this deep probe into the personalities of their participants. The simulated failure involved presenting participants with what’s called a matrix reasoning task, in which you choose a pattern that correctly completes a sequence of geometric shapes. The authors heightened the need to do well on this task to their participants by describing it as a measure that could “predict future achievement and life success,” which the authors acknowledge is actually reasonably accurate.

After each trial of the task, which was presented on a computer screen, the participants received immediate feedback in the form of emojis (yellow smiley face for correct and red frown faces for incorrect). This feedback was, however, not associated with their performance, allowing the research team to manipulate experimentally the outcomes of success and failure.

In the first set of trials, participants believed that they had succeeded. A green stoplight appeared on the screen, along with the statement that they were 80% correct. After the second set of trials, a red stoplight appeared, informing participants that they were only 40% correct, and had performed far worse than their peers. To add to the impact of failure, the research team added a social embarrassment component by telling participants their faces were being recorded and that later, a group of researchers would rate their nonverbal behavior.

Put yourself in the place of these participants. How would you feel if you tried your hardest but came up short? Worse still, your reactions are being closely monitored by a team of experts who judge your appearance during the whole affair. What would your reaction be? This “insult” to your self-esteem, in the words of the authors, may be particularly hard for you to take if you thought that the measure would somehow predict your future success in life.

The research team administered the Rorschach along with self-report personality questionnaires tapping into narcissism prior to the success-failure manipulation. Following the manipulation, participants rated their own performance in terms of how much effort they put into the matrix task, how difficult it was, and whether they believed it reflected their own abilities. To assess the psychological impact of the experience, participants also rated their self-esteem, as well as the emotional reactions they had in the moment of anger and hostility.

Looking specifically at how the Rorschach tapped into the deeper levels of narcissism, Gritti et al. devised a set of standard scales along which they coded the responses. These included such dimensions as feelings of omnipotence, expanded personal reference, idealization, narcissistic devaluation, narcissistic denial, and narcissistic deflation. These scales most likely tap into what you might typically associate with narcissism but more importantly, they also related in a previous study to the responses of individuals diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder.

Turning to the findings, the scores of these college students on the Rorschach narcissism scales indeed predicted their levels of anger and externalization of blame. The self-report inventories, by contrast, were unrelated to the reactions that participants had to the self-esteem insult of failure. In the words of the authors, “The tendency to place the source of negative outcomes outside the self is likely to reflect an attempt by narcissistic individuals to resist what they perceive as negative feedback… As such, the implicitly assessed [Rorschach narcissism scales] might be associated with hostile behavior enacted in everyday unstructured situations by narcissistically inclined people experiencing self-esteem affronts”(p. 9).

These findings may thus confirm what you already know from your experiences with people who tend toward high levels of narcissism. You don’t want to be around them when they’ve felt humiliated, outdone, or “cheated.” However, you might be surprised to learn that it was the vulnerable aspect of narcissism that more strongly predicted angry reactions to failure. It’s not the overtly grandiose person who will become outraged at a loss, but the individual who inwardly feels vulnerable and weak.

At the same time, the authors note that people high in grandiosity look at their failure not as a sign of their weakness, but as a sign of the difficulty of the task. In their minds, they couldn’t climb that mountain of good performance because the mountain was too high, not because they lacked the skills.

You might not feel particularly comforted by these findings if someone such as a good friend has these feelings of weakness stirring under the surface of those “everyday unstructured interactions.” However, as the authors note, knowing how sensitive people with vulnerable narcissism can be to “ego-threats” can help you stem the tide of their anger before it gets out of control. Even redefining a situation not as a test of someone’s ability but as a more neutral activity (think about cooking that omelet) could prevent the kind of outburst that can be so damaging and hurtful.

To sum up, people high in the vulnerable form of narcissism seem to construe situations in which they fail to live up to their standards as proof of their weakness. Understanding the “complex dynamics” (p. 11) of these situations can help you, and them, react in a more mature and adaptive manner when life doesn’t go their way.

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Gritti, E. S., Meyer, G. J., Bornstein, R. F., Marino, D. P., & Marco, J. d. (2020). Narcissism and reactions to a self-esteem insult: An experiment using predictions from self-report and the Rorschach task. Journal of Personality Assessment. doi:10.1080/00223891.2020.1848854

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