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Why Narcissists Can't Wait to Get What They Want

New research on narcissism and delay discounting.

Key points

  • Research on delay discounting shows that the inability to put off a long-term reward is related to key aspects of narcissism.
  • By engaging in the preventive behavior of episodic future thinking, it's possible to counter the effects of poor delay discounting.
  • The need to have their desires met instantly may lead to problems in life for people high in narcissism.

If you know someone you’d consider high in narcissism, you are undoubtedly aware of their infuriating qualities. They expect to be treated as special, become enraged when they’re not, and constantly brag about their superior qualities. These features of what’s called grandiose narcissism may also co-exist with the sense of vulnerability also exhibited by people high in narcissism, in which they let you see if only briefly, their weaker side.

According to a new study by the University of Vermont’s Sulamunn Coleman and colleagues (2022), one key feature often overlooked in the narcissism literature is the quality of “delay discounting (DD).” A feature of decision-making, DD refers to the tendency to regard a reward that you could potentially receive in the future as less desirable (“discounted”) than a reward you could receive right away.

People high in narcissism, the U. Vermont researchers, maintain, may be similar to individuals with other psychological disorders known to experience greater DD. In their words, “DD has been proposed to constitute a ‘transdiagnostic process’ underpinning a wide range of psychiatric conditions."

Delay Discounting in Narcissism

DD may be particularly a concern for people high in narcissism. Coleman et al. maintain that these individuals may be likely to show higher DD because they also are high in what’s called “approach motivation” and low in “avoidance motivation.” In other words, they see rewards as tempting, even those that come at a risk.

Again, thinking about someone you know who is high in narcissism, perhaps there was a time when this person needed to have you do them a favor. They wanted to clean out their closet because the upper shelves were too high for them. They insisted that this has to happen "right now." You promised to do this in a few days, but this didn't stop the constant drumbeat of demanding texts from them. The reward of having what they want immediately outweighs, in their mind, the risk of alienating you completely.

To test their theoretical proposition, Coleman and his collaborator Anthony C. Oliver conducted a meta-analysis in which they evaluated the strength of the correlations among the dimensions of narcissism and DD, as reported in seven previously conducted studies. The international samples in these studies ranged from university students to general adult populations.

The quantitative method researchers use to measure DD involves the “Monetary Choice Questionnaire,” in which the time to reward is graphed against the size of the reward, making it possible to measure how much of a long-term benefit a person is willing to sacrifice to gain a short-term payoff. For example, one measure asks participants to make the following set of choices: “Would you prefer (a) $100 today or (b) $1,000 in one month?” and, “Would you prefer (a) $100 today or (b) $1,000 in one year?” The curve produced by questions such as this would show the rate of devaluation of the longer-term reward and allows the researcher to convert the devaluation rate into a number that can be correlated with scores on a narcissism measure.

Across the seven studies, various standard narcissism questionnaires tapped into overall levels of this quality along with its dimensions of entitlement, grandiosity, and vulnerability. There were no participants in these studies who were reported to have met the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, but the authors maintain that their findings could nevertheless have clinical relevance.

Unfortunately, with so few available studies, the authors also had to rely on some that were less than ideal in terms of their methods, such as not reporting the response rates of participation compared to initial recruitment. However, the total number of participants was reasonably large (just over 2,700 adults), and the authors controlled for other sources of bias, making the findings valuable nevertheless.

Are Narcissists Less Able to Wait for Rewards?

Now that you understand the questions used to measure DD and its translation into quantitative terms, it’s time to look at whether the evidence supports the link between narcissism (and its dimensions) and the inability to wait for rewards. After subjecting the data to their rigorous analysis, the authors concluded that, indeed, there was a “small-to-moderate positive association between DD and measures of trait narcissism” (p. 216).

The DD-narcissism link was strongest for the so-called “Criterion B” of narcissistic personality disorder in the DSM-5 (the psychiatric diagnostic manual), suggesting that people high in the grandiose and attention-seeking component of narcissism are the ones you can expect to be most demanding of immediate action. The authors also noted that entitlement factored into the equation. Feeling that they “deserve” whatever they want when they want it, individuals high in this component of narcissism will go after their reward, come what may.

This desire to seek short-term rewards regardless of their associated costs can, Coleman et al. argue, pose a significant threat to the overall physical and mental health of individuals high in narcissism. The costs of this single-minded focus on getting what they want can include greater alcohol consumption, high-risk sex, poorly considered financial decisions, excessive gambling, and even “disregarding public health and safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic” (p. 217).

How to Decrease DD in People High in Narcissism

Is there any hope, given these potential life-threatening outcomes, for the highly grandiose and entitled narcissist? As noted by the U. Vermont authors, it is possible that interventions that reduce DD might have the benefit of helping those high in narcissism up their patience quotient.

One such intervention involves what's known as “episodic future thinking.” In this method, as defined by University of Washington’s Christine Atance and Daniella O’Neill (2001), you “pre-experience” a future event, forcing yourself to think about what you’d need to do in order to make this event come true. As the authors suggest from a first-person perspective, “envisaging my forthcoming vacation might require me to consider such factors as how much spending money I will have, how much work I will have completed before I go, and so on (i.e., constraints)” (p. 533).

Projecting yourself into a future situation that you hope can come true, or maybe one that you hope won’t come true (such as becoming ill), could help you structure your thinking so that you do weigh rewards and costs in a more balanced way. Since introducing this concept, researchers using the approach in clinical settings have observed benefits in some of those risky behaviors such as alcohol use (e.g., Bulley & Gullo, 2017).

This intervention could be just what you need to manage the incessant demands for immediate gratification of the narcissists in your life who won’t stop pestering you. Returning to the example of your help-seeking friend, expanding their window of time may be as simple a matter as letting them know that, yes, in three days, they will have their wishes granted. Help them see into the future that all will be resolved, and they may feel better able to accept the delay between now and then.

You might also benefit from a bit of training in episodic future thinking. There are always outcomes that we wish to have happen sooner rather than later, as well as those we wish to avoid. You might find it difficult to engage in the health-promoting behaviors that take time and effort, but by seeing how they track directly to desired results, you can gain the motivation you need to keep going after that long-term reward.

To sum up, dealing with people who can’t wait can be frustrating, especially if this behavior is attached to the generally manipulative patterns of the highly narcissistic. By projecting into the future, you can help them—and you—be sure of getting the long-term rewards that will ultimately provide the greatest fulfillment.

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Atance, C., & O’Neill, D. K. (2001). Episodic future thinking. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5(12), 533–539. https://doi/10.1016/S1364-6613(00)01804-0

Bulley, A., & Gullo, M. J. (2017). The influence of episodic foresight on delay discounting and demand for alcohol. Addictive Behaviors, 66, 1–6. https:/doi/10.1016/j.addbeh.2016.11.00

Coleman, S. R. M., Oliver, A. C., Klemperer, E. M., DeSarno, M. J., Atwood, G. S., & Higgins, S. T. (2022). Delay discounting and narcissism: A meta-analysis with implications for narcissistic personality disorder. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 13(3), 210–220. doi: 10.1037/per0000528