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A Subtle New Way to Identify a Narcissist

The eyes (and eyebrows) have it.

Key points

  • Everyone finds negative feedback to be at least a little threatening and unpleasant.
  • For those high in narcissism, a new study shows the eyes and eyebrows may react in distinct ways to criticism.
  • These results can help you use facial cues as your guide to who is and, importantly, isn’t a narcissist.
Source: RomanSamborskyi/Shutterstock

You may think you’re pretty good at figuring out who’s a narcissist. Let’s say that your usual coffee server has taken the day off and a new person is now preparing your daily fuel to power your morning. Instead of listening to your order, they nod their head and confidently pour the exact opposite of what you requested, all the while giving the impression that they are absolutely the greatest at their job. Although this is a small nuisance rather than a calamity, you still feel miffed about their lack of consideration for your very simple request.

Thinking back on the situation, perhaps it reminds you of other people whose self-absorption and desire for attention means that they fail to take your needs into consideration, period. A consultant comes into your office or a substitute for your usual fitness instructor appears to give no recognition to the fact that they are supposed to be there to help you, not to show off.

As signs of narcissism, extreme self-absorption along with an outward display of showiness may seem like pretty blatant cues about their grandiosity. However, might there be other, less obvious, signs that could help you avoid putting yourself in the hands of a narcissist?

Facial Cues as Guides to Personality

According to University of Helsinki’s Ville Harjunen and colleagues (2023), there is a lot you can learn about the personality of a narcissist when you confront them with negative feedback about their performance. What if, in the above situations, you let the person know you were unhappy with their actions? You might be afraid to confront them for fear of looking impolite. However, it might be exactly that confrontation that could help you size up the person you’re dealing with.

Harjunen et al. investigated whether the subtle signs shown by a narcissist’s facial muscles would respond, even when their self-reported emotions do not, to being exposed to negative evaluative feedback. As the team points out, no one likes negative evaluations, especially when these occur in a public setting. However, for people high in narcissism, such feedback should hit particularly hard, bursting their bubble of grandiosity.

Despite its harsh nature, negative feedback may not register in the self-report a narcissist provides about the impact of falling short of their unrealistically high standards. Early studies on this topic suggested that people high in narcissism become aggressive and angry when publicly confronted with failure, but later studies show precisely the opposite. To shed light on the issue, the U. Helsinki researchers decided to use psychophysiological measures of facial reactivity “that are less susceptible to voluntary control or biased reporting” (p. 3).

Testing Reactions to Criticism as Shown in the Face

Using the method known as electromyography (EMG), Harjunen and his fellow researchers sought to measure the facial reactivity of their 57 participants (18 to 44 years old, average age of 26) when exposed to a failure condition. In this case, the failure was induced by asking participants to complete a set of challenging, if not impossible, questions based on an experimental memory task (recalling details of a story). In the non-failure condition, the questions about the story were simple to answer, and would not induce failure. Following the task, the experimenter read out a script that provided either neutral or negative feedback. Failure and non-failure experiences alternated within the same participant.

The EMGs tapped into the responses shown by the “smile” muscles (zygomaticus major), the muscles that open and close the eyes (orbicularis oculi), and the eyebrow muscles (corrugator supercilia). To assess narcissism, the research team used a standard personality inventory. They also asked participants to complete subjective ratings of their emotions following the experimental induction.

Analyses taking into account the variations within individuals over the phases of the experiment supported the prediction that there would be a disconnect between EMG responses and the overt ratings of emotions. Everyone showed the same levels of negative affect after receiving feedback showing they had failed, but only those high in narcissism exhibited facial muscle patterns consistent with the emotions of anger and frustration.

Based on the underlying view that most people prefer to think of themselves in a positive light, whether narcissistic or not, this carefully controlled investigation showed that for people high in narcissism, the response to threat shows up in unique patterns of facial activation along with heightened use of “defensive coping strategies” (p. 14). In other words, a person high in narcissism may pretend that negative feedback has no impact on them, but their face will suggest exactly the opposite.

Using Facial Cues to Spot Narcissists in Your Own Life

The U. Helsinki study provides intriguing insights into the inner life of the narcissist when someone challenges their ability. They may seem cool and completely collected when you point to their shortcomings. Returning to the example of the overly confident but wrong coffee server, should you let them know you’re dissatisfied with their service, it might require that you look carefully at their facial reactions to determine what impact your words are having. The EMGs of people high in narcissism showed heightened reactivity involving the forehead and eye socket muscles. Essentially, this means that you will get an angry stare, if ever so briefly, when you point to their flaws.

Although practicing your narcissism-sensing skills may provide a certain level of amusement if the other person isn’t going to be a major figure in your life, it takes on more serious proportions when you’re trying to determine whether to get into a relationship with a person who seems to have some overt narcissistic tendencies. Before assuming that their outward flair reflects inflated grandiosity, see what happens when things don’t go their way. If they express outward anger but show absolutely no facial reaction, then it is unlikely they’re engaging in that “defensive coping” of the narcissist.

It’s important to point out that the Harjunen et al. study was conducted on undergraduates rather than a clinical sample. However, there could be advantages based exactly on this feature. You are statistically unlikely to run into a diagnosable narcissist in your normal day-to-day life (fortunately). People who are essentially “normal” but high in narcissistic tendencies are more likely to cross your path. Having a more subtle set of cues to use in deciding whether they are in this normal but not exactly pleasant category could therefore be very helpful. Before judging that the office consultant or fitness instructor must be a narcissist, studying their facial cues could guide you to a more informed, and perhaps less judgmental, evaluation of their personalities.

To sum up, knowing what to look for in a person’s face is always advantageous to maintaining good relationships. Detecting narcissism with the subtle cues provided by the eyes and eyebrows can become a valuable tool to have in your own personality assessment toolbox.

Facebook image: Lukasz D Forster/Shutterstock


Harjunen, V. J., Krusemark, E., Stigzelius, S., Halmesvaara, O. W., Annala, M., Henttonen, P., Määttänen, I., Silfver, M., Keltikangas, J. L., & Ravaja, N. (2023). Under the thin skin of narcissus: Facial muscle activity reveals amplified emotional responses to negative social evaluation in individuals with grandiose narcissistic traits. Psychophysiology. doi: 10.1111/psyp.14315

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