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A New Way to Think About Narcissism

A new study shows the crafty ways that narcissists try to get ahead.

Key points

  • Narcissism is a concept developed and mainly tested in individualistic cultures that value rising to the top.
  • A new measure of narcissism builds on the need to test across both Western and non-Western cultures.
  • The findings show it's not just the antagonistic, but maybe the highly agreeable, you need to watch out for.

Among the many attempts to conceptualize and measure narcissism, a common theme emerges of a dual entity: The grandiosity component of narcissism represents its self-aggrandizing and egocentric qualities and the vulnerability component, its weakness and need for self-protection. Narcissists who strive for recognition can and do make their way to the top. However, along they way, their antagonism can make them unpleasant to deal with, and can even backfire once someone thwarts them from achieving what they believe is well-deserved success.

As well-accepted as this duality is, however, it remains relatively untested outside of “vertical,” or individualistic cultures. In societies where modesty, self-sacrifice, and helping others are the norm, where does antagonism fit in?

Narcissism’s Universal Features May Not Be So Universal

According to Australian National University’s Danushika Sivanathan and colleagues (2024), the antagonism at the “core” of narcissism may be culturally specific to individualist cultures. In their words, “All aspects of antagonism may not serve as useful a purpose in collectivist cultures, where group harmony is privileged above the antagonism inherent to individualistic pursuits."

As a first step toward building a culturally broader understanding of narcissism, Sivanathan et al. developed the Unified Narcissism Scale (UNS) based on several existing instruments, all of which were developed in Western cultures. The UNS began as a 29-item measure capturing grandiosity and vulnerability, but didn’t tap into entitlement and “narcissistic leadership” (i.e. running the show as a way to bolster one’s own self-esteem). Tested initially on Western samples, it also lacked the key inclusion of a broader cross-cultural database.

To begin to correct these limitations, the Australian research team administered the UNS first to American participants (average age of 41) and then to Chinese (average age of 26) and Sri Lankan (average age of 28) samples. Their final instrument contained 35 items, whose measurement properties were tested by examining its internal structure as well as its relationship to self-esteem, extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, and entitlement. All scales were translated as appropriate for each sample.

Before turning to the findings, you might find it useful to test yourself on the items emerging in the final version of the UNS-R (revised). Even though you may have tried taking some online narcissism inventories in the past, the UNS-R provides a slightly different set of items with their own intriguing qualities. You can rate yourself, or perhaps rate someone you think is a narcissist, using these sample items, divided according to the final scale on which they ended up in the Chinese and Sri Lankan samples.

Each item should be rated on a scale from not at all like me (1 point) to very much like me (6 points):

Contingent self-esteem (feeling good only if others admire you)

  1. It’s hard for me to feel good about myself unless I know other people like me.
  2. When others don’t notice me, I start to feel worthless.
  3. I am disappointed when people don’t notice me.


  1. I am a born leader.
  2. If I became a leader, I would be the best.
  3. I would do a better job than any leader out there.

Grandiose fantasy

  1. I often fantasize about being admired and respected.
  2. In my fantasies I am a highly successful person.
  3. I fantasize about becoming an important person in the world.


  1. I enjoy taking photos of myself because I look so good.
  2. I am proud of my good looks.
  3. I am exceptionally good-looking.

Hiding one’s needs

  1. I would feel so ashamed if someone saw all parts of me.
  2. I could never be my true self with anyone because I am too ashamed by it.
  3. People would avoid me if they knew who I am really deep down.

The average scores per item across the U.S., Chinese, and Sri Lankan samples were in the center of the range, with variations 2 points above and below the average. This should give you some idea of where you stand in comparison.

More importantly, the data analysis plan included the test of the internal structure of the UNS-R across the three samples with leadership and vanity forming the grandiose factor and the other three scales loading on the vulnerable factor.

Having established the that the UNS-R was indeed “universal” across cultures, the next question the authors addressed was whether antagonism would play a central role across all three samples. Although they believed their findings to be only preliminary at this time (requiring further validation), it was only in the Chinese sample that agreeableness was positively related to grandiose narcissism. As the authors concluded (again, with caveats): “These findings indicate that the facets of agreeableness captured by the measure used, that is, empathy and interest in others, seem to be unrelated to narcissism in more vertical collectivist cultures."

Antagonism, Revisited

Replicating the strong core of entitlement within narcissism along with replicating the grandiose-vulnerable distinction was an important contribution of this cross-cultural study.

In addition to demonstrating the need to take narcissism measures outside of individualistic cultures, the Sivanathan et al. findings speak to the adaptability that narcissists have to being able to play to an audience. If antagonism isn’t going to work with the particular crowd or culture in which they’re trying to gain admiration, the grandiose narcissist seeking attention may do so by putting on the guise of being nice.

Your own particular culture or group, regardless of the prevailing ethos of your country, may also be one in which niceness is more valued than nastiness in those who seek to advance. You’ve probably been fooled more than once by someone taking advantage of this more horizontal structure. Perhaps you’ve served as a co-worker or fellow volunteer committee member with a person who seemed to have nothing but the best interests of the group in mind, only to have them undercut you should you seem to gain the lion’s share of popularity or admiration. Narcissists will use whatever means they sniff out as being able to get them ahead.

To sum up, this new approach to narcissism shows the importance of looking beyond the individual to the larger values of the group. You may not always be able to protect yourself, but at least you’ll be wiser to someone's unsavory ways.

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Sivanathan, D., Bizumic, B., Li, W., & Chen, J. (2024). The unified narcissism scale–revised: Expanding measurement and understanding of narcissism across cultures. Assessment, 31(4), 839-854.

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