3 Ways to Spot a Narcissist

Would you know a narcissist if you met one?

Posted Oct 05, 2015

We know narcissists are self-involved, grandiose, and exploitative. But would you know one if you met one? It may be more difficult than you think — their self-presentation can easily draw a person in. Here are three ways to spot a narcissist that are backed by science:

Appearance. Narcissists like to look good — and they prefer to present themselves in eye-catching ways. Such individuals often have a neat and organized presentation, which takes a good deal of preparation (note that female narcissists will wear make up and expose cleavage). The garments themselves tend to be expensive and flashy. Take a study in which participants were shown photographs of individuals whose personalities, including levels of narcissism, had been assessed. Observers were able to make accurate snap judgments about narcissism on the basis of appearance alone. According to the researchers, the association between narcissism and the factors of vanity, exhibitionism, and status-seeking are reflected in how narcissists choose to present themselves.

Conversation. Narcissists tend to swear and use more sexual language than their counterparts. Consider a study that had participants wear a digital audio recorder with an external microphone for four consecutive days, from a Friday afternoon through a Tuesday night. The device recorded 30-second intervals every 12.5 minutes (or 4.8 recordings per hour), and participants didn't know when they were being recorded. The investigators then analyzed the audio recordings. What did they find? Narcissism correlated with with greater use of swearing and sexual language, even when using these words to express anger was controlled for statistically.

Popularity. Everyone seems to love a narcissist, despite their rather uncharitable traits. This is in part because they are charming. One study had college freshman studying psychology take randomly assigned seats, then asked them to step forward and briefly introduce themselves in front of their classmates. These self-introductions were videotaped, and on average lasted 7.49 seconds. Immediately after each introduction, the participants were evaluated by the other students. The investigators found that the narcissists in the group presented themselves in neater and flashier ways, had more charming facial expressions, had more self-confident body language, and were funnier. But of prime importance, the investigators say, is that the cues displayed by the narcissists in this sample were judged in positive terms by their peers who had never met them before.

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