How Narcissists Got That Way
Nature, nurture, and evolution combine for a toxic result.
Posted June 6, 2016
Dealing with narcissists is no easy task. They are arrogant, entitled, exploitative, self-absorbed, and forceful. But at the same time, they are also charming, persuasive, and attractive—making it difficult to navigate their treacherous webs.
How do narcissists get this way?
When trying to explain the development of the trait, current thinking tends to emphasize the roles that environment and experience play. These include indulgent or neglectful parenting, an individualistic culture, the exponential growth of social media, and media exposure to celebrities behaving badly. While these external factors have a strong influence on the development of narcissism, they overlook another crucial contributor—biology.
In a recent paper, psychologists Nicholas Holtzman and M. Brent Donnellan propose three novel explanations for the development of narcissism, which draw on both biology and the environment:
1. It's a physical thing.
While the search for a “narcissism gene" hasn't as yet been successful, the authors argue that it is a trait with a physical basis. They maintain that an individual may become narcissistic because of what they look like, or the actual physical attributes they possess. This concept is known as reactive inheritance, which holds that a person's physical appearance shapes their personality. For example, larger individuals may be more outwardly aggressive than those who are smaller because it's more effective for them. In the case of narcissism, Holzman and Donnellan point out that this trait is associated with certain physical features. Indeed, studies show that narcissism is linked to attractiveness, strength, and smooth movement, perhaps reflecting athletic prowess. The researchers note that, anecdotally, narcissism has been linked to sharper facial features in women, and a larger head, thinner lips, a sturdy jaw, and thicker eyebrows in men.
2. It's a nature-nurture thing.
Narcissism may also result from the complex interactions between genes and the environment. The thinking goes that people vary in their genetic make up, and have a greater or lesser potential to become narcissistic. However—and this is key—environmental factors can influence the expression of narcissistic tendencies. From this perspective, people who are genetically predisposed to narcissism will develop it if, for example, they are raised in an environment in which their caregivers lack sensitivity, like being inappropriately demanding or unresponsive. People who naturally lean toward confidence or exuberance will become narcissistic if their parents aren't attuned to their needs.
3. It's an evolutionary thing.
Narcissism may be the result of evolutionary selection because it offers survival and reproductive advantages. Holzman and Donnellan propose three explanations as to why:
- Narcissism may advance short-term mating—and in so doing, evolutionary fitness (i.e., passing down genes to succeeding generations). The idea here is that throughout evolutionary history, the qualities associated with narcissism, including being attractive and sexually coercive, made it easier for such people to mate and achieve reproductive success.
- Narcissism may advance survival through its relationship with dominance. According to this argument, dominance was selected because it is one way to achieve high social status, and at the same time the emotional systems that allow for the display of hubristic pride were also selected. The thinking is that the expression of hubristic pride makes narcissists appear dominant, which paves the way to high social status. In turn, high social status translates into the ability to attain resources like food, material goods, and shelter, which promote survival. In other words, dominant narcissists got that way because it helped them survive over the course of evolutionary history.
- Short-term mating and dominance were selected together over evolutionary time—and shaped narcissism. Here, the argument is that the narcissist's proficiency for short-term mating would have allowed him to pass on his genes to succeeding generations, and achieve evolutionary fitness. Also, the narcissist's dominance would have permitted the attainment of high social status, and advance the ability to acquire resources, increasing the probability of survival. Thus, this dual selection would give narcissists both survival and reproductive advantages.
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Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. She provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse. She is also the author of the forthcoming book, Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.
Holtzman, N. S. & Donnellan, M. B. (2015). The roots of Narcissus: Old and new models of the evolution of narcissism. In V. Zeigler-Hill, L.L.M. Welling, & T.K. Shackelford (Eds.), Evolutionary Perspectives on Social Psychology (pp. 479-489). New York: Springer