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Short-term Sexual Flings and the Narcissistic Personality

New cross-cultural research shows a link between short-term sex and narcissism.


Narcissism, a psychological descriptor involving abnormal levels of self-admiration, a lower capacity for empathy, and an aversion to criticism, comes in two varieties: personality disorder (Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD, as measured by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM) and sub-clinical narcissism (individuals who exhibit narcissistic behaviors, but do not meet the diagnostic criteria for a diagnosis of NPD).

Only a licensed clinician can make a diagnosis of NPD, but sub-clinical levels of narcissism can be measured using a number of self-report instruments. One of the most widely used tests, the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) evaluates sub-clinical narcissism along seven facets, including vanity, authority, and exhibitionism. Previous studies have found relationships between NPI scores and behavioral indicators of short-term mating activity — specifically marital infidelity, unrestricted sociosexuality, and mate poaching.

WEIRD Research

A critique of much of the psychological research that comes out of the United States, Canada, and Europe is that participants tend to be a rather homogeneous group. Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan coined the acronym WEIRD in 2010 to describe Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic cultures. WEIRD people represent less than 13 percent of the world’s population, yet more than 96 percent of research findings in psychology journals are based on studies from WEIRD-only cultures. Hence the need to study narcissism in lots of other countries around the world.

Narcissism Across Nations and Cultures

It turns out that the ties between narcissism, infidelity, uncommitted sex, and mate poaching are not limited to WEIRD cultures. A recently published study examined the link between narcissism and multiple indicators of short-term sexual strategies across cultures. The International Sexuality Description Project-2 team, led by David Schmitt of Bradley University, measured NPI scores of 30,000 people in more than 50 nations across 11 world regions, including Africa, Southeast Asia, Southern Europe, and the Middle East.

They found worldwide patterns similar to the Western samples, in that high NPI scores were associated with active pursuit of short-term mating and sexual aggression. Narcissists also showed elevated levels of two sex-related personality traits — extraversion and openness to experience.


Levels of narcissism are significantly higher among unfaithful married participants. This study classified “faithful” individuals as those married for more than one year who reported zero extramarital sexual partners. The percentages of individuals who self-report being “unfaithful” vary greatly between world regions — 26 percent in North America, 8 percent in Central/South America, 27 percent in Africa, and 5 percent in East Asia, for example.

SOI and Mate Poaching

Individuals with an unrestricted sociosexuality are people who share a willingness to have sex with little or no commitment. The Sociosexuality Orientation Inventory (SOI) is an index designed to capture behavioral expressions of short-term mating (e.g., one-night stands, a history of multiple sexual partners, and the desire to have sex on one and only one occasion with others).

Narcissists are more likely than non-narcissists to have personal experiences with mate poaching (romantically attracting someone else’s partner). Mate poachers answer yes to questions like, “Have you ever tried to attract someone who was already in a romantic relationship with someone else for a short-term sexual relationship with you?”

Different Features of Narcissism

Not all aspects of narcissism are bad. An individual with a narcissistic personality is likely to be self-confident and socially assertive — desirable qualities in many situations. Across cultures, they tend to score high on measures of subjective well-being, indicating that they enjoy a high quality of life both emotionally and cognitively.

On the other hand, narcissists also tend to be exploitative, manipulative, ultra-competitive, self-absorbed, and owning a sense of entitlement to the point where it erodes friendships and romantic relationships — and these socially maladaptive elements are universally associated with short-term sexual activity.


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Schmitt, D.P., ... Bennett, K., al. (2017). Narcissism and the strategic pursuit of short-term mating: Universal links across 11 world regions of the International Sexuality Description Project-2. Psychological Topics, 26, 89-137.

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