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5 Ways Narcissism May Lead to Aggression

New research finds a significant link between narcissism and violent behavior.

Key points

  • Narcissism is linked to a 21 percent increase in aggression and an 18 percent increase in violence, according to a recent analysis.
  • Narcissism is related to aggression in both males and females, young and old, and residents of individualistic and collectivistic societies.
  • Common traits in narcissistic people that may contribute to aggression include feeling entitled, being image-conscious and fearing humiliation.
Rommel Canlas/Shutterstock
Source: Rommel Canlas/Shutterstock

A recently published analysis of hundreds of scholarly studies conducted during the last 35 years finds evidence that mirrors the personal experiences of many people who interact with narcissists: Narcissists can be overly aggressive, even dangerous.

Ohio State University researchers Brad Bushman and Sophie Kjærvik reviewed 437 studies of narcissism and aggression involving more than 123,000 participants. They found that narcissism is related to a 21 percent increase in aggression and an 18 percent increase in violence.

Participants in the studies who were high in narcissism showed elevated levels of both verbal and physical aggression, as well as indirect aggression through spreading gossip or displacing anger on bystanders.

“Individuals high in narcissism have ‘thin skins’ and are prone to aggression when they are provoked,” the authors wrote, suggesting that narcissism is an important risk factor for aggression and violence.

The authors suggested that this finding is "consistent with other research suggesting that narcissism might be a risk factor for extremely violent acts such as mass shootings."

The study also found that people high in narcissism were more likely than other people to be aggressive even when they were not provoked.

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“Individuals who are high in narcissism are not particularly picky when it comes to how they attack others,” Kjærvik said.

Remarkably, the research found narcissism was related to aggression in both males and females, young and old, and residents of both individualistic and collectivistic societies. Significant results were found regardless of the type of study conducted (experimental, cross-sectional, and longitudinal) or measures used (observation, self-report, and reports by others).

In addition, the connection between narcissism and aggression held steady from 1985 to 2020, the period in which the various studies were conducted.

The study would appear to add credence to theoretical conceptions of narcissism, as well as the experiences of those who live, work, or associate with people high in narcissism.

Put another way: If your intuition tells you to beware of someone who is highly narcissistic, listen to it.

The study discussed several theories of narcissism and aggression that may help explain why people with narcissism are more likely than others to use aggression and violence.

Among those explanations are five key characteristics common to people with narcissism that may contribute to the increased likelihood of aggressive behavior.

1) Narcissists feel entitled to special treatment.

When narcissists are not treated with the deference or favor they expect, they can become enraged. The study found that people with narcissism lash out reactively in anger, but can also be “cold, deliberate and proactive” in their aggression, Bushman said.

2) Feeling humiliated, criticized, or disrespected is a narcissist’s worst nightmare.

This threatens their fragile sense of self and makes them feel illegitimate. They often respond as if they are fighting for their survival, adopting a "take no prisoners" approach.

3) Narcissists’ inflated sense of self can be easily pierced in everyday life.

When this happens, their rage may be directed at whomever they perceive as having inconvenienced or frustrated them — including innocent bystanders.

4) Narcissists view most other people as inferior.

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This allows them to feel justified in emotionally or physically abusing others. Narcissists often feel the world is against them, so they tend to view taking advantage of or hurting others as justifiable "casualties of war."

5) To a narcissist, image is everything.

Narcissists seek to bolster their self-image by accumulating symbols of superiority such as wealth, power, status, attention, or control. To protect or enhance their image, people high in narcissism use whatever means they feel are necessary, including bullying, undermining, or attacking others.

More about the study:

  • Of the research analyzed by the authors, 360 studies were published in peer-reviewed journals and 77 were unpublished.
  • The average age of participants ranged from 8.3 to 61.7 years.
  • Of the 437 studies, 183 used student samples from colleges or universities, and 254 used non-student samples.

Copyright © 2021 Dan Neuharth PhD MFT


Kjærvik, S. L., & Bushman, B. J. (2021). The link between narcissism and aggression: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication.

Bushman, B, & Kjærvik, S. (2021, May 25). Narcissistic people aren’t just full of themselves – new research finds they’re more likely to be aggressive and violent. The Conversation.

Grabmeier, J. (2021, May 25). Narcissism linked to aggression in review of 437 studies. Science Daily.

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