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How Antagonism Unfolds as a Trait of Narcissism

Can you be callous in specific ways? New research investigates antagonism.

When psychologists talk about narcissism and the key characteristics that define a narcissistic personality, they often describe antagonism as a core ingredient of the narcissism recipe. Psychological studies have noted this consistent correlation for decades. At the same time, few studies have dug into a nuanced understanding of antagonism itself and its related factors, such as manipulativeness and a lack of concern for others.

A new paper, in Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, uncovers the structure of antagonism, layer by layer. Lead author Chelsea Sleep, along with University of Georgia colleagues such as researcher Josh Miller, found that seven factors emerged as major players: aggression, callousness, domineering behavior, grandiosity, manipulation, risk-tasking, and suspiciousness. They crafted a “bass-ackwards” model that pulls the related factors together.

Sleep et. al./University of Georgia
Source: Sleep et. al./University of Georgia

“Much of the work on the lower-order structure of personality has been rationally, rather than empirically derived,” they wrote, adding that “despite some similarities across models, a closer look at the lower-order facets reveals a lack of agreement in the structure of antagonism.”

In 2018, Miller and colleagues derived a lower-order structure for agreeableness — often regarded as the opposite end of antagonism in the “Big 5” structure of personality — that had five main facets: compassion, morality, modesty, affability, and trust.

In their 2019 book, The Handbook of Antagonism, Miller and co-author Donald Lynam looked at the underpinnings of antagonism and how it relates to externalizing behaviors such as aggression, crime, risky sexual behavior, substance use, and antisocial behavior.

In this paper, they delved further into the lower-order aspects of antagonism to understand if the model for agreeableness would work for its counterpart as well.

The research team surveyed 532 participants with a pool of personal inventory questions that included more than 200 antagonism-related facets such as callousness, distrust, rudeness, self-centeredness, reactive anger, and exploitativeness. Overall, callousness — defined as a lack of empathy or concern for others — had the strongest relationship with antagonism. Following that, anti-social behavior emerged as an explanation of the rude, deceptive, and hostile behavior among those who exhibit antagonistic traits.

Fascinatingly, ruthless self-interest had a similar profile to the anti-social factor, which showed up as a narcissistic, domineering, and exploitative interpersonal style. A lack of constraint and domineering behavior appeared as well. In general, the research team concluded, people who exhibit antagonism have grandiose self-interest and are generally suspicious of others and willing to manipulate them.

With narcissism, in particular, the research team saw that ruthless self-interest rose to the top, as well as a sense of grandiosity and domineering, manipulative behavior focused on gaining control of others.

The study has important implications for the way we see antagonism and evaluate it, as well as the specific links to narcissism. In the future, the research team suggests creating a standalone, free-to-use measure that can be tested with other personality inventories in clinical cases and research. Essentially, we may grow a greater understanding of “how” people can be ruthless or rude in different ways — and how that may relate to larger questions around narcissism.

Facebook image: ShotPrime Studio/Shutterstock


Sleep, C. E., Crowe, M. L., Carter, N. T., Lynam, D. R., & Miller, J. D. (2020). Uncovering the structure of antagonism. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment. Advance online publication.

Crowe, M. L., Lynam, D. R., & Miller, J. D. (2018). Uncovering the structure of agreeableness from self‐report measures. Journal of Personality, 8, 771-787.

Miller, J.D., Lyman, D.R. (2019) The Handbook of Antagonism: Conceptualizations, Assessment, Consequences, and Treatment of the Low End of Agreeableness. Academic Press.

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