Narcissism and Natural Selection
Narcissism is tied to sexual competition by our evolutionary history.
Posted Feb 21, 2019
Although we often distinguish narcissists from others, everyone has some degree of narcissism. If narcissism is partly a product of our evolutionary history, what advantages did it have for our ancestors?
Most clinical narcissists are grandiose. They inflate their own merits and importance and doing so is a key defining characteristic of narcissistic personality disorder. The tendency to exaggerate our own merits is widespread, and it is not considered a disorder.
Many people have a distorted perception of their own merits. They consider ourselves to be better drivers than most others, as more intelligent and better looking than average. This better-than-average effect is pervasive and affects most people (1).
One intriguing exception involves those who are clinically depressed. They assess their capabilities as close to reality, or worse, not better. This demonstrates that some level of narcissism is healthy.
Another beneficial effect of narcissism is that people who have an exaggerated impression of their own aptitudes are more likely to be high achievers. This phenomenon is seen clearly in academic success where narcissistic individuals are high achievers.
Aspirations to succeed are not just a product of individual biology. They are also shaped by rearing experiences, including the practices of elite schools who pride themselves on turning out leaders.
Narcissism can be favored by natural selection if it enhances health and social success. Converging lines of evidence also suggests that narcissism makes people more attractive as dates
Narcissism as a Reproductive Strategy
Narcissists are more attractive to the other sex but they are not popular as friends (2). Women who are narcissistic probably spend more effort over their physical appearance. This means that they present themselves favorably. It also means that they come across as sexually provocative and sexually desirable.
Male narcissists are popular as dates for slightly different reasons. They spend a lot of effort on self-promotion and exaggerate their social success and desirability to women.
Male narcissists like to be seen in the company of physically attractive women and this tactic works because it boosts their attractiveness to other women. Like the females of other species, women are drawn to mates who seem desirable to other females.
One manifestation of this principle is the phenomenon of trophy wives acquired by wealthy men to boost their profile and attract other women.
All of this suggests that narcissism is part of an evolved short-term mating strategy of men. In addition to being attractive to women, and selling themselves well to potential dates, narcissists often have a strong sense of entitlement which results in their coercing women to have sex with them (3).
Another piece of supportive evidence is the fact that narcissism peaks in adolescence when men are likely to be most active in seeking mates. This is also a time when men are most physically attractive to women so that short-term relationships may be common.
If narcissists are better at getting dates, they are also more willing to put themselves forward for leadership positions. Men who are socially dominant are also more desirable as dates.
Leadership as Reproductive Competition
Political power equates to greatly enhanced reproductive opportunities. Examples include Ishmail the Bloodthirsty who craved sex as much as blood and left countless children to inherit his unsavory, but evolutionarily successful, tendencies. Conquerors such as Genghis Khan had their pick of the beautiful women in vanquished territories. Young women were often used by their families as a way to make peace.
Finding willing females would not have been a problem. Attractive young women are often drawn to power and Monica Lewinsky is not the first attractive young woman to seek sexual contact with a leader who was much older and less physically appealing.
These ideas are not merely speculations but have some striking evidence from genetic ancestry research. Geneticists drew the startling conclusion that Genghis Khan who overran much of Asia was the ancestor of 1 percent the global male population based on Y-chromosome analysis and he is not alone in terms of leaders contributing disproportionately to the gene pool (4). Moreover, 8 percent of men in 16 Asian populations were descendants of the ruler, suggesting that he is an ancestor to approximately a sixth of these peoples (if his representation in female descendants is equivalent to that in males). The emperor's prolific ways were clearly passed on to offspring. Other examples include the medieval ONeill chieftain of northwest Ireland who is the ancestor of a fifth of men in the region.
The narcissism of powerful rulers is legendary. Examples of excessive preoccupation with building shrines to themselves range from the Egyptian Pharaohs to Louis XIV of France.
Not all leaders a re narcissists and not not all narcissists are politically successful. Even so the natural selection of narcissistic tendencies helps explain some of the qualities of narcissistic leaders.
One is their characteristic dishonesty. They are quite willing to distort the truth so as to make themselves appear more impressive, more successful, better, and smarter than everyone else. Conversely, they protect themselves from unwelcome news by surrounding themselves with yes men and yes women. Bearers of bad news are severely sanctioned, or banished from the inner circle whether it is the court of King Louis IV, or the cabinet of Donald Trump.
Of course, this means treacherous treatment of loyal supporters whose previous service counts for nothing.
In the court of a narcissistic ruler, individuals who are not wholehearted burnishers of the ego quickly become enemies. In other words, they are treated very much as sexual competitors would be treated and become targets of a disproportionate anger akin to jealous rage.
1 Brown, J. D. (2012). Understanding the better than average effect: Motives (still)matter. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 209-219.
2 Dufner, M., Rauchman, J. F., Czarna, A. Z., et al.,(2013)Are narcissisista sexy? Zeroing in in the effects of narcissism on short-term mate appeal. Personality and Social Pshychology Bulletin. https://doi.org/10-1177/0146167213483580
3 Holtzman, S., and Strube, M. (2012). The intertwined evolution of narcissism and short-term mating: an emerging hypothesis. Https//doi.org/10.1002/9781118093108.ch19