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What Lies Beneath the Veneer of Narcissism?

New research discovers common structures of grandiose and vulnerable narcissism.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Narcissism is sometimes thought to be paradoxical because grandiose and vulnerable narcissism, two subtypes of this personality construct, seem to involve inconsistent personality features. Grandiose narcissism is characterized by extraverted self-absorption, low neuroticism, and high self-esteem, whereas vulnerable narcissism is marked by introverted self-absorption, high neuroticism, and low self-esteem.

Owing to the apparent lack of a common structure underlying the narcissistic subtypes, some personality researchers have argued that they must be distinct personality constructs. The problem with this suggestion is that both grandiose and vulnerable behavioral tendencies typically are seen in Narcissistic Personality Disorder, the clinical variant of narcissism. This points to narcissism being a single personality construct.

But personality psychologists have struggled to come up with an adequate list of facets underlying both grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. There is some consensus among researchers that hostility and a sense of entitlement are defining features of both subtypes, but there is no consensus as to which other facets should be included. One obstacle to progress is that dozens of distinct narcissism inventories are used by researchers and practitioners.

For a new study published in the December 2019 issue of the Journal of Personality, personality psychologist Michael Crowe and colleagues conducted a large empirical study involving 46 narcissism scales or subscales in order to empirically identify a structural basis that is common to both grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. In this large study, 591 research participants were asked to complete 303 narcissism items, from the various scales and subscales, as well as items measuring other features of personality, including the Big Five (agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and openness).

The researchers were able to identify three sub-dimensions of personality that constitute the structural basis of narcissism: narcissistic neuroticism, self‐centered antagonism, and agentic extraversion. Narcissistic neuroticism, a subtype of neuroticism, is proneness to be self-conscious and to experience strong negative emotions in response to shame as well as a tendency to react strongly to any feedback that isn’t flat-out admiration or praise. Self-centered antagonism, a subtype of disagreeableness, is a tendency to lash out against anyone who doesn’t openly recognize their imagined grandiosity and entitlement. Finally, agentic extraversion, a subtype of extraversion, is a trait-like disposition to be motivated only by incentives—especially lofty ends such as wealth, stardom, power, fame or beauty.

Although much more research needs to be done to fully understand the underlying structure of narcissism, the team's findings lend strong support to the hypothesis that grandiose and vulnerable narcissism aren’t different personality constructs but rather different ways of expressing a single underlying pathology.

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