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Narcissism

Some Narcissists Inflict Great Harm, But Others Don't. Why?

New research shows the kinds of damage one type of narcissism does to people.

Key points

  • The malignant narcissist differs from the benign narcissist in important ways.
  • The harmful narcissist tends to become successful and hurts others.
  • The malignant variety blames others for having "chosen" their lower power or status.
  • The harmful narcissist is prone to destructive aggression and violence, especially when feeling ignored or insulted.

Some interesting new research documents a range of ways that narcissists who achieve power harm people. However, I think it’s important to recognize the difference between the malignant narcissist and the more benign variety. They aren’t the same. And their impact upon the people around them, or under their control, is also different.

To explain, the malignant narcissist seeks domination and control over others with destructive, malicious intent. Inflicting harm to others is part of the aim. Doing so serves their need for self-aggrandizement, often to ward off deep, more unconscious insecurity. It’s similar to the writer Gore Vidal’s well-known bon mot, “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

The benign narcissist is also self-absorbed, often to ward off deep insecurity as well. But the benign version lives very much inside their own head, in a sense. In their own world. The “outside” reality of you and me, other’s lives, needs, or situations doesn’t really register for them. It’s as though the other person isn’t really there—until reminded. The benign narcissist is very self-serving and may manipulate and control others, but not with malicious or destructive intent. Rather, it's just to continue to feel secure and in control of their own world, in a benign kind of way.

With those differences in mind, let’s look at some recent research that adds to what we know about the malignant narcissist's impact. One recent study found that they tend to become successful more easily in many organizational settings—as many people experience in their workplace, to their dismay. Moreover, the narcissist’s success takes a toll on peers, subordinates, and others in their orbit, from their arrogance, insensitivity, need to control and dominate. That study, published in The Leadership Quarterly, was described in full by Carly Cassella in Science Alert.

She writes that such narcissists, “those who score higher in overconfidence, dominance, and authoritarianism, are more like to get appointed CEO." And they “are known to procure negative outcomes for the firm, such as financial crime, tax avoidance, less collaborative cultures and more. Some studies have shown, for instance, that narcissistic CEOs appear more willing to commit crimes for the sake of the business.”

“Once they’re in power, narcissists consolidate their position by firing everyone who challenges them,” explained psychologist Charles O’Reilly in Stanford University's report. “In their place rise a plague of toadies, opportunists, and enablers equally guided by self-interest and short on scruples. So you end up with these individualistic cultures with no teamwork and low integrity.”

That study confirms and adds to empirical evidence that we see in workplace and career consulting, as well as in psychotherapy with men and women who find themselves dealing with the emotional impact of work-related conflicts related to narcissistic managers and leaders.

Two other studies reveal different kinds of harmful effects of the narcissist who wields power over others—whether in the workplace or in personal relationships. One, from UC San Diego, looked at people who wield power and control over others, by virtue of their position, wealth, or both. It found that they tend to blame others for perceived shortcomings or poor performance. They are not troubled by inequality, or conditions that underlie the less-powerful. They see such people as having had a “choice” in their lives.

According to the lead author Yidan Yin, "Compared to low-power people, high-power people are less likely to be aware of others' constraints. As a result, they assign more blame when people make mistakes or have shortcomings. Thus, they see the current hierarchy as more justified." The findings resulted from a series of related studies, described here and published in Social Psychology and Personality Science.

Then, a third study found a strong link between this malignant form of narcissism and direct aggression towards others. It was based on an analysis by Ohio State of over 400 separate studies from around the world. It found a strong link between narcissism and both aggression and violence. According to co-author Brad Bushman, “It is a pretty straightforward message: Narcissism is a significant risk factor for aggressive and violent behavior across the board.” That includes narcissism that’s “physical, verbal, bullying, direct or indirect, and displaced onto innocent targets,” according to lead author Sophie Kjaervik. And, she added, “Individuals who are high in narcissism are not particularly picky when it comes to how they attack others.”

The researchers also found that narcissists were more likely than others to be aggressive whether they were provoked or not. But the risk for aggression was significantly higher when they felt provoked, such as being ignored or insulted. The study was published in Psychological Bulletin.

So, reader, you may be harmed by the variety of ways the malignant narcissist can inflict, but if you know or are related to a benign narcissist, they may be annoying and seem insensitive to you—but likely have no malicious intent!

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