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One Narcissistic Trait You Probably Haven't Heard Of

Narcissists share a surprising deficit, study says.

Key points

  • A study found that people high in narcissism are worse at remembering faces.
  • Narcissists lack interest in interpersonal relationships and therefore are less motivated to recall faces.
  • Narcissists' excessive self-focus can distract them and impair their memory of people, objects, and events.
Antoni Shkraba / Pexels
A woman with her hair wrapped in a towel gazes at herself in a mirror.
Antoni Shkraba / Pexels

That narcissist you can’t forget? They probably wouldn’t be able to pick out your face in a crowd.

A study published in the Journal of Personality shows that narcissists struggle to identify familiar faces.

Most people have a natural talent for remembering faces. Being able to distinguish friend from foe was essential to the survival of our ancestors, and, as a result, a whole region of the human brain (the fusiform gyrus) specializes in facial recognition.

Still, there are individual differences in how well we perceive and recall the faces of others. At the high end of the spectrum are super-recognizers, who have an almost photographic memory for faces. At the low end are people with prosopagnosia, or face blindness, who have as hard a time telling human faces apart as the average person would trying to tell apart a series of formless gray rocks.

The study’s authors wondered how narcissism would affect facial recognition, since one of the defining features of the condition is a lack of interest in interpersonal relationships. Because narcissists tend to relate to the people around them primarily as objects or as sources of the attention they crave, they have less motivation to remember social information like faces.

Researchers ran two facial perception experiments. In the first, participants were shown 40 faces for 3 seconds each. Then, after completing some distraction tasks, they were shown the same 40 faces from the first round mixed with 40 new ones and asked to identify which they had seen before. The second experiment was the same as the first, but the faces were presented upside-down.

In both cases, people high in narcissistic traits were worse at recognizing the familiar faces. To researchers' surprise, though, narcissists’ memory deficits also extended to inanimate objects. Study participants who were high in narcissism had worse recall for household items, houses, and cars than their peers.

Researchers had a suspicion as to why that might be the case.

“If people focus more on themselves, they may spend less time attending to other information,” said Miranda Giacomin, the study’s lead author and a professor at MacEwan University.

To test their hypothesis, Giacomin and her colleagues asked 187 undergraduate students to watch a virtual lecture on a video conferencing platform. The computer’s webcam was turned on so each participant could see their own image in the bottom corner of the screen, and the researchers timed how long each participant looked at themselves instead of the presenter.

Like Narcissus gazing at his own reflection in the pond, narcissists spent more of the lecture focused on themselves than the other participants. A memory test showed they retained less of the presentation, too, because they were so distracted.

“Devoting attention to oneself,” Giacomin and her colleagues conclude, “may inhibit noticing, recognizing, or remembering what is happening elsewhere, leaving narcissists particularly prone to miss and subsequently fail to remember events occurring around them.”

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