Do Different Types of Narcissists Exist?
One can distinguish between three manifestations of narcissism.
Posted Jun 30, 2019
Referring to Ovid’s story about Echo and Narcissus, people with strong feelings of entitlement and self-importance are commonly termed narcissists. From the viewpoint of personality psychology, all people can be placed on a continuum representing to which degree one holds narcissistic tendencies in general (in addition, some people might be diagnosed with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder).
The construct of narcissism has attracted a lot of attention from researchers and laypeople alike. Strikingly, though, people have associated narcissists with different—partly even opposite—characteristics.
Some narcissists, for instance, have been described as charming, confident people who are liked by others and tend to be the center of attention. Other narcissists, by contrast, have been described as being arrogant, exploitative, and rather aggressive overall.
In line with such (opposite) descriptions, researchers have acknowledged for a long time that narcissists can hold very different characteristics. Not until recently, however, have they accumulated thorough empirical evidence about which narcissism manifestations can be distinguished clearly.
Recent evidence on the different manifestations of narcissism
In one of these recent studies, Michael Crowe and colleagues put together more than 300 items from 46 scientific narcissism scales and subscales, and they asked close to 600 people to fill out this item battery. Across different analyses, the researchers found support for differentiating three different narcissism factors that they termed agentic extraversion, self-centered antagonism, and narcissistic neuroticism.
What makes these results interesting is not only the fact that the researchers based their decision on which narcissism factors to differentiate on the results of a study comprising items across many existing narcissism questionnaires (and, thus, not on results of a study comprising items from only a few, pre-selected measures). Notably, their findings largely mirror other recent investigations across work groups and countries. Mitja Back (as well as others) suggested to briefly term the three manifestations agentic narcissism, antagonistic narcissism, and neurotic narcissism.
Agentic, antagonistic, and neurotic narcissism
Roughly speaking, agentic narcissism mainly refers to a self-view of being grandiose, antagonistic narcissism mainly refers to one’s willingness to exploit others for personal gains, and neurotic narcissism mainly refers to one’s need to get positive feedback from others. Importantly, all three still share strong feelings of entitlement and superiority over others, even though agentic, antagonistic, and neurotic narcissism come along with different attitudes, cognitions, and behavior. They are overlapping in the way that narcissistic people think about themselves first and feel that they are entitled to do so.
Given the different manifestations of narcissism, the question is what determines which manifestation a person high in narcissism will develop. In this regard, much more thorough, longitudinal research is needed—with the now existing knowledge about the different manifestations of narcissism. This notwithstanding, results from previous studies already suggest that some genetic and environmental factors are shared between people high in narcissism, whereas other factors seem to affect whether a person shows rather agentic, antagonistic, or neurotic narcissistic tendencies.
So, are narcissists all around?
As indicated above, personality psychologists consider subclinical narcissism as a trait in which people can hold lower, average, or higher levels in general, with only a minority of the people showing extremely high levels. Further, and arguably contrary to some public claims, recent research (led by Eunike Wetzel) comparing three large student cohorts suggests that narcissistic tendencies have, in fact, declined over the years. But what the findings described herein tells us is that narcissists can appear in very different forms, from being charming to over-aggressive to vulnerable. Thus, it might sometimes be more difficult to detect when a person’s feelings and behavior are expressions of a strong underlying sense of being entitled to deserve more than others and consequently placing one’s own interests strongly over others.
Back, M. D., & Morf, C. C. (Advanced online publication). Narcissism. In V. Zeigler-Hill & T. K. Shackelford (Eds.), Encyclopedia of personality and individual differences. New York, NY: Springer.
Crowe, M. L., Lynam, D. R., Campbell, W. K., & Miller, J. D. (Advanced online publication). Exploring the structure of narcissism: Toward an integrated solution. Journal of Personality. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12464
Wetzel, E., Brown, A., Hill, P., Chung, J. M., Robins, R. W., & Roberts, B. W. (2007). The narcissism epidemic is dead; long live the narcissism epidemic. Psychological Science, 28, 1833-1847. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617724208