There is a real fascination with narcissists. Narcissists are people who feel that they are special and deserve attention from others. They will pump themselves up and denigrate the people around them. They will claim credit for successes and blame others for failures. They are often represented in the ranks of actors, politicians, and among CEOs, because of the visibility of those positions.
While there have been a number of studies about the behavior of narcissists, there is still a lot of disagreement about the underlying drivers of narcissism. Some researchers have focused on the role of self-esteem in narcissism and have argued that narcissists are motivated to prop up their self-esteem through the energy from other people.
A paper by Stathis Grapsas, Eddie Brummelman, Mitja Back, and Jaap Denissen in the January 2020 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science explores the role of the motivation to pursue status in narcissism.
Status reflects a person’s relative position within a group. Human social groups generally have some hierarchy in them, in which some people are afforded more resources, authority, and decision-making power than others. Those people higher in status are also given more respect and attention than those lower in status.
Evolutionary psychologists have argued that there is a tendency for people to seek status because individuals higher in status often have more access to resources. In evolutionary history, higher-status members of species with status hierarchies were also likely to have had preferential access to mates.
The authors of this paper suggest that narcissists have an overly strong motivation to pursue status at the expense of other goals, and that influences their behavior. This can lead narcissists to do things that might otherwise seem inappropriate.
There are a number of implications of this way of thinking about narcissism.
It means that narcissists conceptualize every situation in terms of status. They are paying attention to the relative status of everyone in the room and are aware of both of the people above and below them in status. They are also thinking about the influence that their actions are likely to have on their status in the group.
Narcissists also evaluate opportunities based on whether there is an opportunity for self-promotion. They will be more likely to take actions that will be noticed by other people and will increase their status than to take actions behind-the-scenes that will not be noticed. They will also look for opportunities to tell other people things that they have done that would impress others.
When opportunities for self-promotion are not available, then narcissists may choose to tear down the people around them instead. In particular, when someone else is of higher status and is succeeding in the eyes of other people, then they are seen as a threat to the status of a narcissist. In those cases, narcissists will try to minimize the importance of the accomplishments of their rivals. They may do this by lying or bullying if necessary. That is a significant source of what is called narcissistic aggression.
The idea is that status is a zero-sum game. When one person declines in status, everyone else rises. So, narcissists can achieve their goals either by lifting themselves up or by dragging others down.
One other point of note is that many social situations really function more effectively when other goals are active. For example, when spending time with friends, it is better to be focused on your friends and their well-being. An ideal goal in that situation is to deepen and broaden the relationship. Narcissists still prioritize social status in those situations, and so they may still look for ways to demonstrate their importance. That can create friction within these relationships.
This approach is useful because it helps to predict when narcissists will seek to promote themselves or to tear down their rivals. It is also useful for understanding changes in narcissism within people over time. For example, narcissism tends to increase in the teenage years, which may reflect the importance of status among teens that can help them get noticed in order to get into a good college or to get a first job.
Ultimately, more research is always needed to distinguish among competing explanations. A good theory is one that plays two roles. First, it helps to bring together a variety of findings that might be hard to explain on their own. Second, it makes predictions for new studies that lead to data that might require a new theory to explain.
Grapsas, S., Brummelman, E., Back, M.D., & Denissen, J.J.A. (2020). The "why" and "how" of narcissism: A process model of narcissistic status pursuit. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(1), 150-172.