Friday, December 9, 2016

For narcissists, self-esteem is not the issue

Get past the provocative title of Brad Bushman's most recent blog post and you'll get a quick capsule summary of the link between narcissism and aggression. Conventional wisdom is that acts of aggressive behavior are due to low self-esteem. Individuals who tend to chronically hurt other people, whether physically or emotionally, presumably feel bad about themselves and are compensating somehow. This concept is so much embedded in our social fabric that it is portrayed quite regularly in our pop culture. Heck, an alternative rock band in the mid-1990s, The Offspring, even had a hit song on that very topic - just as one example. Here's the problem: the evidence for the belief that low self-esteem is one risk factor in aggressive behavior is practically non-existent. There is, on the other hand, evidence that narcissists do become angry and do behave aggressively when they are provoked in an ego-threatening manner, and that evidence has been steadily pouring in since the 1990s. Even better, a single item inventory can detect narcissists with a high degree of reliability and validity, as it turns out that narcissists cannot help but out themselves as such - and that is useful for those of us who design experiments who might want to use narcissism as a moderator variable, but have limited lab time per participant at our disposal. Now, the focus of the blog post is on sub-clinical narcissism. However, when one looks at individuals who are clinically diagnosable as narcissists, their track record is one of lack of empathy and harmful behavior towards others.

Although Bushman does not go into this, it turns out that narcissists have a "type" whom they are attracted to. A friend of mine recently completed a dissertation that was primarily a qualitative analysis of the partners and ex-partners of narcissists. In his interviews with these individuals, it becomes clear that most of them have no idea just who they were dating or marrying until it was a bit too late, but they do ultimately recognize that they are dealing with a narcissist at some point during the progression of the relationship. But more interesting was how they scored on the Big Five personality factors: in general they tended to score well above average on the traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness. Most of us will not put up with the abuse of a narcissist for very long, but for that subset who are nice and duty-bound almost to the point of overkill, the narcissist has his or her ideal target: a person who can be harmed whenever the narcissist feels threatened who will continue to take whatever aggression and anger the narcissist throws their way (at least up to some eventual breaking point). And it also becomes clear that the impression that the partners and ex-partners of narcissists do recognize that these individuals come across as highly confident and tend to have inflated views about themselves (that may well have been what sparked the attraction in the first place), may make great first impressions, but that over time they turn out to be not only less than they billed themselves but also rather easily angered and aggressive over the long haul.

Bottom line is that self-esteem is not the issue. Narcissists are doing quite well in that regard. Obviously I would not advocate for low self-esteem either. However, a dose of humility may not be a bad idea, and may put one at less risk to be verbally or physically harmful toward others.

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