What Is Narcissism? Separating Misconceptions From Reality
January 6, 2020
graphic of selfie stick for what is narcissism blog postPhoto Credit Tumisu from Pixabay

According to psychologist Jean Twenge, we’re in the midst of a “narcissism epidemic,” an assertion other psychologists have challenged. But, even though narcissism has captured public attention, it’s not always well-understood. In today’s post, we’ll review what narcissism is, why it’s theorized to develop, whether narcissism is actually increasing, and what people can do to become less narcissistic.

How Do Psychologists Define Narcissism?

One reason why there’s often confusion about what narcissism is (and who qualifies as narcissistic) is because psychologists have two different ways of defining narcissism. From a clinical standpoint, a therapist or psychiatrist might diagnose someone with having narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) if several criteria are present, pervasive, and they cause significant distress and/or functional impairment. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by psychologists, these factors include:

  • An excessive need for admiration and having one’s self-esteem be strongly linked to what other people think of them. People with narcissism may have an unrealistically high opinion of themselves—but may at times also have unrealistically low self-views as well.
  • Difficulty empathizing with others, which can lead to problems forming healthy relationships and even exploiting others.
  • Being self-centered, feeling entitled, or displaying arrogance.

However, researchers studying narcissism (such as personality and social psychologists) often measure narcissism in a different way: using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). In this questionnaire, participants choose between two different statements, one of which indicates higher levels of narcissism (for example, “I find it easy to manipulate people.” or “I like to be the center of attention.”) and one of which indicates lower levels of narcissism (for example, “I don’t like it when I find myself manipulating people.” or “I prefer to blend in with the crowd.”). Importantly, psychologists have found that agreeing with some of the more narcissistic response choices on the questionnaire isn’t atypical or unhealthy: in fact, the typical person chooses the more self-centered response choice about a third of the time.

There’s overlap between the two types of narcissism—after all, someone diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder would be expected to have a high score on the NPI. However, it’s important to recognize that narcissism is a spectrum: all of us are probably guilty of being a bit too self-absorbed at one point or another, but individuals are only considered to have narcissistic personality disorder if being self-focused significantly interferes with relationships and daily life. In practice, this translates to about 1% of the population exhibiting behaviors that would qualify for a clinical diagnosis of narcissism.

Where Does Narcissism Come From?

While psychologists have different theories on the cause of narcissism, a common theme is the idea that narcissism develops as a result of early experiences with one’s parents. According to one theory, narcissism is the result of being praised excessively as a child, while another theory suggests the opposite: that parents of people with narcissism lacked empathy and were disapproving. Research suggests that both theories may actually be right: narcissism seems to be linked to receiving inconsistent messages from parents—that is, parents who sometimes admire their child and sometimes are cold to them.

Another risk factor may be an excessive focus on competition. Psychologist David Ludden, interviewed by Psychology Today, explains that a parenting style that increases the likelihood of narcissism is one where parents “present to their kids a world where everything is a competition: There are winners and losers and you’ve got to be a winner.” In other words, while narcissism likely has multiple causes (including both genetic factors and the wider social context), individuals who behave in narcissistic ways as adults may have faced challenging and stressful family environments early in life.

Going beyond the immediate family environment, some research suggests that narcissism may be linked to broader cultural factors, such as the focus on individualism in American society. Psychologists who study cultural psychology often look at where cultures fall on the spectrum from individualistic—that is, seeing each individual as independent—to collectivistic—that is, seeing people as connected to others. According to psychologist Jean Twenge, a strong cultural focus on individualism could foster narcissistic behaviors. In fact, Twenge and her colleagues have collected data suggesting that narcissism does indeed seem to be higher in more individualistic cultures than collectivistic cultures. Other research has suggested that levels of narcissism may even differ within geographic regions of the same country (with higher levels of narcissism in areas that are more competitive) and that economic factors may even be linked to narcissism (narcissism rates seem to be lower among people who experienced an economic recession in early adulthood). In other words, narcissism has been linked to a wide range of factors, from parenting style to the broader social environment.

What Are the Effects of Narcissism?

Psychologists point out that everyone is a bit narcissistic, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, in research surveys, most people are more optimistic than might be warranted by an objective examination of the facts, and most of us rate ourselves as “better than average” on a variety of traits and abilities (even though, statistically speaking, it’s not possible for everyone to be better than average). We tend to process information in ways that make us look good, such as giving ourselves credit for our successes and blaming outside circumstances when we don’t succeed. Moreover, psychologists Shelley Taylor and Jonathon Brown suggest that these tendencies (which psychologists call self-enhancement) aren’t necessarily harmful and are even beneficial for our well-being.

However, for individuals who are above average in narcissism, their self-focus can end up harming their relationships and well-being in the long run. Research has found that, even though narcissism is correlated with higher self-esteem, people higher in narcissism are also vulnerable to drops in self-esteem when they experience setbacks. As psychologist Robert Emmons explains, “Although narcissism has been found to correlate with high self-esteem, some theorists have argued that the superficial appearance of self-assurance masks a deeper narcissistic vulnerability, especially to failure and criticism.” To test this, Emmons asked college students to record their moods for 6 weeks. He found that people who scored higher on the NPI had higher levels of variability in their moods, both for positive and negative moods. In other words, even though people with narcissism typically report having high views of themselves, they’re susceptible to low moods—and even symptoms of depression—when they experience negative events that challenge these self-views.

Additionally, higher levels of narcissism can make social relationships difficult. Even though people higher in narcissism want to make a good impression on others, they often do so in ways that focus more on showing off, rather than building sustainable and equitable partnerships. Psychologists have found that one way to make a good impression on others is to pay more attention to the other person: for example, we like people more when they ask us about ourselves. So, by focusing on how they’re coming across to others—rather than trying to get to know the other person better—people who are more narcissistic may end up undermining their relationships.

Psychologists Carolyn Morf and Frederick Rhodewalt have found that people who are more narcissistic behave in a variety of ways that prevent them from developing close, sustainable relationships. They may react defensively to criticism and challenges: for example, by putting down someone who did better than them, or someone who gave them negative feedback. In more extreme cases, people high in narcissism may end up acting in hostile and angry ways when they feel their self-esteem is threatened. Morf and Rhodewalt call this the narcissistic paradox: they explain that people high in narcissism “yearn and reach for self-affirmation, [but] they destroy the very relationships on which they are dependent.” In other words, even though people with narcissism want others to approve of them, they end up acting in ways that harm their relationships.

Has Narcissism Been Increasing?

According to Jean Twenge and her colleagues, narcissism has increased in recent decades. Twenge and her colleagues looked at data from over 16,000 college students who filled out the NPI from 1979 to 2006. They found that there was a small but significant increase in narcissism over the time studied. In the 1980s, the average NPI score of college students was about 15.5 (scores range from 0-40, with higher scores indicating more narcissism). By the end of the study, in the mid 2000s, the average score for a college student was about 17.5.

However, other researchers have challenged this idea. In one study, researchers re-analyzed the data used by Twenge and her colleagues and did not find increases in narcissism (in fact, they found that narcissism seemed to decline slightly). Moreover, journalist Rebecca Webber points out for Psychology Today that social pressures can affect how much people engage in behaviors that might seem narcissistic. In today’s highly competitive society, being ambitious and self-focused is often rewarded—which may lead people to behave in these ways in order to fit societal expectations.

There’s also a psychological explanation for why young people could seem more narcissistic than earlier generations, even if they aren’t actually. Research studies have found that, generally speaking, young people are more narcissistic and narcissism levels decline as people age. Consequently, when people lament that young people seem narcissistic, they may be ignoring the fact that, at that age, they also showed some narcissistic behaviors!

Reducing Narcissism

In recent years, psychologists have begun to recognize that personality traits—such as narcissism—are more malleable than previously thought and have started to study how narcissism can be reduced.

Some might expect that individuals high in narcissism might not be motivated to change, especially if they don’t see narcissistic behavior as a problem. Psychologists have found that this isn’t quite true: people high in narcissism do in fact seek out therapy, although they may not directly tell their therapist that they are seeking treatment for narcissism. Instead, people high in narcissism may attend therapy because they are experiencing symptoms of depression, problems at work, difficulties with relationships or because a friend or family member encouraged them to do so.

While the research is fairly limited, some studies suggest that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can be helpful for individuals who engage in narcissistic behaviors. In CBT, the therapist works with a client to identify thoughts that are negative and unproductive, and to replace these thoughts with more beneficial ways of thinking. For narcissism in particular, psychologist Kelly Cukrowicz and her colleagues suggest that CBT for narcissism can involve reflecting on interpersonal interactions that didn’t go well. Through unpacking these interactions, people can better understand how their narcissistic behaviors can end up being self-sabotaging and can develop healthier strategies to use in social interactions. Other types of therapy may also be helpful, including long-term psychodynamic work.

Another potential strategy for helping individuals with narcissistic behaviors involves cultivating self-compassion. Self-compassion involves treating oneself kindly, being mindful of one’s emotions, and seeing setbacks as part of the broader human condition (as opposed to seeing setbacks as personal failings). Research has suggested that cultivating self-compassion might be beneficial for all people, whether suffering from narcissism or not, because—unlike focusing on self-esteem—building self-compassion encourages us to treat ourselves with kindness when we experience setbacks. As Webber writes for Psychology Today, “If a fragile self is the true underpinning of narcissism, one way to strengthen it is with self-compassion.” Essentially, self-compassion focuses on how we treat ourselves, as opposed to how we evaluate ourselves—and having less of a focus on self-evaluation is something that can benefit all of us, regardless of our level of narcissism.


About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper received her PhD in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she conducted research on positive psychology and gratitude. Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology. Her research interests include gratitude, positive emotions, close relationships, and health. When she’s not writing about psychology, Elizabeth can often be found exploring the Bay Area and spending time with her dog, Luna.  In addition to HealthyPsych, Elizabeth’s writing has also been published by the Greater Good Science Center.

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