What Drives Narcissism?

What Drives Narcissism?

 Jim Windell

             If we weren’t all that interested in narcissism before, most of us took a keener interest in it after 2016. For four years, we had the opportunity of watching a man every day display significant traits of narcissism. While most accepted his narcissism as an established fact, few talked about the source of that self-love and self-congratulations.

            Perhaps many Americans just assumed that the man’s giant ego and narcissistic traits stemmed from an inflated sense of self. I’m sure many of us just thought: “Here’s someone who thinks so much of himself that he just can’t stop thinking – and talking – about how great he is.”

            But maybe we were wrong about why he and others are narcissists.

            Attempting to understand what motivates narcissists, led to a study recently published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. EntitledNarcissism through the Lens of Performative Self-Elevation,” four researchers from New York University’s Department of Psychology examined Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

            Conceptualizing NPD as excessive self-love and consisting of two subtypes, known as grandiose and vulnerable narcissism, the researchers surveyed nearly 300 participants –approximately 60 percent female and 40 percent male – and a median age of 20. The participants answered 151 questions on a specially designed and novel measure called PRISN (Performative Refinement to soothe Insecurities about SophisticatioN), which produced FLEX (perFormative seLf-Elevation indeX). FLEX captures insecurity-driven self-conceptualizations that are manifested as impression management, leading to self-elevating tendencies. The PRISN scale includes commonly used measures to investigate social desirability, self-esteem, and psychopathy. FLEX was shown to be made up of four components: impression management, the need for social validation, self-elevation (illustrated by the phrase "I have exquisite taste"), and social dominance ("I like knowing more than other people").

           The results of the study showed high correlations between FLEX and narcissism – but not with psychopathy. For example, the need for social validation (a FLEX metric) correlated with the reported tendency to engage in performative self-elevation (a characteristic of vulnerable narcissism). By contrast, measures of psychopathy, such as elevated levels of self-esteem, showed low correlation levels with vulnerable narcissism, implying a lack of insecurity. According to the authors, these findings suggest that genuine narcissists are insecure and are best described by the vulnerable narcissism subtype. Grandiose narcissism, on the other hand, might be better understood as a manifestation of psychopathy.

           "For a long time, it was unclear why narcissists engage in unpleasant behaviors, such as self-congratulation, as it actually makes others think less of them," explains Pascal Wallisch, a clinical associate professor in New York University's Department of Psychology. "This has become quite prevalent in the age of social media – a behavior that's been coined 'flexing'. Our work reveals that these narcissists are not grandiose, but rather insecure, and this is how they seem to cope with their insecurities."

           "More specifically, the results suggest that narcissism is better understood as a compensatory adaptation to overcome and cover up low self-worth," adds Mary Kowalchyk, the paper's lead author and an NYU graduate student at the time of the study. "Narcissists are insecure, and they cope with these insecurities by flexing. This makes others like them less in the long run, thus further aggravating their insecurities, which then leads to a vicious cycle of flexing behaviors."

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

 Kowalchyk, M., Palmieri, H., Conte, E., & Wallisch, P. (2021). Narcissism through the lens of performative self-elevation. Personality and Individual Differences, 177: 110780 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2021.110780

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