Friday, July 18, 2008

Do narcissists really hate themselves deep down inside?

An interesting article from
Psychology Today that questions the notion that narcissists really suffer from very low self-esteem.

Do narcissists really hate themselves deep down inside?

You probably have a pretty good idea of what a narcissist is. They're arrogant, self-absorbed, and generally speaking they're not too pleasant to be around--at least not for long periods of time. If you're like most people, you probably also assume one additional thing. You probably think that narcissists dislike themselves deep down inside. In other words, narcissism is really just a mask that covers up deeply hidden insecurities and self-loathing.

If you think that this is true, then you're in good company. This has long been a standard conceptualization of narcissism within the psychological literature. A recent study by Keith Campbell, Jennifer Bosson, Thomas Goheen, Chad Lakey, and Michael Kernis (let's just call them Campbell et al. to keep things simple), however, challenges this assumption.

At this point the article explains the testing procedures used in the study, which are quite interesting, but likely only to geeks like me. Essentially they explain the use of the Implicit Associations Test (IAT for short), which tests responses to various statements in terms of response time.
So the IAT essentially measures how quickly you categorize good words with "like me" and bad words with "not like me." People who categorize themselves with good words very quickly are said to have high implicit self-esteem. People who take longer or who actually categorize themselves with bad words are said to have low implicit self-esteem.
OK, so that's the test they use, but the new research suggests there are some flaws in the test that have been overlooked. The flaws, it seems, are likely to create "false positives" for low self-esteem.

OK, back to narcissism. Prior research has shown that narcissists report very high explicit self-esteem (what they tell you about themselves), but lower implicit self-esteem (how they perform on the IAT). This research is consistent with long-standing beliefs about narcissism (e.g., psychoanalytic theories of narcissism) and seems to support the idea that narcissists don't really like themselves that much deep down inside.

Here's where a detailed analysis of psychological methods pays off. Campbell et al. noticed that a lot of the words used in the IATs of past studies were pretty communal sounding. Communal words are those that imply a connection between people. For example, the word "smile" might be considered communal because smiling facilitates social bonding. One thing that we know about narcissists is that they are not communally oriented. They're all about themselves. Indeed, past research shows that narcissists don't think very positively of themselves in terms of their relationships with others (i.e., communally). Therefore, if your IAT words are communal, then it should not be surprising that narcissists fail to quickly categorize the positive words as being "like me" and the negative words as being "not like me." In other words, communal IATs may be biased toward producing evidence of low implicit self-esteem in narcissists.

What Campbell et al. did next was create an IAT that used less communal words. For example, their IAT contained the positive word "energetic," which does not imply any sort of connection between people (i.e., the word "energetic" implies something about the individual, rather than relationships with others). What they found was that, sure enough, narcissists reported high implicit self-esteem using this less communal IAT. Again, this contradicts prior research showing just the opposite.

So what does this tell us about narcissism? First, we should take a step back and think about the methods that psychologists use to conduct their studies. Psychologists must frequently deal with the unseen and the unknown. While this makes psychology particularly interesting in our opinion, it can also make psychological research a little messy. Can we really be certain that Campbell et al.'s or anyone else's IATs really measure implicit self-esteem? Of course not. Nevertheless, Campbell et al.'s findings suggest that we should be skeptical of the notion that narcissism is always connected to inner doubt and self-hatred.

Without question, there are narcissists out there who really do hate themselves. We've all met people like this. People who say outlandishly positive things about themselves (e.g., "I'm smarter than Einstein") when it's obvious that they're covering up for a perceived deficiency (e.g., they dropped out of high school). But frankly, people can also be arrogant and conceited without any sort of deep-seated anguish. This isn't particularly pleasant to think about. Most of us-psychological researchers included-like to think that we live in a just world where bad things happen to bad people. In a just word, mean and nasty narcissists would experience inner turmoil and suffering. Unfortunately, we live in nothing close to a just world. And we suspect that many if not most people who say that they're awesome really think that they're awesome, even deep down inside.

(This post was coauthored by Ilan Shrira.)

Further reading:

Campbell, W. K., Bosson, J. K., Goheen, T. W., Lakey, C. E., & Kernis, M. H. (2007). Do narcissists dislike themselves 'deep down inside?'. Psychological Science, 18, 227-229.

Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. L. K. (1998). Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: The implicit association test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1464-1480.


Despite the new study, my spidey sense tells me that most narcissists do suffer from low self-esteem. It'll be curious to see if there are new studies based on this research.

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