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.


Joe Perez said...

I don't know if most narcissists have low self-esteem or not, but this study description was fascinating. It takes me aback to think that psychologists really think that if a person uses a negative word to describe himself on an IAT that means he has low self-esteem. If that were true, then I guess all my shadow work has been not only in vain but also damaging to self-esteem. If I own my "selfish" shadow, does that mean that I now have lower self-esteem? More likely, it means that I think EVERYONE has a selfishness shadow, and since *I* am more aware of it than they, that I am therefore more enlightened. :-)

Anonymous said...

that is really interesting!

Thindza said...

Well well well

Another self made psychologist bashing about narcissists.

We are proud of ourselves because we are superior comparing to other human spicies. Either we are beautiful more capable in any manner or just grandiose. I think that you have low self esteem faggot personality and that you are whining like a bitch because you want to love yourself but you cant because you are inferior and you envy those who have high opinion of them self.

WH said...


thank you for the enlightened addition to the discussion - your observations reveal much more about your own personality than they do about the article posted.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your "spidey" sense that N's have low self-esteem. About ten years ago I dated a guy for two years who, after we began therapy together, was diagnosed with NPD. Our relationship ended but since we live down the street from each other we keep in touch. I have breakfast with him about once a month. For the past 8 years I've watched him go through one relationship after another. When I see him, all he wants to do is talk about himself. He acts arrogant and demanding toward wait staff and other service personnel. I find him hard to be around but do it b/c he begs me to see him. This guy really can't tolerate being alone. He also breaks into tears at the drop of a hat. From what I can see this is a guy who is masking low self-worth with grandiose behavior. I feel sorry for him. One more thing: he just turned 60 years old. When he broke up with his latest girlfriend he signed up with a dating service. His username is something like "TallBlueEyesHot". I mean, he's 60 years old and is advertising himself as being hot. That's just sad.

Anonymous said...

As a narcissist, you are pretty idiotic. Not only does your grammar suck but you are a shame to us narcissists as a whole for being ignorant of the way you are putting youself up as. Anyhow, the perspective of this topic from me (obviously a narcissist), is that we truly believe that we are awesome but what makes us look like we have a low self esteem is that we are hypersensitive to criticism or verbal attacks. This becomes worse so when those attacks are backed up with solid proof(e.g. a test we flunked in.) Nonetheless, it is extremly heartwarming to see that people empathize with our fake personas of low-esteem. Makes me feel so superior!