- Grandiose narcissism is associated with higher testosterone levels in men, a new study finds.
- Men with high agentic narcissism have higher than average testosterone levels.
- Testosterone levels are only one factor involved in the development of narcissism.
The number of popular media articles focused on how to identify or cope with narcissists suggests a general fascination with the idea of narcissism.
Although we often refer to others as “narcissists,” the truth is that narcissism is a personality trait, not a type. In other words, people vary in the extent to which they are narcissistic, from those who show almost none of this trait to those whose every behavior seems driven by it.
In general, psychologists distinguish between two types of narcissism. Grandiose narcissism describes those who believe they are superior to others and tend to be assertive and arrogant. Vulnerable narcissism, on the other hand, refers to those who struggle with negative moods and feelings of fragility.
In other words, those who score high on measures of grandiose narcissism think they’re better than everyone and want everyone to know it. Those who score high on vulnerable narcissism are hypersensitive to rejection and need constant reassurance that others think they’re special. The authors of this new study focused on grandiose narcissism.
Testosterone has long been associated with striving for status and dominance. Grandiose narcissism has two sub-components, which are linked in unique ways with status-seeking. The “agentic” component involves pursuing praise and admiration from others, often by seeking a higher social status (or at least attempting to appear to have a higher social status). The agentic component of grandiose narcissism may prompt someone to engage in substantial self-promotion to get what they want.
But if self-promotion doesn’t work, the second component of grandiose narcissism may kick in. This component is referred to as “antagonistic.” Antagonistic grandiose narcissism leads to behaviors like putting others down to achieve higher status. Think of it this way: Someone who scores high on grandiose narcissism might be gracious and friendly as long as the people around them provide admiration. But should anyone threaten their sense of superiority, the antagonistic component of narcissism can lead them to be combative or exploitative with others.
In this new study, researchers examined whether adult men’s levels of testosterone were correlated with either of these components of grandiose narcissism. (Although both male and female individuals produce testosterone, testosterone levels tend to be much higher in men than women.) The researchers measured levels of testosterone in 283 men ranging in age from 18-44.
Blood samples were used to measure testosterone, and all were taken in a laboratory between 7:30 and 9:30 in the morning when testosterone levels tend to be highest. The men also completed multiple measures of narcissism. Finally, the men completed a self-report measure of testosterone that asked them to guess where their testosterone level fell relative to other men.
The researchers found that agentic narcissism—but not antagonistic narcissism—was associated with men’s measured level of testosterone. Interestingly, agentic narcissism was also correlated with men’s self-reported level of testosterone. In other words, men who scored higher on agentic narcissism believed themselves to have higher testosterone levels than other men, and on average, they did.
The authors of this research were particularly interested in the possibility that agentic and antagonistic narcissism may have different biological contributors. The social boldness and status-seeking associated with agentic narcissism may be at least partially driven by higher-than-average testosterone levels.
This makes sense given that testosterone may lower feelings of fear and promote risk-taking. Successful outcomes of risk-taking and competition can increase levels of testosterone, creating a feedback loop. Because the antagonistic component of narcissism tends to be more reactive (i.e., it doesn’t engage until status is threatened), it may be driven by different neurological mechanisms.
An additional novel finding from this study is that self-reported level of testosterone was correlated with men’s actual testosterone level, suggesting the men were somewhat accurate in guessing where their level of testosterone fell relative to other men. These self-reports of testosterone were also associated with agentic narcissism.
A limitation of this study is that the researchers did not include women in the sample, even though some research links testosterone to personality traits in women as well as men. However, the authors suggest that future research could consider whether estradiol might show a similar pattern of correlations with narcissism in women, given that women tend to report more self-confidence and assertiveness during the point of their menstrual cycle when estradiol is highest.
The influence of testosterone on behavior and personality is complex. In this study, although testosterone was reliably correlated with agentic narcissism, the correlations were relatively small.
In other words, testosterone levels are far from being the whole story when it comes to understanding the origins of narcissism. We also cannot be certain about the direction of the relationship between testosterone and agentic narcissism. Testosterone might increase narcissistic behaviors, but dominant, status-seeking behaviors can also increase testosterone.
Nonetheless, this study suggests that testosterone seems to play a role in one specific component of grandiose narcissism—the component associated with seeking status and boosting one's ego.