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Why Smart Narcissists Have Better Relationships

They recognize the negative effects of narcissistic rivalry.

Key points

  • Narcissists try to increase their social status by employing two strategies: “admiration” and “rivalry.”
  • Narcissistic admiration involves self-enhancement; narcissistic rivalry involves the devaluation of others.
  • Research suggests the smartest narcissists are less likely to employ the strategy of narcissistic rivalry.

A study published in the July 2023 issue of Personality and Individual Differences, by Gignac and Zajenkowski, suggests that greater intelligence in grandiose narcissists is associated with lower “narcissistic rivalry” and higher “narcissistic admiration.”

Before discussing the research in greater depth, let me clarify what is meant by grandiose narcissism (vs. vulnerable narcissism) and the two strategies of narcissistic admiration and rivalry.

Vulnerable and Grandiose Narcissism

Narcissistic individuals are self-absorbed, feel entitled, and engage in manipulative behavior. The stereotypical narcissist is also highly self-confident, assertive, thick-skinned, and arrogant—characteristics associated with what researchers call grandiose narcissism.

Vulnerable narcissism, in contrast, is associated with low or fragile self-esteem, thin-skinned defensiveness, social isolation, feelings of inadequacy, and a tendency to experience negative emotions (anxiety, depression, shame, paranoia).

The investigation by Gignac and Zajenkowski focused on grandiose narcissism.

The Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Model

As noted, grandiose narcissists feel self-important and arrogant. But how do they generate and maintain such an inflated sense of self? And how do they attain high social status?

According to the narcissistic admiration and rivalry model, there are two strategies:

  1. Narcissistic admiration: This strategy refers to the agentic side of narcissism. It involves garnering admiration through self-promotion and self-enhancement. Some examples are wearing stylish brand-name clothing, exaggerating one’s abilities or accomplishments, behaving in a confident and charming way, and entertaining others.
  2. Narcissistic rivalry: This strategy refers to the antagonistic self-defensive side of narcissism. When self-promotion and self-enhancement do not lead to status gains, narcissists will often attempt to undermine the status of competitors. This may include the use of verbal abuse (e.g., ridicule, insults), emotional abuse (e.g., emotional blackmail, gaslighting, bullying), and even physical violence.

The Relationship Between Intelligence and Narcissistic Admiration/Rivalry

The study detailed below aimed to determine whether the use of the two strategies is affected by the narcissists’ resources, specifically their intelligence. Why intelligence?

Because smarter narcissists are more likely to be accomplished and successful, which could reduce the need to devalue others to feel good about one’s own life.

Furthermore, narcissists with a higher IQ may have greater self-awareness and understanding of the negative social consequences of narcissistic rivalry (e.g., frequent social conflicts, loss of popularity).

And much like smart psychopaths, intelligent narcissists may be effective at playing whatever role necessary—such as the role of a cooperative, friendly, empathetic, validating, or forgiving person—in order to achieve their popularity, power, and status goals.

The Study

Sample: 422 participants; mostly college students; 58% female; average age of 20 years old (range of 17 to 35 years).


  • Grandiose narcissism: Assessed with the Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Questionnaire. Some example items are, “I show others how special I am,” “I manage to be the center of attention with my outstanding contributions,” and “I enjoy it when another person is inferior to me.”
  • Objective intelligence: Measured with the Paper Folding Test, the Baddeley 3-min Reasoning Test, and the Synonym Test.
  • Subjective intelligence: Assessed using the Self-Report Intelligence Questionnaire. A “percentile indicator approach” was utilized, “whereby cognitive intelligence and percentiles were defined/described, and the participant selected a value from 1 to 100 (slider scale) to reflect their self-assessed intelligence.”
Source: FamilyPhotoStudio/Pixabay

Do Intelligent Narcissists Make Less Use of Narcissistic Rivalry?

The results showed that narcissistic admiration and rivalry were correlated. The correlation was negatively moderated by subjective and objective measures of intelligence.

More importantly, analysis of data suggested that genuine intellectual ability (not subjectively assessed intelligence) reduced the likelihood of narcissistic rivalry. This makes sense because only actual intelligence is associated with positive social outcomes such as better relationship functioning, superior job performance, and greater academic achievement.

Given the link between intelligence and positive life outcomes, the authors note, brighter narcissists are more likely to “live a life...consistent with their inflated self-views.” Less intelligent grandiose narcissists may instead “resort to diminishing others as an ego defense, in order to maintain an inflated self-view (i.e., narcissistic rivalry).”

Indeed, the “positive association between narcissistic admiration and rivalry may diminish to near zero (r < 0.10) beyond an IQ of approximately 115 to 120.”

To put this in perspective, an IQ of 90 to 110 is considered average, whereas an IQ higher than 120 is usually classified as very high or superior. About one in ten people has an IQ of 120 or higher.


In summary, the results showed that in grandiose narcissists, higher intelligence might reduce the development of narcissistic rivalry. This may be due to different mechanisms:

  • Greater status attainment and life achievements
  • More awareness of the consequences of narcissistic rivalry

This means narcissists with higher IQs are probably not as selfless, compassionate, kind, or mature as they appear in social interactions. Intelligent narcissists may simply be more successful and therefore happier with their lives, which would obviate the need to devalue others. And they are perhaps more mindful of the social strategies that work best in the long term for attaining status and popularity.

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