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What We've Learned About Narcissism, and What We Still Don't Know

New research suggests a better way to understand the narcissists in your life.

Key points

  • The classic "mask" theory of narcissism proposes that people high in narcissism use grandiosity to hide their feelings of vulnerability.
  • New personality research suggests that the current body of knowledge in psychology regarding narcissism fails to capture its true qualities.
  • Applying this new approach can give you a better idea of how to understand and manage the narcissists in your life.

It’s hard to go to any website or popular writing about psychology without running into the concept of narcissism. Although the term is often technically meant to refer to the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, this subtlety is usually lost when it’s applied to celebrities and political figures. As a giant catch-all for various self-aggrandizing and self-centered behaviors, narcissism has veered so far from its original conceptualization that it’s lost virtually most of its meaning.

Circling back to that original conceptualization, University of Pittsburgh’s Elizabeth Edershile and Aidan Wright (2021), describe narcissism not just as a collection of grandiose and selfish behaviors but as a “complex system” that drives “an ensemble of processes.” How best to understand those processes, they go on to note, “remains a source of much debate and contributes to a tension between theoretical models and empirical research” (p. 1).

You may have your own theories about the factors that produce narcissistic behavior in people you know. Perhaps you have an in-law who is now an “ex” in-law after having left your closest sibling with virtually no warning and no explanation. Shattered by the experience, your sibling seeks consolation from you and the rest of your family. Inevitably, discussions about this person take up considerable and maybe undue attention in phone calls and family gatherings. Your family now looks back at the prior behavior of the ex in retrospect, enumerating all the signs of narcissism in this person such as taking center stage at holiday meals, refusing to help clean up after those meals, and in general acting as if they’re better than everyone else.

Having arrived at your collectively agreed-upon diagnosis of the ex, you assure your sibling that nothing they did contributed to the breakup. Indeed, as time goes on, you feel more and more certain that your diagnosis is correct and that your sibling is actually better off being rid of the ex.

Although you’re unlikely to take a sympathetic look at what might have caused the ex to behave in such a cruel way toward your beloved family member, you might try to gain some insight after the initial pain of the breakup recedes and you're able to reflect on it all. Did the ex have an unusually difficult childhood, raised by parents who neglected or even abused them? Is it possible the ex felt threatened by your family and the close bonds you and your sibling have with each other as well as your own parents? Were there earlier signs that the ex needed attention from you and your family in order to make up for those feelings of vulnerability?

What Psychological Theory Says about Narcissism

These questions about the origins of the ex’s cruel treatment of your sibling fit in with the most common theoretical position about narcissism, as articulated by the U. Pittsburgh authors. The “complex system” they refer to reflects an ever-changing interplay between the two basic tendencies of vulnerability and grandiosity, both of which serve to protect the individual’s self-esteem. Threats to self-esteem, they propose, set off “a cascade of unfolding processes” in which the individual alternates between vulnerability and grandiosity, also potentially leading to outward expressions of hostility to those who thwart their efforts to feel superior.

The idea that narcissists try to protect their self-esteem is fundamental to the “mask” model proposed by early psychodynamic theorists. As Edershile and Wright note, the seemingly inflated ego of the narcissist, according to this view, reflects attempts to cover up and protect the individual from confronting feelings of being inferior.

More recently, theorists working from this basic framework propose that narcissists actually strive not to return to some type of “normal” baseline self-esteem, but to a “desired superior state.” This “trait-level entitlement” leads them to believe they deserve to be treated as better than everyone else.

This high level of entitlement sets the stage for the narcissist to view their experiences in terms of whether or not they’re getting the attention they feel they deserve, not from some type of neutral orientation. In other words, the narcissist sees ordinary experiences from the lens of needing to have their self-esteem constantly boosted. When they don’t get that support, they can “cycle down” into vulnerability and bring themselves back up through such strategies as attacking those they see as the culprits.

As you try to understand these dynamics, it may help to review the qualities that psychologists define as involving vulnerability and grandiosity. Vulnerability, the “intense felt need for recognition” shows up as strong feelings of self-doubt and a desire to avoid being found out as weak. Grandiosity is reflected in “immodesty, self-promoting behavior, and lacking in empathy” (p. 2).

Such fluctuations between vulnerability and grandiosity mean that a single measure of narcissism as used in a correlational study is unlikely to produce a clear picture. However, as Edershile and Wright point out, this is precisely the approach used in the majority of studies that attempt to put narcissism under the microscope. The gap between theory and research, then, means that an understanding of narcissism’s dynamics “has not been achieved” (p. 11).

What Psychological Research Says about Narcissism

Given that much of what you read about narcissism based on research evidence is going to be limited by its correlational nature, what can you trust in the published literature? Can research ever appropriately capture the vulnerability-grandiosity interplay over time?

Edershile and Wright propose a way around this problem by distinguishing between trait and state narcissism. As you saw earlier, the authors regard trait narcissism as that inflated sense of self that needs to be fed by continuous positive feedback. However, at any one given moment, the person’s behavior may exhibit vulnerability, and at other moments, grandiosity. Studying these state-level manifestations could potentially provide the kind of data needed to study narcissism as a complex system of processes.

To this end, the authors attempted to measure these state-level narcissism qualities by obtaining reports of 231 participants every 90 minutes of their levels of grandiosity and vulnerability to see how often they “switched.” Referring to data from an unpublished study, Edershile and Wright report that of the 7,480 momentary reports the authors obtained, switching occurred only 1.5 percent of the time, a very small percentage. This finding led the authors to pose the question of whether it’s necessary to probe momentary changes not as defined by time intervals, but by specific interactions, Furthermore, just as in clinical studies of narcissism, it’s important to decide “how much” grandiosity a person has to experience to be in a grandiose state.

Clearly, then, even state-like measures of narcissism have their limitations, suggesting to the authors that “more fine-grained assessment tools are needed” (p. 11). These should, moreover, be aligned with experiences that could provoke the switch from vulnerability to narcissism. A one-shot assessment, even one every hour and a half, is unlikely to capture those dynamic processes at work.

What Do the Findings Mean for You?

Now that you understand the limitations of existing narcissism research, even research using momentary sampling, you can see that what you thought you knew may require some serious reconsideration. That case of the ex-in-law, for example, could provide you with your own case study to use in gaining insight into the core of narcissism. Setting aside your anger at this person, is it possible for you to trace events that might have threatened them (such as your family’s closeness with each other) leading to their apparent need for self-validation?

It’s certainly difficult to put your theoretical “hat” on when dealing with a person whose narcissistic antagonism and entitlement seem to be out of control and have resulted in harm to you or others you care about. Based on the U. Pittsburgh paper, narcissists also can show the opposite behaviors of seeming interested in you, warm, and friendly—as long as their need to feel superior is fed. You can easily become drawn into a relationship with this person only to be severely taken down later when they feel threatened, and their grandiosity sweeps in.

The gap between theory and research in what psychology knows about narcissism identified in the Edershile and Wright paper provides more than the basis for a criticism of the existing literature. As they note, “variability is a key feature of narcissism’s expression” (p. 6). If you are trying to figure out how to maintain a relationship with a person you believe is high in narcissism, being able to pinpoint those predictors of variability could ultimately give you the best handle on how to keep those bursts of angry entitlement at bay.

To sum up, it’s very easy to try to put people into categories on the basis of what you think is their “personality.” The case of narcissism may be a particularly extreme one in terms of its underlying theme of variability but everyone's personality reflects situational factors. The U. Pittsburgh paper provides an important reminder of the need to get more than a snapshot of anyone you’re trying to understand, including yourself.

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Edershile, E. A., & Wright, A. G. C. (2021). Narcissism dynamics. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. doi:10.1111/spc3.12649

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