Narcissists need no reality check

Despite inflated egos, they evaluate themselves with unexpectedly clear eyes

Narcissists make spectacles of their supposedly awesome selves, but they don’t see the world entirely through rose-colored glasses.

These sultans of self-regard accurately appraise their own personalities and reputations, say psychologist Erika Carlson of Washington University in St. Louis and her colleagues. Carlson’s team unexpectedly finds that narcissists acknowledge their own narcissism and assume that their arrogant strut gets frowned on by others.

In a further reality check, narcissists tend to realize that they make good first impressions that rapidly turn sour, the researchers report in the July Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (in a paper titled “You Probably Think This Paper’s About You”).

Narcissistic traits include arrogance, feeling entitled to special treatment, lack of concern for others’ feelings, exaggerating one’s intelligence, and expecting to be recognized as superior in all situations. Extreme cases get diagnosed as narcissistic personality disorder.

Narcissists may adopt the attitude of 20th century architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who once said he chose “honest arrogance” over “hypocritical humility” early in life.

“Narcissists seem to choose honest arrogance when describing themselves and their reputations,” Carlson says.

If so, bearers of überegos may equate arrogance with rightful confidence, she suggests, perhaps wanting to be admired rather than liked by those considered inferior.

In contrast, many researchers think that narcissists sugar-coat how they regard themselves — truly believing, say, that they’re humble team players — and assume that others hold them in high regard.

Carlson’s team shows, however, that narcissists “have some accurate insight into their character,” remarks psychologist W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia in Athens. But self-worshippers can still deceive themselves, Campbell adds, such as when they take sole credit for team successes, blame others for personal failures and overestimate their own creativity and physical attractiveness.

Narcissists’ insights into their own personalities and reputations, combined with exaggerated self-regard, suggest that they view arrogance and related characteristics as personality pluses worthy of others’ appreciation, comments psychologist Mitja Back of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany.

It takes a skilled psychotherapist to help narcissistic patients change their ways without arousing defensive anger, Campbell says. “One of the major problems with narcissists in therapy is that they quit.”

The new findings suggest an alternative strategy for psychotherapists, Carlson says. Narcissists who know that others view them negatively might benefit from learning how kindness and self-effacement can advance their need for social standing.

Carlson’s team examined college students’ perceptions of narcissistic peers upon first meeting them in a class exercise and in weekly group meetings held over the course of a semester. Another experiment probed U.S. Air Force recruits’ perceptions of narcissistic peers at the end of six weeks of basic training.

Participants rated their own and others’ personality traits, so that the extent to which each person knew his or her reputation could be estimated.

Nearly 2 percent of volunteers qualified as narcissistic on self-report surveys. Another 4 percent had many narcissistic traits.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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