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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 6

A Dose of Narcissism Can Be Useful

The sharp sword of narcissism can cut both ways
Calling All Narcissists

Psychologists conceptualize narcissism as extreme self-centeredness. Of course, we can all be a bit self-focused at times, but for narcissists the self is an overriding concern. In the laboratory, psychologists often measure narcissism using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. On this questionnaire, individuals pick one statement from pairs such as “I prefer to blend in with the crowd; I like to be the center of attention” and “I am no better or worse than most people; I think I am a special person.” Their score reflects how narcissistic they are.

Some items on the test reflect a truth dating back to the Greeks: narcissists are obsessed with their looks. In 2008 Washington University psychologist Simine Vazire and her colleagues found that such individuals tend to wear expensive clothing and spend a lot of time preening. Data also confirm that narcissistic people like to talk about themselves. In 1988 psychologists Robert Raskin of the University of California, Berkeley, and Robert Shaw of Yale University found that in taped monologues, narcissistic undergraduates were significantly more likely than other students to use the word “I” and less likely to use the word “we.”

In extreme forms, narcissism can become pathological. In the latest edition of psychiatry's bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is marked by an excessive sense of self-importance, unrealistic fantasies of success, and intense envy of others' accomplishments. People with NPD are also convinced they deserve special treatment. For example, they may be enraged that they need to wait on line at a restaurant behind other “lesser” people.

Increasing evidence suggests that the NPD diagnosis is actually a mix of two flavors. Grandiose narcissism is the flamboyant, boastful form that probably characterizes both malignant leaders such as Benito Mussolini and Saddam Hussein and highly venerated figures such as General George S. Patton. The lesser-known “vulnerable” variety of self-devotion afflicts more reserved, fragile individuals who may resemble the self-effacing and thin-skinned characters portrayed by Woody Allen in his films.

No one really knows what causes the intense concern with the self that narcissists display. In one theory, they are compensating for low self-esteem by becoming egotistic. Yet this intriguing conjecture has weak scientific support, and another theory suggests that only vulnerable narcissists lack a sense of self-worth.

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