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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
The Mirror Has Two Faces

Narcissists routinely wreak havoc in everyday life. In a study published in 2004 psychologist W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia and his colleagues showed that narcissism is linked to overconfident but rash decision making, such as making unwise bets, and earlier work by Campbell's team tied narcissism to infidelity. Narcissists are also prone to aggression, especially following insults, as a 1998 study revealed. Brad J. Bushman, now at Ohio State University, and Roy F. Baumeister, now at Florida State University, reported that narcissistic college students were more likely than others to retaliate with a loud blast of noise against another “subject” (a confederate of the experimenters) who had derogated an essay they had written. The negative feedback, the authors reasoned, was a threat to their egos.

Even greater damage can stem from the clinical disorder. In 2002 psychologist Paul Nestor of the University of Massachusetts Boston found that individuals with marked features of NPD are at risk for violence and for antisocial personality disorder, a condition that is tied to crime and other irresponsible acts. Self-destructive behaviors may also result from the despair highly narcissistic people feel when others stop noticing them. In a 2009 study a team led by psychologist Aaron L. Pincus of Pennsylvania State University associated features of pathological narcissism with suicide attempts. Vulnerable narcissists may be in particular danger of hurting themselves. Data from 2011 suggest that vulnerable, but not grandiose, narcissism is linked to suicidal thinking, self-harm and emotional distress.

Yet narcissism may be a double-edged sword. A 2009 investigation led by psychologist Amy B. Brunell of Ohio State University at Newark found that narcissistic individuals readily emerged as leaders in group discussions, and among students enrolled in a graduate business program, narcissists were likely to rise to top positions. These outcomes agreed with an earlier study in which psychologist Ronald J. Deluga of Bryant University asked presidential experts to rate U.S. chief executives on a scale of narcissism. Presidents judged to be more narcissistic were rated by an independent group of historians as particularly effective, charismatic and creative. (Narcissism in a leader may sometimes turn off potential followers, however. Psychologist Timothy A. Judge of the University of Florida and his collaborators found that narcissistic students in management programs tend to perceive themselves as better leaders, but others judged them as worse.)

Narcissists' advantages extend beyond leadership, however. In a study published in 2011 psychologist Peter D. Harms of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and his colleagues showed that narcissistic individuals excelled in simulated job interviews, in part because they were skilled at self-promotion. These findings may dovetail with 2006 results from researchers at the University of Southern California who found that celebrities' narcissism scores exceeded those of the general population.

There is no known effective remedy for narcissism in any of its forms. Yet recognizing that these highly self-centered people probably differ from us in degree rather than kind may give us more empathy for them. If a narcissist is mistreating you, here is a strategy for handling the situation: find a way to be assertive while assuaging his or her sensitive ego.

Although the extreme self-promotion of grandiose narcissists can be dangerous, such self-focus in moderate doses may be advantageous when it comes to professional success and leadership. In this respect, we may have a thing or two to learn from those who see themselves at the center of the universe.

This article was originally published with the title "All about Me."

(Further Reading)

The Handbook of Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Theoretical Approaches, Empirical Findings, and Treatments. Edited by W. Keith Campbell and Joshua D. Miller. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.

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