Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
May 29, 2019

Inside the Mind of the Narcissist

by Virgil Zeigler-Hill
Young latin girl getting a selfie on a wooden bench in city street

We all know people who are narcissistic – those self-absorbed, grandiose, vain, entitled, and unempathic people who frustrate and exploit the rest of us. They may not always be narcissistic enough to earn them a clinical diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but they are still self-centered enough to frustrate and irritate the people around them.

Narcissists have a strong desire to be the center of attention, and they often try to get people to pay attention to them by doing things such as boasting about their accomplishments, posting photos of themselves in exotic locations on Facebook, claiming connections with powerful or influential people, wearing sexually provocative clothing, or driving an expensive car. But why do narcissists do these sorts of things? Are they trying to get people to like them, or do they want others to respect and admire them?

Most of us go through our everyday lives trying to satisfy both our desire for status (to get respect from other people) as well as our desire for affiliation (to be liked by others). However, these motivations sometimes conflict because it is not always possible to satisfy both of them at the same time. For example, the manager of a restaurant who behaves in a formal, professional manner may be respected by her employees (high status), but they may not like her terribly much (low affiliation). In contrast, a high school teacher who tries to befriend his students may get them to like him (high affiliation), but he may fail to earn their respect (low status).

Most of us try to balance these two motivations, but the same does not hold true for narcissists who often resolve these conflicts by focusing on status and paying little attention to affiliation. That is, narcissists seem to care far more about being respected or admired than about being liked. Their concern for status – and relative lack of concern for affiliation – may explain many of the behaviors that characterize narcissism. For example, behaviors such as bragging about their accomplishments, flaunting their wealth, showing off their skills, climbing over others to get promotions, treating romantic partners like sexual conquests, and bullying other people may be ways in which narcissists try to get people to respect or admire them.

To explore the relationship between narcissism and status-seeking in greater detail, my recent research has focused on two distinct aspects of narcissism. One aspect, narcissistic admiration, involves people excessively promoting their positive qualities and being highly assertive. The other aspect, narcissistic rivalry, describes people who, because of their inflated self-views, feel that others do not value them as much as they deserve, which often leads them to feel frustrated and angry. People with high narcissistic admiration are often seen as “charming,” whereas people high in narcissistic rivalry tend to be perceived as “aggressive.”

In one of these studies, participants rated the importance of various motivations in their lives such as motives involving status, affiliation, self-protection, finding a mate, keeping their current mate, taking care of their families, and avoiding disease. Results showed that participants who scored high in narcissistic admiration rated the motivation for status to be more important than any of the other motives. In another study that tracked people’s daily experiences for up to a week, we found that participants who scored high in narcissistic admiration were especially sensitive to daily events that involved status but not to events that concerned affiliation. In particular, they tended to feel especially good about themselves on days when they believed that other people respected and admired them. These studies suggest that status-seeking is particularly important for people with a strong desire for narcissistic admiration.

Status-seeking is also important in the romantic relationships of narcissistic individuals. For example, the extent to which narcissists are satisfied with their romantic relationships depends to a large extent on how much they think their romantic partners respect them. Although most people want their romantic partners to respect them, narcissists find a perceived lack of respect from their romantic partners to be especially upsetting.

The desire for status seems to be so intense for narcissists that it shapes much of their lives. An interesting possibility is that narcissists may pursue status in order to communicate their value and worth to others. However, this obsession with status may be problematic for narcissists because they focus so much of their attention on being respected or admired that they may not care as much as they should about having positive relationship with other people or being liked.

For Further Reading:

Zeigler-Hill, V., Vrabel, J. K., McCabe, G. A., Cosby, C. A., Traeder, C. K., Hobbs, K. A., & Southard, A. C. (2019). Narcissism and the pursuit of status. Journal of Personality, 87, 310-327.

Virgil Zeigler-Hill is a Professor of Psychology at Oakland University. His research concerns the darker aspects of personality (such as narcissism and psychopathy), self-esteem, and interpersonal relationships.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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