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Narcissism and the Limits of Self-Enhancement

10 July, 2015 - 10:54

Our discussion to this point suggests that many people will generally try to view themselves in a positive light. We emphasize our positive characteristics, and we may even in some cases distort information—all to help us maintain positive self-esteem. There can be negative aspects to having too much self-esteem, however, particularly if that esteem is unrealistic and undeserved. Narcissism is a personality trait characterized by overly high self-esteem, self-admiration, and self-centeredness. Narcissists tend to agree with statements such as the following:

  • “I know that I am good because everybody keeps telling me so.”
  • “I can usually talk my way out of anything.”
  • “I like to be the center of attention.”
  • “I have a natural talent for influencing people.”

Narcissists can be perceived as charming at first, but often alienate others in the long run (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003). They can also make bad romantic partners as they often behave selfishly and are always ready to look for someone else who they think will be a better mate, and they are more likely to be unfaithful than non-narcissists (Campbell & Foster, 2002; Campbell, Rudich, & Sedikides, 2002). Narcissists are also more likely to bully others, and they may respond very negatively to criticism (Baumeister et al., 2003). People who have narcissistic tendencies more often pursue self-serving behaviors, to the detriment of the people and communities surrounding them (Campbell, Bush, Brunell, & Shelton, 2005). Perhaps surprisingly, narcissists seem to understand these things about themselves, although they engage in the behaviors anyway (Carlson, Vazire, & Oltmanns, 2011).

Interestingly, scores on measures of narcissistic personality traits have been creeping steadily upward in recent decades in some cultures (Twenge, Konrath, Foster, Campbell, & Bushman, 2008). Given the social costs of these traits, this is troubling news. What reasons might there be for these trends? Twenge and Campbell (2009) argue that several interlocking factors are at work here, namely increasingly child-centered parenting styles, the cult of celebrity, the role of social media in promoting self-enhancement, and the wider availability of easy credit, which, they argue, has lead to more people being able to acquire status-related goods, in turn further fueling a sense of entitlement. As narcissism is partly about having an excess of self-esteem, it should by now come as no surprise that narcissistic traits are higher, on average, in people from individualistic versus collectivistic cultures (Twenge et al., 2008).

The negative outcomes of narcissism raise the interesting possibility that high self-esteem in general may not always be advantageous to us or to the people around us. One complication to the issue is that explicit self-report measures of self-esteem, like the Rosenberg scale, are not able to distinguish between people whose high self-esteem is realistic and appropriate and those whose self-esteem may be more inflated, even narcissistic (Baumeister et al., 2003). Implicit measures also do not provide a clear picture, but indications are that more narcissistic people score higher on implicit self-esteem in relation to some traits, including those relating to social status, and lower on others relating to relationships (Campbell, Bosson, Goheen, Lakey, & Kernis, 2007). A key point is that it can be difficult to disentangle what the effects of realistic versus unrealistic high self-esteem may be. Nevertheless, it is to this thorny issue that we will now turn.