Explaining narcissism

I have already written on narcissism a few times and have noted some versions of what it is and how people get like that.  Is there something that turns a person into a narcissist?

There are few attempts to answer that out there but all are highly theoretical with very little objective research supporting the explanations.  The explanations sometimes reflect clinical experience but inferences from clinical experience are inevitably subjective and incapable of proving anything.  It should be noted that even Freud was not satisfied with the explanation he offered for its origin.

The big problem with all the theories is that narcissism does not really exist as a single coherent syndrome.  The two recurrent themes in theories about narcissism are an inflated sense of self-esteem and a feeling of insecurity about one's own worth and competence.  For short, the two traits are grandiosity and vulnerability.  And the basic claim of narcissism theories is that the two traits belong together in some way.

But they do not. The survey research tells us that the two traits are  NOT correlated.  People with grandiose feelings about themselves MAY also have feeling of vulnerability but that is not automatically so. There are many grandiose people who do NOT feel vulnerable.  Many grandiose people are perfectly confident that their ideas about themselves are perfectly correct and not open to serious challenge.  They are not bothered by people  who doubt them.  Such people are sometimes said to have "a thick hide".

And of course many people with feelings of vulnerability do not also think that they are wonderful

So in asking what causes narcissism, we are essentially asking the wrong question.  There are really three questions there:  What causes feelings of grandiosity, what causes feelings of vulnerability and  how does it happen that some people have both feelings at once?

The programmatic explanation for all three questions is that  all human personality traits occur along a continuum.  There are always strong and weak tendencies towards a particular behaviour type.  And thinking well of oneself, for instance, is normal and as such in no particular need of explanation. 

It does beg for explanation when it is extreme but the explanation needed is about degrees of self-esteem,  not degrees of "narcissism".  And there is a very large literature on self-esteem in the annals of psychological research.  I am not up to date with it so will not endeavour to summarize it

Similarly there is a HUGE literaure on anxiety and neuroticism so that literature tells us about feelings of vulnerability.  I have had rather a lot of research published in that field so I will suggest the elements of an explanation for it. 


Neuroticism/anxiety just seems to be one of the basic ways people differ.  It affects all sorts of behaviours.  We all have it to some degree and it matters a lot how strong it is in us.  It seems in fact to be hard-wired in our neurology.  We are born with it but to different degrees.  As such, there is no way to "cure" it but we can of course do some things to ameliorate its effects.  Valium being an obvious example.

So how come both vulnerablity and grandiosity sometimes  co-occur?  It may need no particular explanation.  The processes that cause both tendencies just sometimes overlap.  Some people may simply be both neurotic and full of themselves.  The one tendency does not cancel out the other, perhaps surprisingly.  They are the people we often identify as narcissists but they appear to be not the outcome of any single influence.  

My previous posts on the matter give more detail





So where does self-confidence fit into the two factor picture I have outlined?  

Self confidence is clearly the opposite end of feelings of vunerabiity.  It is a lack of self confidence that plagues the vulnerable person.  Confidence is clearly one part of a broader factor -- a  continuum of confidence/vulnerability

So is the grandiose person self-confident? It might seem automatically so. But the answer once again has to be that there are two factors involved.  As we see from the statistical correlations,  it is perfectly possible   -- but not automatic -- for grandiose people to feel vulnerable. Some people with grandiose views of themselves are  not at all confident that they are so admirable and tend therefore to do things to prop up that belief.  

As I have argued previously, the subset of people who are both grandiose and vulnerable often find relief as active political leftists.  They actively promote themselves as good and  kind and wise and righteous, with sometimes unfortunate results when they get something wrong.  It is precisely their vulnerabiity which makes them so keen to censor the views of anybody who disagrees with them

Coincidentally, a well-sampled study has recently appeared which found that "woke" attitudes correlated with "depression, anxiety, and (lack of) happiness".  The correlation with depression was particularly high -- clearly  vulnerable feelings.  


I have always had self-confidence in spades.  I inherited it from my mother.  A non grandiose example may be of interest:

After completing Junior school, I saw that Senior school took a further two years to do and disliked that prospect.  So I looked at the Senior syllabus and its listing of the knowledge required to pass the Senior exam. I thought that I could easily acquire the knowledge required in one year.  So I quietly did just that.  I taught myself the requirements for the Senior exam in one year and got respectable passes in it,  including a couple of "A"s.  I was confident of my abilities and it paid off. 

So self confidence is pretty good stuff.  And I am not remotely grandiose.  I have never sought the limelight despite several opportunities in that direction.  It always seemed too much bother.



No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments containing Chinese characters will not be published as I do not understand them