Some narcissistic behaviour driven by insecurity, not an ‘inflated sense of self’ – study

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  • Narcissists can be separated into various categories, or sub-types, based on their actions
  • One of these sub-types is 'grandiose narcissism', which is commonly associated with overconfidence, arrogance, and boldness
  • But, according to a new study, these types of narcissists don't feel grandiose, but rather insecure 

Narcissism comes in many forms and has varying degrees of severity, despite having only one official diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). One of these classifications, or sub-types, is known as ‘grandiose narcissism’.

Typically, these types of narcissistic behaviour are thought to be driven by a grandiose sense of self-importance where people feel they only deserve the best. For example, they exaggerate their achievements, are overconfident, and have a sense of personal superiority and entitlement, according to this 2020 study.

But findings from new research by a team of psychologists at New York University has put a different spin on this understanding. According to their study, this type of narcissism is actually driven by insecurity, and not an inflated sense of self. 

"For a long time, it was unclear why narcissists engage in unpleasant behaviours, such as self-congratulation, as it actually makes others think less of them," said senior author Pascal Wallisch, a clinical associate professor in New York University's Department of Psychology.

He added: "This has become quite prevalent in the age of social media – a behaviour that's been coined 'flexing'. Our work reveals that these narcissists are not grandiose, but rather insecure, and this is how they seem to cope with their insecurities."

The cause of narcissism is unknown, but experts agree that it involves a combination of genetic and environmental factors. 

Narcissism, insecurity, and psychopathy

The team’s conclusion is based on a survey of 151 questions, which was answered by nearly 300 participants. Around 60% of participants were female and 40% male, with a median age of 20. 

The researchers examined NPD, which they conceptualised as “excessive self-love” and pointed to two sub-types of narcissism that were distinguished more recently: grandiose narcissism (which manifests as high self-esteem, self-aggrandisement and self-importance), and vulnerable narcissism (characterised by low self-esteem, anxiety about attachments and extreme sensitivity to criticism). 

They also wanted to refine the understanding of how psychopathy, also characterised by a grandiose sense of self, and this subtype of narcissism relate.

Doing this required a novel measure to be designed, called PRISN (Performative Refinement to soothe Insecurities about SophisticatioN), which produced FLEX (perFormative seLf-Elevation indeX). FLEX, they explained, “captures insecurity-driven self-conceptualisations that are manifested as impression management, leading to self-elevating tendencies”.

The PRISN scale includes commonly used measures to investigate the following:

  • Social desirability ("No matter who I am talking to, I am a good listener.") 
  • Self-esteem ("On the whole, I am satisfied with myself.")
  • Psychopathy ("I tend to lack remorse.")

FLEX was made up of the following four components:

  • Impression management ("I am likely to show off if I get the chance.")
  • The need for social validation ("It matters that I am seen at important events.'')
  • Self-elevation ("I have exquisite taste.") 
  • Social dominance ("I like knowing more than other people.")

A manifestation of psychopathy

Based on the above, the research team found that, overall, there were high correlations between FLEX and narcissism, but not with psychopathy – suggesting that genuine narcissists are insecure. As a result, they are best described by the vulnerable narcissism sub-type, said the researchers.

“We conclude that grandiose narcissism is better understood as one manifestation of the high self-regard exhibited by a related condition – psychopathy. Conversely, vulnerable narcissism actually is narcissism proper, a behavioural adaptation to cope with and to mitigate the suffering imposed by insecurities about oneself," they wrote.

Their study was reported in the journal Personality and Individual Differences

READ | Are you a narcissist?

READ | Me, me, me: Narcissists drawn to politics, study shows

READ | Office horror stories: Workers tell of trauma at the hands of office psychopaths and bullies

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