x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Are you the greatest? No, that's just a personality disorder

Are we living in the era of narcissism? A growing body of research says yes - and the consequences for society and individuals are not pretty

Narcissism comes in both clinical and subclinical flavours, neither of which is particularly pleasant. Obsessive fascination with oneself is associated with exploitative and shallow personalities, and a host of ills such as delinquency, white-collar crime and academic dishonesty.

Essentially, narcissism centres on demands for admiration and a preoccupation with personal success. In extreme cases, this can result in clinically significant impairment - referred to as narcissistic personality disorder. The hallmark of extreme narcissism is grandiosity: an overinflated sense of self-worth which tends to result in exhibitionism, admiration seeking and an excessive sense of entitlement.

A growing body of research in western nations points towards a decade-on-decade increase in levels of narcissism. It has even been suggested that social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter owe much of their success to the narcissistic zeitgeist, where friends are fans, and followers disciples.

Narcissism may not always result in negative outcomes for the individual, but at the societal level it is totally toxic. Self-centred, self-serving, self-promoting individuals don't tend to make good team players. Furthermore, there's a tendency for narcissists to be unrealistically overconfident, making them impulsive risk-takers and poor decision-makers. Such a constellation of characteristics is likely to lead to workplace disaster, especially if the narcissist is at the top, which is where they generally believe they should be.

Outside of work, social relationships may also suffer, with spouses and children often neglected, exploited or emotionally abused. Extreme narcissists tend to leave a trail of broken relationships in their wake as they exploitatively march through life burning bridges as they go.

One of the leading suspects in the society-wide spike in narcissism is the self-esteem movement. This educational and child-rearing philosophy, which originated in the United States, advocates repeatedly telling children they are special, talented and gifted.

Some schools go as far as giving engraved trophies for all pupils - everyone's a winner, right? While this well-intentioned idea might have its merits, one of the side effects is a generation of adults with an overblown, yet fragile, sense of their own self-importance.

Some theorists argue that narcissism is actually a dysfunctional attempt to maintain this sense of specialness; claims of high self-esteem are actually underpinned by deep-seated negative beliefs about true self worth. This is something the old Freudian psychoanalysts called the "narcissistic mask".

At Zayed University, my colleagues and I are conducting a research programme focused on emotions titled "Arabia Felix", exploring the narcissistic mask concept in the UAE. Psychological assessments of narcissism are fairly straightforward based on validated self-report inventory.

More difficult, however, is the examination of negative beliefs that may underpin narcissism. To explore such preconscious beliefs, psychologists tend to use what we call "implicit measures". In our study, the measure used is known as the incidental learning task.

We gave 200 participants a list of adjectives, to which they responded "like me" or "not like me". Positive adjectives included great, loveable and spectacular, while negative ones included dishonest, loser and failure. Not surprisingly, narcissistic individuals tended to identify with more of the positive descriptors.

However, when later asked to recall the list, the same individuals tended to recall more negative adjectives than positive ones. This pattern is taken as evidence of unconscious negative beliefs influencing how information is processed.

The bias towards remembering negative adjectives is shared by people suffering from major depressive episodes. Perhaps the narcissistic mask is a dysfunctional defence against the same feelings of low self-worth that characterise depression. The key difference, however, is that narcissists would tend not to seek help. Why would they?

The moral of this story is that we might want to reconsider lavishing praise on mediocrity. In the long run, celebrating middling performance as though it's outstanding may actually do more harm than good. The bitter truth is that not everyone is a star performer. If they were, then this concept would be absolutely meaningless.


Justin Thomas is an assistant professor of psychology at Zayed University