Sep. 1, 2011 at 9:53 AM ET
Narcissists are well aware of their me-first tendencies and may not be completely clueless of how their personalities and reputations come across to others, a new study claims. This finding challenges the belief that people with super-sized egos -- and even bigger heads -- lack self-insight.
In a study cleverly titled "You Probably Think This Paper's About You" in the July issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers were surprised to find that narcissists did, in fact, see themselves as narcissistic and realized that other people view them less positively as they see themselves.
A narcissist is someone who is arrogant and condescending, enjoys bragging and arguing, and often tries to be the center of attention, says Erika Carlson, a graduate student in psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, and the study's lead author.
Carlson and her research team wanted to determine to what extent the perceptions of people who are full of themselves varies based on how they view themselves, how they are seen by others, and how they believe others see them.
One experiment looked at 110 college students (41 men, 69 women) who worked in small groups once a week throughout a semester. During the first and last week they met, each group rated its members on 10 personality traits and classmates also completed self-evaluation forms.
As expected, folks who think they're special scored themselves higher on positive characteristics, such as intelligence, likability, and physical attractiveness. Even though they made good first impressions with their peers, those lofty views soured over time but narcissists realized that their reputations had taken a hit.
"If you told narcissists that they are 'narcissistic' and that others don't see them as positively as they see themselves, they would not be surprised," points out Carlson. And while college is an age when young people appear more self-absorbed, Carlson speculates that even if her research participants included middle-age and older narcissists, the results might be similar if not more extreme.
She suspects that although narcissists would receive feedback about their behavior, they probably think others don't see their brilliance because they're jealous or not smart enough to recognize it.
A second experiment involved 274 Air Force recruits (154 men, 120 women) who had spent six weeks together in basic training. Unlike the previous study, the recruits knew each other better than mere acquaintances, and scientists used a clinical tool to measure narcissism instead of self-reported information.
Researchers found once again that people who were the most self-centered viewed themselves that way and believed their coworkers would perceive them as big-headed, too.
"Narcissists know that others do not share their positive self-views," says Carlson. But her hunch is these self-absorbed individuals view their narcissism as a character strength that brings them personal gain and helps them get ahead.
When asked how best to handle the narcissists in our lives, Carlson suggests, "My guess is the trick is to use their desire for respect and status as a carrot to evoke positive changes."
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