Narcissism is the personality trait of egotism, vanity, conceit, or simple selfishness. Applied to a social group, it is sometimes used to denote elitism or an indifference to the plight of others.
The name "narcissism" was coined by Freud after Narcissus who in Greek myth was a pathologically self-absorbed young man who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool. Freud believed that some narcissism is an essential part of all of us from birth. Andrew P. Morrison claims that, in adults, a reasonable amount of healthy narcissism allows the individual's perception of his needs to be balanced in relation to others. In Spanish, especially in Spain, where psychoanalysis is not used in public health, the word "narcissism" has a different meaning, i.e., "overindulgence at considering one's faculties or acts". Thus, the term "healthy narcissism" is replaced by "healthy self-love".
Some experts believe a disproportionate number of pathological narcissists are at work in the most influential reaches of society such as medicine, finance and politics.
Mythological sourceIn Greek mythology, Narcissus was a handsome Greek youth who had never seen his reflection. The nymph Echo had been punished by Hera for gossiping by being cursed to forever "have the last word". Echo had seen Narcissus walking through the forest and wanted to talk to him, but because of the curse she wasn't able to speak first. When Narcissus became thirsty and stopped to take a drink, he saw his reflection in the water for the first time. Not knowing any better, he fell in love and started talking to it. Echo had been following him and started repeating the last thing he said. Not yet understanding reflections, Narcissus thought his reflection was speaking to him and became more engaged. Unable to consummate his love, Narcissus pined away at the pool and changed into the flower that bears his name, the narcissus.
HistoryThe concept of excessive selfishness has been recognized throughout history. In ancient Greece the concept was understood as hubris. It is only in recent times that it has been defined in psychological terms.
- In 1898 Havelock Ellis, an English sexologist, used the term "narcissus-like" in reference to excessive masturbation, whereby the person becomes his or her own sex object.
- In 1899, Paul Näche was the first person to use the term "narcissism" in a study of sexual perversions.
- Otto Rank in 1911 published the first psychoanalytical paper specifically concerned with narcissism, linking it to vanity and self-admiration.
- Sigmund Freud published a paper exclusively devoted to narcissism in 1914 called On Narcissism: An Introduction.
- In 1923, Martin Buber published an essay "Ich und Du" (I and Thou), in which he pointed out that our narcissism often leads us to relate to others as objects instead of as equals.
- Since 2000, on psychological tests designed to detect narcissism, the scores of residents of the United States have continually increased. Psychologists have suggested a link to social networking.
Impact of healthy vs. destructive narcissism on organizationsLubit compared healthy and destructive narcissism in relation to their long-term impact on organizations.
|Characteristic||Healthy Narcissism||Destructive Narcissism|
|Self-confidence||High outward self-confidence in line with reality||An unrealistic sense of superiority ("Grandiose")|
|Desire for power, wealth and admiration||May enjoy power||Pursues power at all costs, lacks normal inhibitions in its pursuit|
|Relationships||Real concern for others and their ideas; does not exploit or devalue others||Concerns limited to expressing socially appropriate response when convenient; devalues and exploits others without remorse|
|Ability to follow a consistent path||Has values; follows through on plans||Lacks values; easily bored; often changes course|
Healthy childhood with support for self-esteem and appropriate limits on behaviour towards others
|Traumatic childhood undercutting true sense of self-esteem and/or learning that he/she doesn't need to be considerate of others|
Empirical studiesWithin psychology, there are two main branches of research into narcissism, clinical and social psychology. These approaches differ in their view of narcissism with the former treating it as a disorder, thus as discrete, and the latter treating it as a personality trait, thus as a continuum. These two strands of research tend loosely to stand in a divergent relation to one another, although they converge in places.
Campbell and Foster (2007) review the literature on narcissism. They argue that narcissists possess the following "basic ingredients":
- Positive: Narcissists think they are better than others.
- Inflated: Narcissists' views tend to be contrary to reality. In measures that compare self-report to objective measures, narcissists' self-views tend to be greatly exaggerated.
- Agentic: Narcissists’ views tend to be most exaggerated in the agentic domain, relative to the communion domain.
- Special: Narcissists perceive themselves to be unique and special people.
- Selfish: Research upon narcissists’ behaviour in resource dilemmas supports the case for narcissists as being selfish.
- Oriented toward success: Narcissists are oriented towards success by being, for example, approach oriented.
Campbell and Foster (2007) argue that self-regulatory strategies are of paramount importance to understanding narcissism. Self-regulation in narcissists involves such things as striving to make one’s self look and feel positive, special, successful and important. It comes in both intra-psychic, such as blaming a situation rather than self for failure, and interpersonal forms, such as using a relationship to serve one’s own self. Some differences in self-regulation between narcissists and non-narcissists can be seen with Campbell, Reeder, Sedikides & Elliot (2000) who conducted a study with two experiments. In each experiment, participants took part in an achievement task, following which they were provided with false feedback; it was either bogus success or failure. The study found that both narcissists and non-narcissists self-enhanced, but non-narcissists showed more flexibility in doing so. Participants were measured on both a comparative and a non-comparative self-enhancement strategy. Both narcissists and non-narcissists employed the non-comparative strategy similarly; however, narcissists were found to be more self-serving with the comparative strategy, employing it far more than non-narcissists, suggesting a greater rigidity in their self-enhancement. When narcissists receive negative feedback that threatens the self, they self-enhance at all costs, but non-narcissists tend to have limits.
Narcissistic personality disorderAlthough most individuals have some narcissistic traits, high levels of narcissism can manifest themselves as a pathological form as narcissistic personality disorder, whereby the patient overestimates his or her abilities and has an excessive need for admiration and affirmation. NPD is a condition defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders version 4, but a proposal has been made to remove it from the DSM-5.
Narcissistic traitsThomas suggests that narcissists typically display most, sometimes all, of the following traits:
- An obvious self-focus in interpersonal exchanges
- Problems in sustaining satisfying relationships
- A lack of psychological awareness (see insight in psychology and psychiatry, egosyntonic)
- Difficulty with empathy
- Problems distinguishing the self from others (see narcissism and boundaries)
- Hypersensitivity to any sleights or imagined insults (see criticism and narcissists, narcissistic rage and narcissistic injury)
- Vulnerability to shame rather than guilt
- Haughty body language
- Flattery towards people who admire and affirm him or her
- Detesting those who do not admire him or her
- Using other people without considering the cost to them of his or her doing so
- Pretending to be more important than he or she is
- Bragging (subtly but persistently) and exaggerating his or her achievements
- Claiming to be an "expert" at most things
- Inability to view the world from the perspective of other people
- Denial of remorse and gratitude