The Oxford Dictionary defines narcissism as “selfishness, involving a sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy, and a need for admiration, as characterizing a personality type.” It is a personality disorder that is thought to affect roughly 1 percent of the population (including, it may seem, certain politicians and Silicon Valley CEOs) but it can take on different forms depending on, among other things, your upbringing.
We know that it can influence seemingly trivial habits from how you take your coffee to who you follow on Instagram, and there is even research to suggest that while it may be damaging to people around you, it can, in fact, pay to be a narcissist. But what exactly makes one person a clinically diagnosed narcissist – and another not?
A study recently published in the Journal of Research in Personality set out to replicate an influential 2007 study led by W. Keith Campbell at the University of Georgia, using a sample size five times larger than the original experiment. According to researchers from the University of Potsdam, Ramzi Fatfouta and Michela Schröder-Abé, this is the first attempt to reproduce Campbell's study.
Campbell's work destroyed the "mask theory" of narcissism. That is, that a narcissist's conscious expression of grandiosity and self-importance masks a subconscious feeling of self-loathing. Instead, he found that narcissists possessed very favorable views of themselves consciously and subconsciously – provided they felt they held some kind of agency over that particular character trait. So, for example, a narcissistic person might genuinely believe that they are far more intelligent and ambitious than the average person on the street. Yet, in the experiment, they didn't rate themselves any higher on so-called "communal traits", such as kindness and emotional intimacy. On these, they were neither positive nor negative, but neutral.
Alas, Fatfouta and Schröder-Abé were unable to fully replicate the study. The researchers had 730 volunteers complete a set of self-esteem tests and computer-based word association games, but they did not find a correlation between high narcissistic scores and positive self-assessments on "agentic traits", such as status, intelligence, and ambition. As with the communal traits, their subconscious assessments of their agentic traits were neutral.
However, like Campbell, the researchers agree the mask theory of narcissism doesn't hold up.
In sum, the study authors' write, “Narcissists do not seem to dislike (or like) themselves deep down inside.” Adding, “We conclude that narcissists’ implicit self-views may be more neutral than positive or may depend on other contextual factors.”
So, basically, we are no closer to working out exactly what makes a narcissist tick. And perhaps, just as there are different types of narcissism, there is no one-size-fits-all explanation.