It’s difficult to live with a person high in narcissism, whose grandiosity and need for admiration can become exhausting. Why, then, are we so attracted to such individuals in public life? A celebrity’s attention-grabbing behavior is endlessly fascinating, and a politician’s grandiosity becomes equally compelling. It’s as if we can never get enough of the narcissist’s public performance, even while in private, such behavior makes us want to run in the opposite direction. New research on the 2016 U.S. presidential candidates by University of British Columbia’s Sara Ahmadian and colleagues (2017) provides a case study in the grandiose communication style and how it produces loyal fans.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D. s currently a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The author of over 160 refereed articles and book chapters and 16 books (many in multiple editions and translations), her most recent popular work is The Search for Fulfillment (January 2010, Ballantine Books).
Editor: Talha Khalid
We know that narcissism has differing effects on relationship success. The initial attraction you feel toward a potential romantic partner who’s high in the self-promoting aspect of narcissism sours later in the relationship, when that same individual’s narcissism turns into a nasty form of rivalry. Obviously, we don’t get to know public figures well enough to be able to enter that second relationship phase. That first self-aggrandizing and self-confident mode of their behaviors is all we really get to see.
Acknowledging the attractiveness of the narcissist’s grandiose style, Ahmadian and her research team analyzed the campaign speeches used by the presidential contenders in the primaries to measure grandiosity by looking for particular words. The most obvious is “I-talk,” which is a “concrete index” of self-focus (p. 50). Although not correlated with an individual’s self-ratings of narcissism, I-talk does seem to lead observers to conclude individuals high in this tendency are arrogant, but insecure. The Canadian researchers, believing Donald Trump to be “a paragon of grandiosity” (p. 49), proposed that his speeches would be high in both I-talk and grandiose talk in general.
Grandiosity may be effective as a speaking style, but to seal the deal, politicians also use other tactics, including speaking informally to audiences, putting messages out through social media, and using certain vocal qualities when they talk. Previous research cited by Ahmadian et al. point to the positive impact of having an attractive voice. Men who manage to sway their audiences speak in lower-pitched voices and vary their speech dynamics. This vocal style leads us to perceive them as dynamic, extraverted, and charismatic.
Earning someone’s trust is more about projecting a winning personality than just seeming to have a grandiose sense of self-confidence. The UBC psychologists tested the impact of the style and content of three speeches made by nine leading Republican contenders for the 2016 nomination by downloading videos from YouTube lasting at least 30 minutes. The first set of analyses involved presenting transcripts of these speeches to coders blind to the name of the speaker. Because some of the speeches received such wide coverage, the researchers told the coders that these speeches were made by candidates for prime minister of the United Kingdom. Names of the American cities referenced in the speeches were changed to names of their British equivalents. (Nevertheless, one coder correctly identified Trump’s speeches, and so this coder’s ratings weren’t used.)
The researchers instructed their raters to use boasting as the criterion for ratings of grandiosity in speech content, defining boasting as “talking with excessive pride and self-satisfaction about one’s achievements, possessions, or abilities." Saying, “I am really rich” counts as one boast, and saying “I am really rich and have a gold-coated car” counts as two (p. 51). Computers tackled the measurement of “I-talk” by counting the proportion of “I,” “me,” and “mine” in the speeches.
The computerized speech analysis also rated the informality of the candidates' speaking styles. The researchers believed that more informal speeches would also be more compelling. Some measures of informality included “net-speak” (btw, lol, or thx), fillers (“I mean” or “you know”), speaking in short sentences, and using words with fewer than 6 letters. The gist of this measure was using language that “focuses on the present and personal experiences” (p. 51), rather than being more thoughtful or analytical. Twitter use by the candidates also became part of the mix, reflecting another informal type of communication. To assess vocal quality, another computer program rated the mean pitch (high or low tones) and variance (soft to loud) of the speeches as obtained from the videos.
Using all components of their speeches (and Twitter) combined, the authors reported that — as they predicted — Donald Trump scored highest on the factors that ultimately swayed Republican voters. Bolstering these findings was the fact that the speeches were obtained early in the primary process, before anyone’s eventual success or failure could have influenced what they said.
The findings say as much about we as recipients of communication as they do about the candidates, or any public figures trying to sway us to their side. As the authors concluded, “person evaluations appear to be associated with indirect non-verbal information such as voice quality and word usage” (p. 52). It takes less effort to process these cues than to dig into the content of what people are actually saying, which is why short, sweet, and informal works so well in message delivery. Being able to sway with a voice that varies, goes from soft to loud and back again, seems to seal the deal.
Although this was a study of political candidates, there are important lessons that seem to have more general value. Whenever you feel instantly drawn to someone trying to change your mind about something, stop and ask yourself whether you’re falling for the person or the product. That salesperson trying to induce you to spend more on a phone or TV than you intended to will use these tactics of aiming to appear dynamic, dominant, charismatic, and attractive. In romantic relationships, you may be lured into believing the grandiose communicator who presents a compelling message. Even if you’re not sure you can detect all of these nonverbal qualities, you can at least count “I-talk” without much effort.
We’ll never know why grandiosity is such an effective way to win people over, and as the Canadian authors suggest, it may be that such messages trigger unconscious responses in us. Finding long-term fulfillment with others—politicians, salespersons, or potential romantic partners—means being able to sift through the speech and get to the substance.