Plenty of people high in narcissism can be spotted right away. These grandiose narcissists constantly try to draw attention to themselves, even—or especially—at the expense of others. They feel entitled to special treatment and become enraged when they don’t get it. Another type, the vulnerable narcissist, also needs reassurance, but their insecurities are not expressed as overtly. Still, they can be entitled and exploitative.
How can you spot people whose narcissism is expressed more subtly? New research on the well-being of people high in narcissism provides ideas on how to pick them out of a crowd.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. is 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.
Editor: Talha Khalid
Psychologists typically conceptualize narcissism as a trait that you’re born, live, and die with: You spend the majority of your life seeking constant attention. Researchers Miranda Giacomin and Christian Jordan of Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario decided to examine “state” narcissism—one's narcissism on a given day. After observing considerable variation in narcissism scores within the same people, tested over a 10-day period, they proposed that situations can amplify or reduce someone’s narcissistic tendencies. If you’re exposed to another person’s suffering, even if you’re relatively high in narcissism, you may, on that day or in that moment, become more empathic.
Giacomin and Jordan believe that one of the factors affecting, or perhaps reflecting, these day-to-day variations in narcissism might be a person’s feelings of subjective well-being. This can work both ways, of course: On a day when you’re feeling good, your self-esteemis higher, and you’ll be more likely to endorse statements in which you express greater grandiosity. Conversely, you tap into your inner narcissist to boost your self-esteem if you’re feeling down.
The research team approached the daily vacillations in narcissism and well-being by having a group of undergraduates complete a narcissism scale during a 14-day period in which the reference point was “right now” instead of more generally. The researchers also gauged students' overall narcissism and self-esteem through their self-ratings, as well as their daily self-esteem, life satisfaction, and affect. As the researchers found in a prior study, there was about a 25 percent daily variation in narcissism. Consistent with predictions, the participants who scored high in daily narcissism also felt more satisfied with life in general.
Contrary to prediction, though, on days that people scored high in narcissism, they also scored higher on negative affect—in particular, the emotion of anger. As the authors conclude, “Narcissists are known to react aggressively and become more hostile when their positive self views are threatened." In other words, if people feel narcissistic on any given day, instead of feeling good, they become offended more readily and are more likely to snap.
The other key finding of the study is that on days when people were high in narcissism, they weren’t likely to have higher self-esteem. People high in the trait quality of narcissism, though, do feel better about themselves in general. It is possible that the daily variations in narcissism are more affected by people’s emotional lives than by their self-concept. Anger, guilt, and fear can all trigger the need to protect yourself from what you perceive to be insults or slights, and lead you to become more arrogant and manipulative.
We know from this study that people aren’t necessarily consistently high in narcissism, which means that your narcissistic antennae may have to become more attuned to daily variations in the people with whom you live and work. It’s not enough to assume that a given individual is always a narcissist.
This research informs the following six subtle cues for detecting someone high in narcissism:
They react in an aggrieved way when they feel they’re treated poorly.
The Canadian study suggests that when people are feeling narcissistic, they are more sensitive to rejection and criticism. If you inadvertently insult or criticize someone, a person high in narcissism will take your comment the wrong way.
They annoy you in ways you don’t understand.
The anger that people experience on days that they’re feeling narcissistic can reveal how you feel about the person. Something might put you off and you can’t figure out why, but it turns out to be their own antagonism.
They think rules don't apply to them and break them in small, but consistent ways.
People who consistently feel entitled will not feel that they need to go along with the rules of the household, relationship, or office. You can’t quite put your finger on this, because they don’t openly confront or challenge you, but they slip in little actions that show they think they’re above everyone else. For example, you ask a co-worker to note any days off on the group calendar, and he or she “forgets” to do so.
They are not easily coached, if at all.
When people think they’re above everyone else, they aren't easy to instruct or guide. Somehow they just can’t seem to learn to check on what they’re supposed to or fix a mistake they’ve made. They may constantly ask you for guidance, and then not follow it.
They change schedules and appointments for no reason.
You’ve got a coffee date, and your friend or colleague lets you know at the last minute that it’s not going to work for them. Asking people to reschedule, especially on short notice, is a subtle (and annoying) way for people to express their narcissism.
They communicate in "all caps."
People high in narcissism, whether characteristically or on a given day, may try demand your immediate attention. Because it affects them, it’s urgent. If it's a conversation you're having in person, rather than over email, you may feel that what's being said could be translated into words appearing all in capital letters, along with a few extra exclamation points.
People high in the trait of narcissism can be difficult to live or work with. Recognizing that the factors that bring out narcissism can play a role in either heightening or dampening an individual’s tendencies on a given day may give you a way to help the people you care about be a little more empathic and tolerant. If stepping on the toes of someone with narcissistic tendencies leads to unpleasant interactions, perhaps by being a little nicer, we will all get along better.