Narcissism has been conceptualized as involving attempts to defend against negative self-schemata (implicit negative beliefs about one's own self-worth). This idea has been termed the ‘mask model of narcissism’. This study explores the mask model, examining the association between extreme narcissistic personality traits and performance on a task purported to assess the influence of negative self-schemata. Participants (n = 232) from the UK and the UAE completed the Narcissistic Personality Inventory and also performed an incidental learning task involving the surprise recall of self-referential adjectives (traits). A greater recall of negative adjectives was viewed as indicative of negative self-schemata. Looking at the sample as a whole, there were no associations between narcissistic traits and negative adjective recall. However, amongst those scoring in the upper quartile of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, narcissism scores were positively correlated with the recall of negative adjectives even after controlling for age and memory. Narcissism may reflect self-enhancement strategies rooted in negative self-beliefs. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.