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Previous studies have found that narcissistic individuals are often viewed negatively by those who know them well. The present study sought to extend these previous findings by examining whether normal and pathological aspects of narcissism were associated with perceiver ratings of narcissistic characteristics and aggression. This was accomplished by having each of our undergraduate participants (288 targets) recruit friends or family members to complete ratings of the target who recruited them (1,296 perceivers). Results revealed that perceived entitlement was strongly associated with perceived aggression. Further, self-reported levels of pathological narcissism moderated these results such that vulnerable narcissism exacerbated the association between perceived entitlement and aggression, whereas grandiose narcissism mitigated the association. The discussion will focus on the implications of these results for understanding the various features of narcissism.
Narcissism is a form of self-love that involves arrogance and self-absorption. It has been suggested that narcissistic individuals seek self-affirming feedback from their social environments because they possess self-concepts that are simultaneously grandiose and vulnerable to threat (Morf & Rhodewalt, 2001). This view of narcissism suggests that many of the attributes that characterize narcissistic individuals are largely by-products of their attempts to maintain their tenuous feelings of self-worth through a dynamic interplay of intrapersonal mechanisms (e.g., overestimating their attractiveness and intelligence; Gabriel, Critelli, & Ee, 1994) and interpersonal processes (e.g., derogating others; Morf & Rhodewalt, 1993; Smalley & Stake, 1996). The interpersonal strategies that narcissistic individuals employ are intended to elicit the respect and admiration of others, but these strategies are often unsuccessful because they unintentionally alienate and frustrate others through their attempts to dominate and exploit those who are close to them (Raskin, Novacek, & Hogan, 1991; Rhodewalt & Morf, 1995). As a result, narcissistic individuals are often denied the respect and admiration they crave so desperately. This cycle of paradoxical and counterproductive behaviors results in individuals with narcissistic tendencies struggling to maintain and defend a self-image that seems to be constantly under threat and on the verge of collapse.
The problematic interpersonal relationships that characterize individuals with narcissistic tendencies led us to wonder how these individuals are perceived by others in their social environments. As a result of our interest in this issue, the purpose of the present study was to examine how individuals with narcissistic personality features are viewed by other individuals who are close to them. We were interested in whether individuals could detect specific narcissistic characteristics in a target (i.e., grandiosity and entitlement) and how these characteristics would influence perceptions of the target on other dimensions (i.e., aggression). That is, we wanted to understand the extent to which self-other agreement exists for narcissistic characteristics and whether this particular form of self-other agreement is associated with the perception of targets in other areas.
Previous research has examined related issues concerning the perception of narcissistic individuals, and these studies provided a foundation for the present investigation. First, narcissism appears to be a characteristic that can easily be identified by others even if the perceivers are provided with only very basic information about the target. For example, narcissistic characteristics have been accurately identified by perceivers using only a still photograph of the target (Vazire, Naumann, Rentfrow, & Gosling, 2008). These judgments were based on physical cues displayed by narcissistic individuals, such as their style of clothing (i.e., stylish, expensive, flashy, or revealing), greater adornment (e.g., the use of makeup for women), and an organized and neat appearance that required considerable preparation. These results suggest that narcissistic individuals either intentionally or unintentionally alter their appearance in such a way that their narcissistic tendencies can be detected by others. The distinctive characteristics associated with narcissism are not limited to physical appearance, however, because narcissistic individuals have been found to be more extraverted, disagreeable, and sexualized than other individuals in a study using an Electronically Activated Recorder system that captured audio samples of their naturalistic daily behavior (Holtzman, Vazire, & Mehl, 2010). The results of these studies are consistent with the predictions of the status-signaling model of self-esteem (e.g., Zeigler-Hill, Besser, Myers, Southard, & Malkin, ; Zeigler-Hill & Myers, 2009, 2011), which proposes that individuals will display signals of status to the members of their social environment in an effort to influence how they are perceived. This suggests that narcissistic individuals may dress provocatively or behave in a sexualized manner in an effort to cultivate a particular image that will allow them to gain the social advantages that accompany these behaviors (e.g., romantic desirability, perceived competence).
Second, perceptions of individuals with narcissistic tendencies are initially very positive but become increasingly negative over time. For example, narcissistic individuals were generally rated as very popular by unacquainted individuals who met them during a laboratory session in which everyone was asked to briefly introduce himself or herself to the group (Back, Schmukle, & Egloff, 2010). Similar evaluations emerged for judges who were shown videos of these introductions. This pattern continued to emerge even when the information in the video was systematically restricted (i.e., no audio or shown only a still image). Results similar to these have emerged in other studies (e.g., Friedman, Oltmanns, Gleason, & Turkheimer, 2006). Although narcissistic individuals are viewed positively during initial encounters, these perceptions shift over time such that narcissistic individuals are viewed quite negatively as others actually get to know them (Carlson, Vazire, & Oltmanns, 2011; Paulhus, 1998). That is, narcissistic individuals tend to be very popular with others at first, but their charm is often not enough to compensate for some of their other characteristics that are socially maladaptive (e.g., willingness to exploit others). The shifting view of individuals with narcissistic tendencies appears to be due in large part to their chronic reliance on self-enhancement strategies (Colvin, Block, & Funder, 1995; John & Robins, 1994; Paulhus, 1998; Robins & Beer, 2001). Although individuals who are not particularly narcissistic also use self-enhancement strategies to regulate their self-esteem, a critical difference is that narcissistic individuals employ these strategies more frequently and with less flexibility than other individuals. For example, individuals with narcissistic personality features tend to use self-enhancing strategies even when this means comparing oneself favorably to a relational partner, which is something that other individuals usually avoid doing because it may be harmful to their relationships (Campbell, Reeder, Sedikides, & Elliot, 2000).
Third, narcissistic individuals are often described by those who are acquainted with them in a less than flattering manner. For example, narcissistic individuals are often referred to by others as conceited, competitive, disagreeable, hostile, selfish, or aggressive (Back et al., 2010; Golmaryami & Barry, 2010; Raskin et al., 1991). Many of these descriptors appear to be the inadvertent result of the strategies that narcissistic individuals employ to protect and maintain their grandiose yet vulnerable self-concepts (Back et al., 2010). Although narcissistic individuals express very positive self-views, these individuals are not viewed nearly as positively by others because of their selfish and arrogant interpersonal behaviors. Thus, the short-term gains afforded to narcissistic individuals (e.g., they are generally thought to be charismatic during initial encounters) may be more than offset by the long-term damage to their interpersonal relationships and their social reputations (e.g., they are viewed as disagreeable and hostile by those who know them well). It is important to note that narcissistic individuals display at least some degree of awareness that they tend to see themselves more positively than others see them and are often willing to describe themselves using narcissistic labels such as arrogant (Carlson et al., 2011).
Narcissism is a complex and multifaceted construct that is viewed somewhat differently by clinical psychologists and social-personality psychologists. This distinction is critical because the vast majority of research that has been conducted concerning the perception of narcissistic individuals has relied on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI; Raskin & Terry, 1988), which is favored by social-personality psychologists. The NPI was developed according to diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) but appears to assess a somewhat emotionally resilient and extraverted aspect of narcissism (Miller & Campbell, 2008; Pincus & Lukowitsky, 2010). The aspect of narcissism captured by the NPI is thought to be largely adaptive, with its maladaptive features being limited for the most part to feelings of entitlement and the tendency to exploit others. In contrast, clinical psychologists focus more of their attention on the maladaptive aspects of narcissism, such as emotional instability and the tendency to experience negative emotions (Miller & Campbell, 2008; Pincus & Lukowitsky, 2010). Clinical depictions of narcissism often portray the construct as being similar to a borderline personality organization (e.g., Kernberg, 1975), which is consistent with the classification of NPD as a Cluster B personality disorder alongside borderline personality disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).
The Pathological Narcissism Inventory (PNI; Pincus et al., 2009) was recently developed to capture the maladaptive features of narcissism that are often of interest to clinical psychologists. These differences in measurement and conceptualization often lead clinical psychologists to emphasize the pathological aspects of narcissism and social-personality psychologists to focus their attention on the somewhat more adaptive or “normal” aspects of narcissism (see Miller & Campbell, 2008, or Pincus & Lukowitsky, 2010, for extended discussions). Consistent with the previous literature, we will refer to these aspects of narcissism as pathological narcissism and normal narcissism, respectively. Normal narcissism consists of both adaptive and maladaptive features, so the use of the term normal should not be conflated with the idea of psychological health. According to this view, both normal and pathological aspects of narcissism contain maladaptive features, but they differ with regard to the emphasis that is placed on these features.
Overview and Predictions
The present study was an attempt to improve our understanding of how individuals with narcissistic personality features are perceived by others. This study extends previous research by (a) incorporating self-reports of both normal and pathological aspects of narcissism, (b) measuring the perceived grandiosity and entitlement of the targets, and (c) examining whether self-other agreement concerning narcissistic characteristics would predict ratings of aggression provided for the targets by the perceivers. We included self-reports of both normal and pathological narcissism in an attempt to account for the complexity of narcissism. The assessment of pathological narcissism is still in its earliest stages, so very little is known about how individuals with pathological forms of narcissism are perceived by others. Our decision to assess the perceived grandiosity and entitlement of targets was based on the work of Brown, Budzek, and Tamborski 2009, who argue that grandiosity is a somewhat adaptive feature of narcissism that is largely intrapersonal in nature, whereas entitlement is a relatively maladaptive feature of narcissism that is primarily interpersonal.
Our first prediction was that perceived narcissistic characteristics—especially entitlement—would be closely associated with perceptions of the aggressiveness of the targets. We decided to use perceived aggression as our outcome measure because aggressive behavior is an externalizing problem that is commonly associated with narcissism and can readily be observed by other individuals. The aggressiveness of individuals with narcissistic personality features has been observed in studies relying on self-reports of aggressive tendencies (Bushman, Bonacci, van Dijk, & Baumeister, 2003; Locke, 2008; Lustman, Wiesenthal, & Flett, 2010), observations of daily aggressive behavior (Holtzman et al., 2010), experimental manipulations of aggressive behavior (Bushman & Baumeister, 1998, 2002; Konrath, Bushman, & Campbell, 2006; Papps & O'Carroll, 1998; Thomaes, Bushman, Stegge, & Olthof, 2008; Twenge & Campbell, 2003), and reports by other individuals concerning the aggressive behavior of the target (Barry et al., 2007; Golmaryami & Barry, 2010; Kerig & Stellwagen, 2010; Washburn, McMahon, King, Reinecke, & Silver, 2004). The existing literature suggests that aggression plays a particularly important role in the interpersonal relationships of narcissistic individuals (e.g., DeWall, Buffardi, Bonser, & Campbell, 2011; Reidy, Foster, & Zeichner, 2010). These results are consistent with the fact that narcissistic individuals tend to possess interpersonal styles that blend hostility and dominance (Ruiz, Smith, & Rhodewalt, 2001). We expected that targets who were perceived as entitled by their friends and family members would be viewed by those individuals as more aggressive than those who are not perceived as entitled. The basis for this prediction was that entitlement captures the mentality that “others exist for me” (Sedikides, Campbell, Reeder, Elliot, & Gregg, 2002), which may influence the interpersonal behavior of narcissistic individuals and contribute to their aggressive behavior.
Our second prediction was that self-reported narcissistic tendencies would moderate the association between perceived narcissistic characteristics and perceived aggression. That is, we believed that an association would emerge between perceptions of aggression in the targets and the extent to which self-other agreement existed concerning the narcissistic characteristics of the target. More specifically, we expected the relatively adaptive features of narcissism (e.g., grandiosity) to act as a protective factor against negative perceptions such as being viewed as aggressive, whereas the relatively maladaptive features of narcissism (e.g., narcissistic vulnerability) were expected to exacerbate negative perceptions. As a result, we predicted that individuals who expressed the maladaptive forms of narcissism would be perceived as especially aggressive when there was a high level of self-other agreement (i.e., others detected their narcissistic tendencies). This is the most novel of our predictions and the primary focus of the present study. The underlying rationale for this prediction was that the adaptive and maladaptive aspects of narcissism would influence how others interpret their perceived grandiosity and entitlement. We expected the adaptive aspects of narcissism to protect individuals from being perceived as highly aggressive even when the individual came across as narcissistic to others. We believe that others may interpret narcissistic characteristics—such as entitlement—in a less aggressive manner when they are coupled with the more adaptive aspects of narcissism (e.g., the charm that often accompanies some forms of narcissistic grandiosity). This means that certain forms of narcissism may counteract the negative impressions that often go along with narcissistic features such as entitlement. In contrast, we believed the maladaptive aspects of narcissism would foster especially aggressive perceptions of the target when he or she was thought to be behaving in an entitled manner. This prediction was based on the idea that the negative aspects of narcissism—such as emotional reactivity—may serve to amplify the attention that is given to other qualities such as entitlement or aggression. This prediction emphasizes the reciprocal influence of the self and the social environment in a manner that is consistent with previous research demonstrating the dynamic interplay of perceptions between the individual and others (e.g., Madon et al., 2001; Major, Cozzarelli, Testa, & McFarlin, 1988; McNulty & Swann, 1994; Swann & Ely, 1984). Although we had clear predictions concerning the perceptions that would accompany adaptive and maladaptive aspects of narcissism, there are certain facets of narcissism that do not fit neatly into either of these categories. For example, narcissistic features reflecting grandiosity may be seen as adaptive for the individual because grandiosity is associated with self-reported positive outcomes, but it may be detrimental to how the individual is perceived by others because grandiose individuals may appear to be arrogant or conceited. As a result of this complexity, we did not make specific predictions for each facet of narcissism that we included.
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The purpose of the present study was to examine how self-reported narcissistic personality features and perceived narcissistic tendencies influenced how individuals were viewed by others who are close to them. We were interested in these associations because of their potential to help us gain a better understanding of the interpersonal problems that often characterize those with narcissistic tendencies. We focused on perceived aggression because of the extensive literature demonstrating a connection between narcissism and aggression (e.g., Bushman & Baumeister, 1998). The results provided support for our prediction that perceived narcissistic characteristics would be associated with perceived aggression. More specifically, perceived entitlement was positively associated with each of the six forms of perceived aggression assessed in the present study. This suggests that individuals who are perceived as entitled are viewed as being particularly aggressive regardless of the specific form or function of aggression. In contrast, perceived grandiosity was only weakly associated with one form of perceived aggression (i.e., instrumental overt aggression). The association between perceived grandiosity and instrumental overt aggression may reflect the assumption that individuals with grandiose tendencies are sometimes willing to engage in direct forms of aggression in order to get what they want from others. Taken together, these results suggest that entitlement may be the “toxic” component of narcissism to the extent that it fosters negative views of the individual who is perceived as feeling entitled. This finding is consistent with previous suggestions that entitlement is the core interpersonal feature of narcissism, whereas grandiosity is largely intrapersonal in nature (Brown et al., 2009). Additional research is needed to determine whether the toxicity of perceived entitlement is unique to aggression or whether it influences how narcissistic individuals are viewed across various dimensions, including romantic desirability and perceived competence.
Consistent with previous studies (e.g., Vazire et al., 2008), perceivers were able to recognize the narcissistic characteristics of the targets, but this effect was stronger for targets with certain types of narcissistic features. For example, individuals who reported high scores on the NPI Grandiose Exhibitionism subscale were given generally high ratings by perceivers for both grandiosity and entitlement, which suggests that there is at least some level of self-other agreement for narcissistic features when using NPI Grandiose Exhibitionism as the indicator of narcissism. The exhibitionism element of NPI Grandiose Exhibitionism may be the social component of this form of normal narcissism that makes it relatively easy for others to detect. That is, individuals who tend to endorse items such as “I know that I am good because everybody keeps telling me so” may be likely to behave in ways that communicate their feelings of grandiosity and entitlement to others. It is important to note, however, that the levels of agreement between the other self-reported narcissistic personality features and perceived narcissistic tendencies would best be described as weak, inconsistent, or nonexistent. This pattern suggests that there are differences concerning the extent to which individuals with various features of narcissism appear “narcissistic” to others. It is possible that this was due to the fact that the assessments of perceived narcissistic characteristics were limited to grandiosity and entitlement for the present study. As a result, it is possible that other narcissistic characteristics (e.g., willingness to exploit others) may be more closely associated with self-reported narcissistic features than was observed for grandiosity and entitlement. It is also possible that the low levels of self-other agreement that emerged for some facets of narcissism were a function of the willingness of individuals to admit that they possessed certain narcissistic features. It may be the case that narcissistic individuals are more willing to acknowledge some aspects of narcissism (e.g., grandiosity) than to admit that they possess some of the more maladaptive features of narcissism (e.g., entitlement). Future research should address this issue more directly.
The link between narcissistic features and perceived aggression was also examined. Individuals who reported high levels of the vulnerable form of pathological narcissism were viewed as relatively aggressive by their friends and family members, which may have been a result of the difficulties that vulnerable narcissists have regulating their emotional expressions. The emotional dysregulation that characterizes vulnerable narcissism may explain why this form of pathological narcissism was found to strengthen the connection between perceiver ratings of entitlement and perceived aggression. That is, the emotional dysregulation that is at the core of vulnerable narcissism may have been at least partially responsible for these individuals being rated as highly aggressive when they displayed evidence to others that they had feelings of entitlement. To put it another way, self-other agreement concerning characteristics that pertain to narcissistic vulnerability may be associated with targets being perceived in a more negative manner. This finding provides initial support for the idea that both self-reported and perceived narcissistic characteristics influence how individuals are perceived by those individuals who constitute their social environments.
The importance of self-other agreement for narcissistic characteristics also emerged for the grandiose form of pathological narcissism. Unlike the vulnerable form of pathological narcissism, which exacerbated the connection between perceived entitlement and perceived aggression, the grandiose form of pathological narcissism actually mitigated this connection. That is, pathological grandiosity actually protected individuals who were seen as entitled by their friends and family members from being perceived as aggressive. It seems likely that the self-confidence and charm that accompanies the grandiose form of pathological narcissism may be what prevents these individuals from being viewed as aggressive when they behave in an entitled manner. These findings suggest that feelings of entitlement may be perceived quite differently depending on the narcissistic features possessed by the individual who is behaving in an entitled manner. It appears that grandiose narcissists who are aware of their own tendencies may be viewed as less aggressive than others who may be less aware of the impression they make on others. Taken together, our results suggest that aggression may be perceived as a quality that accompanies entitlement for those who possess the vulnerable form of pathological narcissism, whereas entitlement may not come across as aggressive when displayed by those with the grandiose form of pathological narcissism.
The pattern of results for the grandiose form of pathological narcissism was quite different than that observed for NPI Grandiose Exhibitionism. The reason for these pronounced differences may be due to these scales tapping fairly different constructs despite the similarity in their names. For example, individuals who reported high scores for pathological grandiosity were not perceived by their friends and family members as particularly narcissistic, whereas those with high scores on NPI Grandiose Exhibitionism were clearly viewed in this manner. Further, the connection between NPI Grandiose Exhibitionism and perceived aggression suggests that individuals who try to overtly display their greatness to others may be viewed by others as at least somewhat aggressive. Those with high levels of PNI Grandiosity may be more subtle and charming in their social behavior, which may protect them from being seen as aggressive. Additional research is needed to gain a clearer understanding of the similarities and differences in how individuals with high scores on PNI Grandiosity and NPI Grandiose Exhibitionism are perceived by others.
It may be beneficial for future research to extend this work to dimensions other than aggression (e.g., romantic desirability, perceived competence). This would allow for a better understanding of the extent to which the grandiose form of pathological narcissism protects individuals from negative perceptions as well as the extent to which the vulnerable form fosters these negative perceptions. For example, it would be interesting to determine whether individuals with the vulnerable form of pathological narcissism are viewed as less romantically desirable than other individuals when they are believed to have feelings of entitlement. It would also be informative to examine whether shifts in the views of individuals with pathological forms of narcissism take place over time given that the previous studies of that sort have focused exclusively on the normal aspects of narcissism (e.g., Paulhus, 1998). That is, do perceptions of individuals who possess the pathological forms of narcissism follow the same basic course as those with normal narcissism such that they are initially seen in a positive manner but are viewed more negatively by those who get to know them well? It is certainly possible that the charm and self-confidence associated with the grandiose form of pathological narcissism may buffer individuals from being perceived as aggressive in relatively new relationships, but this may not necessarily be the case for more established relationships. It would also be advantageous for future research to examine a broader range of relationships in terms of duration and closeness so that researchers could determine whether the associations between self-reported narcissism and perceiver ratings of narcissism are stronger for those who are better acquainted.
Although not explicitly tested here, our underlying process model was that the combination of self-reported and perceived narcissistic tendencies would influence the extent to which targets were viewed as aggressive. The present data, however, merely examine the association between narcissistic features and aggression. These correlational data, of course, cannot rule out the possibility that the direction of causality may be either bidirectional or reversed. This means that it is possible, for example, that individuals may be viewed as narcissistic because they are already perceived as being aggressive rather than perceived narcissism leading to the perception of aggression. This is an important consideration given that aggression is an interactive behavior that has the capacity to influence how the individual who is behaving aggressively will be perceived on related dimensions such as narcissism. Future research should try to gain a better understanding of the causal relationship underlying the connection between perceived narcissism and aggression.
The present results extend the existing literature concerning the perception of narcissistic individuals by showing that both self-reported and perceived narcissistic characteristics play important roles in how these individuals are viewed by others. These results provide additional support for the idea that narcissism is a complex and multifaceted construct by showing that the social consequences of narcissism depend on the form of narcissism (e.g., normal vs. pathological) as well as correspondence between self- and other views of the individual's narcissistic tendencies. Despite the strengths of the present study (e.g., large samples of targets and perceivers, assessment of multiple features of self-reported narcissism, assessment of perceived narcissistic characteristics), this research also had a number of limitations. One limitation is that the present study relied on perceivers who were recruited by the targets (i.e., friends and family members). This approach has the advantage of allowing the targets to be rated by individuals who know them rather well, but it has the drawback of allowing targets to select their own perceivers (see Leising, Erbs, & Fritz, 2010, for an extended discussion of this issue). An important concern with this approach is that the perceivers had an existing relationship with the targets, which suggests that they may have enjoyed knowing these individuals. It may be useful for future studies to use perceivers who were not selected by the targets, which may provide a more diverse set of perceptions concerning the target. It may also be helpful to control the interactions between the targets and the perceivers in future studies rather than using the naturalistic approach that was utilized in the present study.
A second limitation of the present study is that our perceiver ratings of narcissistic characteristics were limited to grandiosity and entitlement. Although we believe that these qualities are important for understanding narcissism (e.g., Brown et al., 2009), there are other features of narcissism that were not assessed in the present study (e.g., willingness to exploit others). One potential direction for future research would be to broaden the number of perceived narcissistic characteristics that are assessed for targets. This may be especially useful for determining the extent to which perceivers can detect the narcissistic qualities possessed by targets as well as for gaining a better understanding of how narcissistic individuals are perceived. This sort of work would also allow for a more complete understanding of the implications that self-other agreement for narcissistic characteristics has for the perception of individuals.