Do Narcissists Know They Are Narcissists?

04/03/2011 11:54 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Think of your friendly neighborhood narcissist: status-seeking, grandiose, loud-mouthed, brash and flamboyant. Have you ever noticed how he brags all the time, not only about his astronomical I.Q. and bulging pectoral muscles, but also about the fact that he is narcissistic? It's as if he is proud of it.

Lots of psychologists have theorized that a lack of self-awareness is a hallmark trait of narcissists. My personal experience with narcissists does not seem to support this. It seems to me as though they are not only aware of who they are, but also embrace it.

Luckily, I don't have to rely on personal anecdotes. To get to the bottom of this age-old mystery, Erika Carlson and her colleagues at Washington University in St. Louis conducted three very well-done studies to see whether narcissists have insight into their personality and their reputation. The results will soon be published in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The researchers administered a number of different measures of narcissism to college students and looked at how high-scorers are seen by others, how they see themselves and how they believe they are seen by others. They looked across social contexts and interviewed new acquaintances as well as friends and family. Their results across the three studies are strikingly consistent.

Unsurprisingly, they found that narcissists think they are hot stuff. Those scoring high in narcissism tended to rate themselves as more intelligent, physically attractive, likeable and funny than others. Interestingly, they also rated themselves as having higher levels of negative aspects of narcissism, such as being power-oriented, impulsive, arrogant and prone to exaggerate their abilities! Therefore, narcissists are aware they are narcissists.

There was also a strong positive correlation between narcissism and having a reputation for narcissism: narcissists were definitely perceived as narcissists. While other people didn't think the narcissists were nearly as hot as the narcissists thought they were, the narcissists were well aware of their reputation. When asked how others perceive them on the positive traits, their results were closer to how they were actually perceived than their own self-perceptions of the very same traits.

These results suggest that narcissists do indeed have self-awareness of themselves and know their reputation. This raises the question: how can narcissists maintain their inflated self-image even though they know full well how they are perceived by others? The researchers suggest a few intriguing possibilities.

Perhaps narcissists assume that others are just failing to realize how bitchin' they really are. They may think that people are just too dim to recognize their brilliance. Another possibility is that narcissists may think critics are just envious of them. Narcissists may take negative feedback and think to themselves, "Those haters are just jealous!"

This may explain why narcissists behave in arrogant ways. Instead of compensating for some deep-seated insecurity, bragging may be their way of demanding the recognition they truly believe they deserve. Narcissists score up the wazoo in entitlement. As the researchers note, this idea is consistent with self-verification theory: "Narcissists believe that they are exceptional people and may behave in arrogant ways because they are attempting to bridge the gap between their self perceptions and their meta-perceptions."

The researchers also suggest it's possible that narcissists maintain their self-image by misconstruing the meaning of narcissism. When told they are arrogant, instead of thinking they are "someone who is confident without merit," they may take it as a compliment, thinking to themselves, "Well, duh I'm arrogant, if by that you mean 'deservedly confident!'" As the researchers note, "Narcissists seem to choose honest arrogance when describing themselves and their reputation."

The results of this study as well as prior studies suggest that narcissists do care more about being perceived as superior on agentic traits (e.g., industriousness, assertiveness, dominance) compared to communal traits (e.g., agreeableness and honesty). Narcissists don't seem to care whether they are perceived as good people; they'd rather be admired than liked. So perhaps the narcissists in their study construed supposedly negative aspects of narcissism (e.g., arrogance) as desirable.

Of course, it's also possible that narcissists are fully aware of the meaning of narcissism and the negative impact they have on others, but just don't care as long as it doesn't get in the way of their goals.

The researchers also found that new acquaintances viewed narcissists more positively than well acquainted others. Those who just met the narcissists did tend to have a favorable impression of the narcissists, whereas those who knew the narcissists much longer tended to have a much more negative impression of the narcissists.

Again, the narcissists in their sample were fully aware of this! The results suggest that narcissists understand that they make positive first impressions that deteriorate over time. These results are consistent with prior research that has shown that narcissists have trouble forming long-term relationships. Narcissists tend to think they are "too good" for most people and are always seeking "better" relationship alternatives.

The results are also consistent with research showing that narcissists are masters at first impressions. As researchers have suggested, the narcissist's success at creating initial attraction may make short-term contexts more rewarding for them than longer-term contexts: "It is possible that narcissists discontinue relationships early on because they cannot bridge the gap between their positive self-perceptions and relatively negative meta-perceptions."

Practical Implications

It's well known that narcissists rarely change, mostly because they don't want to change. They love their lifestyle. Researchers trying to reform narcissists have noted that a major impediment is their lack of self-awareness. They have speculated that if narcissists received true feedback, they would change. The study by Carlson and colleagues suggests that this is not the case. Narcissists are fully aware that they are narcissistic and have a narcissistic reputation.

Instead, the researchers suggest that a better intervention would be to "emphasize the interpersonal and intrapsychic costs of being seen as narcissistic by others." Narcissists are unlikely to change unless they think changing will benefit the things they desire, such as status and power.

Are You a Narcissist?

Many of you are probably reading this and wondering whether you are a narcissist. An implication of the results I just reviewed is that if you are a narcissist, you probably already know it!

In reality, all of us are at least a little bit narcissistic. In the studies just reviewed, the researchers administered a narcissistic questionnaire to college students. Even though they found that the students scored all across the spectrum, it's not as if there was anyone who was completely non-narcissistic. All of us, throughout our day, ebb and flow in and out of the narcissistic mindset.