Narcissists Know They’re Obnoxious, But Love Themselves All the Same

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Odds are you know some narcissists. Odds are they’re smart, confident and articulate. They make you laugh, they make you think; the first time you met, they probably charmed the pants off of you — perhaps even literally. The odds are also that that spell didn’t last.

It’s a deep and all but certain truth about narcissistic personalities that to meet them is to love them, but to know them well is to find them unbearable. Confidence quickly curdles into arrogance; smarts turn to smugness, charm turns to smarm. They will talk endlessly about themselves, but when they ask about you — well, never mind, because they never do.

Narcissism falls along the axis of what psychologists call personality disorders, one of a group that includes antisocial, dependent, histrionic, avoidant and borderline personalities. But by most measures, narcissism is one of the worst, if only because the narcissists themselves are so clueless.

Their coworkers dislike them — but it must be because they’re jealous. Their spouses divorce them — but it’s because they don’t understand them. Their friends abandon them — but only because they can’t keep up with them. It’s this obtuseness that makes narcissists so hard to treat. How, after all, can you address a problem if you have no idea that it even exists?

That, anyway, has always been the theory. But a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (and wonderfully titled “You Probably Think This Paper’s About You”), is casting doubt on all that. According to the investigators, narcissists do think extraordinarily highly of themselves but, over time, realize that their friends — or former friends — don’t share that view. They know they’re seen as cocky, as conceited; they know, in short, that they’re obnoxious.

That’s both a hopeful sign (They get it!) and a hopeless one, since what insight narcissists do have fails to motivate them. All the same, the new study does provide a new perspective on this most intractable of conditions and offers some possible avenues for treatment too.

The research was conducted by a team of investigators headed by psychologist Erika Carlson at Washington University in St. Louis. She and her colleagues sought to understand three aspects of narcissism: self-perception, the perception of others and the the narcissists’ meta-perceptions — what they think others think about them.

The first part of the work explored the first impressions narcissists make on other people compared with the impressions of friends who know them well. The investigators recruited 201 student volunteers who did not know one another and had each of them fill out a questionnaire about what they thought the strong and weak parts of their personalities were, as well as a 40-item test called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory that asks them to agree or disagree with such paired statements as “I am a born leader” or “Leadership is a quality that takes a long time to develop” and “Sometimes I tell good stories” or “Everybody likes to hear my stories.”

The volunteers were then broken into pairs and set to chatting for several minutes, after which they filled out still more questionnaires about what they thought of their partner’s personality and what they believed their partner thought of theirs. Finally, all of the subjects gave the names of three friends who had known them for a long time; those people were contacted and answered other questions about the subjects’ personalities.

That produced an awful lot of data, but it yielded an awful lot of insights. In general, the people who ranked the highest on narcissistic traits (viewing themselves as especially intelligent, attractive and extroverted) also believed that new acquaintances saw them that way — and they were generally right.

More striking — and more surprising — they were aware that people who knew them well did not have quite the same high opinion of them. They acknowledged that those people would indeed see them as self-absorbed and disagreeable. But they also believed that their close friends continued to see them as funny, attractive, conscientious and intelligent, when in fact those friends — while they might once have had those impressions — no longer did.

“Narcissists were aware that close others saw them in more negative ways than new acquaintances,” the researchers wrote, “[but they] seemed to have limited insight into the  ways their reputations differed.”

In the second part of the study, 110 students who had never met before and had enrolled in a personality class were broken into three-to-five-person study groups and, in addition to doing their coursework, also filled out similar questionnaires that gauged their narcissism, self-perception, meta-perception and their impressions of other group members. This was done on several occasions over the course of the semester.

Once again, the people who ranked highest in narcissism made sparkling first impressions and knew that they had. But by the end of the semester, they had lost a lot of their appeal in the eyes of others, and to an extent they knew that too. They correctly guessed that their classmates saw them as more arrogant, less agreeable and inclined to boast about or exaggerate their abilities. At the same time, their high opinion of themselves didn’t change — even as others’ opinion of them did.

“When asked to guess how they were seen,” the researchers wrote, “narcissists’ meta-perceptions were closer to social reality than were their self-perceptions.”

All of the narcissists in the first two parts of the research suffered from what is known as subclinical narcissism — or narcissism with a lowercase n. To study the capital-N cases, the investigators chose slightly older volunteers, doing their recruiting on an Air Force base, where they assembled a sample group of 154 men and 120 women and administered a more exhaustive 101-question survey that practicing psychologists use to diagnose clinical narcissistic conditions. The volunteers also filled out a computer survey, nominating other members of the sample group for specific narcissistic traits.

Yet again, the narcissists seemed aware that the other members of their peer group viewed them as arrogant or otherwise flawed, and yet again, that took them only so far. For example, non-narcissistic volunteers correctly perceived that the narcissists believe they “deserve special favors or treatment” and the narcissists knew that their peers felt that way about them. But they also tended to believe that they do deserve such deference. “These results revealed that some of the strongest correlations between narcissism scores and others’ perceptions were also the strongest correlations between narcissism scores and meta-perceptions,” the investigators wrote.

Such limited insight into their overweening self-regard does not portend great things for narcissists, even if it is a bit more self-awareness than scientists gave them credit for in the past. But Carlson and her colleagues do suggest some therapeutic routes. Since narcissism is fueled by a greater need to be admired than to be liked, psychologists might use that fact as a therapeutic lever — stressing to patients that being known as a narcissist will actually cause them to lose the respect and social status they crave.

That may or may not work, but if it doesn’t, it’s worth remembering what the psychologists are up against. The new paper opens with a quote from Frank Lloyd Wright, who famously said: “Early in life, I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and have seen no reason to change.” Such self-adoration may be forgivable in Wright, whose buildings have long since outlived his personal failings. Most of us — narcissists or not — will never achieve such fame. For us, it pays to take better care of our personal relationships, since those may be the greatest monuments we’ll leave behind.

Jeffrey Kluger is a senior editor at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @jeffreykluger. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.