If you’re shopping for a personality disorder to call your own, you might want to avoid becoming a narcissist. It’s true that you’ll be confident, charismatic, extroverted and irresistible, but only until people discover that you’re also arrogant, self-absorbed, insensitive and unlovable. Now, one more contradiction in the narcissistic personality has been revealed. Even as narcissists take better care of themselves than nonnarcissists do — eating well and exercising regularly — they’re also likelier to engage in risky behaviors that could kill them before they can take advantage of those good habits.
That’s the conclusion of a new study by psychologist Erin Hill of West Chester University in Pennsylvania. Like most researchers studying narcissism, Hill knew there is much more nuance to the disorder than there seems to be. Narcissists are cocky, yes, but they’re hungry too — for recognition, applause, approval, validation. Their profound sense of insecurity also bumps up against a paradoxical sense of indestructibility — a belief that they are immune to the kinds of dangers most other people take pains to avoid.
To test the self-enhancing and self-destructive crosscurrents in the narcissistic temperament, Hill recruited 365 undergraduate students and asked them to take the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), a 40-item questionnaire that is considered the best available tool to diagnose the condition. NPI scores can range from a theoretical low of zero to a theoretical high of 40, but in the U.S. the average is about 15.5. The students in Hill’s study averaged a bit higher — 18.25 for males and 16.04 for females — which is typical for a population of young people who have yet to be chastened by setbacks in life.
Hill next asked her subjects to answer a number of questions about how they live — in both good ways and bad. In the first category, she asked them how many fruits and vegetables they eat per week, how consistently they maintain a healthy eating pattern overall, how often they exercise and whether they regularly practice safe sex. In the second category, she asked them if they smoke, how often and how much they drink, whether they use marijuana or other drugs, and whether they engage in reckless driving behaviors like texting behind the wheel or not wearing a seat belt.
The results were a mix of reasonably good news and very bad news. Narcissism did not seem to be linked to increased smoking, use of drugs other than pot or a greater likelihood of practicing unsafe sex — suggesting that some health messages are getting through even to people who typically think they’re above such concerns. But high NPI scores were significantly related to more drinking—as well as more binge drinking — greater marijuana use and reckless driving.
When it came to healthy behaviors, narcissists weren’t any likelier to eat more fruits and veggies than other people, but they were likelier to maintain a healthy diet over all. They were also significantly more inclined to play sports or otherwise exercise regularly.
Those good habits, while commendable, were not necessarily well motivated, Hill concluded — perhaps little more than part of the narcissist’s deep need to be the prettiest person in any room. If that means going to the gym and saying no to dessert, fine.
The happy news for the trim and toned narcissists is that good health habits can stick for life, while bad risk behaviors do tend to decline over time, as even the hopelessly self-adoring eventually discover that they’re not invulnerable to harm. Narcissism as a whole, however, is a much harder thing to shake — which leads to the final paradox of the narcissistic personality. All that working out and eating well may be perfectly fine, but it does you little good if the people you were trying to impress have long since quit having anything to do with you.