TIME psychology

Hooray for the Mundane! Ordinary Memories Are the Best

Life's peak experiences sometimes pale in comparison with the routine business of living, a new study shows. That "what is ordinary now becomes more extraordinary in the future" can have some positive implications for our state of mind

Never mind those dreamy recollections of your fab trip to Rome or that perfect night out last Valentine’s Day. Want a memory with some real sizzle? How about that time last week you went out for a tuna sandwich with the guy in the next cubicle? Or that trip to the supermarket on Sunday? Hot stuff, eh?

Actually, yes. Ordinary memories, it turns out, may be a lot less ordinary than they seem — or at least a lot more memorable — according to a nifty new study published in the journal Psychological Science. And that can have some positive implications for our state of mind.

It’s not entirely surprising that the experiences we often think should have the greatest impact on us sometimes don’t. For one thing, we tend to expect too much of them. The first time you stand in the Colosseum or stare up at the Eiffel Tower is a gobsmacker all right, but while those moments nicely enhance your life, they typically don’t change them. What’s more, in the weeks and years that follow, we tend to rerun the memory loop of the experience over and over and over again. Like a song you hear too much, it finally becomes too familiar. To test how much we underestimate — yet genuinely appreciate — the appeal of our more mundane experiences, a group of researchers at Harvard University’s school of business devised a multipart study.

In the first part, 106 undergraduate volunteers were asked to compile an online, nine-item time capsule that included such unremarkable items as an inside joke they share with somebody, a list of three songs they were currently listening to, a recent status update on Facebook, an excerpt from a final class paper and a few recollections of a recent social event. They sealed the virtual capsule at the beginning of summer and were asked to predict how interested they’d be, on a scale of 1 to 7, in rereading each item when they reopened it a few months later, and how surprised they thought they’d be by the details of the contents.

After the students did get that opportunity at the beginning of the fall semester, they used the same 1-to-7 scale to rate how meaningful and interesting they found the items. On item after item, the interest, curiosity and surprise they felt was significantly higher than what they had anticipated three months earlier.

In the second part of the study, a different pool of participants did something similar, but this time wrote about a recent conversation they had, rated it on whether it was an ordinary or extraordinary one (what they had for dinner the night before, say, compared with the news of a new romantic interest), and predicted again how interested they thought they’d be about reading the description a few months down the line. Here too they wound up lowballing those predictions — finding themselves much more interested than they predicted they’d be. And significantly, the more mundane the conversation they described was, the wider the gap between their anticipated interest in it and their actual interest when they reread the description.

The third part of the study replicated the second, but this time used only volunteers who did have a romantic partner, and asked them to describe and anticipate their later interest in an ordinary evening the two of them had spent on or before Feb. 8, 2013, and the one they’d spent one week later, on Feb. 14. Here too the Valentine date did less well than the subjects expected compared with the surprise and pleasure they felt in reading about the routine date.

“What is ordinary now becomes more extraordinary in the future,” said lead researcher Ting Zhang, in a statement that accompanied the study’s release. “People find a lot of joy in rediscovering a music playlist from three months ago or an old joke with a neighbor, even if those things did not seem particularly meaningful in the moment.”

One way to correct this imbalance — to take more pleasure in the day-to-day, nothing-special business of living — is merely to try to be more cognizant of those moments as they go by. Another, say Zhang and her colleagues, is to document them more, either by writing them down or, in the social-media era, by sharing them. But there are limits.

“[T]he 5,000 pictures from one’s ‘extraordinary’ wedding may be excessive,” the researchers write. The same is true, they warn, about photo-documenting every plate of food that’s set in front of you rather than just getting down to the pleasurable business of eating it — a practice that they say is leading to “an unhealthy narcissism” growing society-wide. Recording our lives for the biopics that are constantly playing out in our heads is fine, but sometimes that has to give way simply to living those lives.

TIME findings

Why Scientists Should Celebrate Failed Experiments

No losers here: all data is good data
No losers here: all data is good data ilyasat; Getty Images

Researchers live in dread of the null result—when a study turns up nothing. But that's exactly the wrong way to view things

Reporters hate facts that are too good to check—as the phrase in the industry goes. The too-good-to-check fact is the funny or ironic or otherwise delicious detail that just ignites a story and that, if it turns out not to be true, would leave the whole narrative poorer for its absence. It must be checked anyway, of course, and if it doesn’t hold up it has to be cut—with regrets maybe, but cut all the same.

Social scientists face something even more challenging. They develop an intriguing hypothesis, devise a study to test it, assemble a sample group, then run the experiment. If the theory is proven, off goes your paper to the most prestigious journals you can think of. But what if it isn’t proven? Suppose the answer to a thought-provoking question like, “Do toddlers whose parents watch football or other violent sports become more physically aggressive?” turns out to be simply, “Nope.”

Do you still try to publish these so-called null results? Do you even go to the bother of writing them up—an exceedingly slow and painstaking process regardless of what the findings are? Or do you just go on to something else, assuming that no one’s going to be interested in a cool idea that turns out not to be true?

That’s a question that plagues whole fields of science, raising the specter of what’s known as publishing bias—scientists self-censoring so that they effectively pick and choose what sees print and what doesn’t. There’s nothing fraudulent or unethical about dropping an experiment that doesn’t work out as you thought it would, but it does come at a cost. Null results, after all, are still results, and once they’re in the literature, they help other researchers avoid experimental avenues that have already proven to be dead ends. Now a new paper in the journal Science, conducted by a team of researchers at Stanford University, shows that publication bias in the social sciences may be more widespread than anyone knew.

The investigators looked at 221 studies conducted from 2002 to 2012 and made available to them by a research collective known as TESS (Time-Sharing Experiments in the Social Sciences), a National Science Foundation program that makes it easier for researchers to assemble a nationally representative sample group. The best thing about TESS—at least for studies of publication bias–is that the complete history of every experiment is available and searchable, whether it was ever published or not.

When the Stanford investigators reviewed the papers, they found just what they suspected—and feared. Roughly 50% of the 221 studies wound up seeing publication, but that total included only 20% of the ones with null results. That compared unfavorably to the 60% of those studies with strong positive results that were published, and the 50% with mixed results. Worse, one of the reasons so few null results ever saw print is that a significant majority of them, 65%, were never even written up in the first place.

The Stanford investigators went one more—very illuminating—step and contacted as many of the researchers of the null studies as they could via e-mail, asking them why they had not proceeded with the studies. Among the answers: “The unfortunate reality of the publishing world [is] that null effects do not tell a clear story.” There was also: “We determined that there was nothing there that we could publish in a professional journal” and “[the study] was mostly a disappointing wash.” Added one especially baleful scientist: “[The] data were buried in the graveyard of statistical findings.” Among all of the explanations, however, the most telling—if least colorful—was this: “The hypotheses of the study were not confirmed.”

That, all by itself, lays bare the misguided thinking behind publication bias. No less a researcher than Jonas Salk once argued to his lab staff that there is no such thing as a failed experiment, because learning what doesn’t work is a necessary step to learning what does. Salk, history showed, did pretty well for himself. Social scientists—disappointed though they may sometimes be—might want to follow his lead.

TIME

China’s Supersonic Submarine? Not Gonna Happen

Take your time, boys; you're not going anywhere fast
Take your time, boys; you're not going anywhere fast Mike Clarke—AFP/Getty Images

To hear Chinese military sources tell it, the country is on its way to developing a submarine that can travel 6,100 mph—which is why you should never listen to Chinese military sources

There are a whole lot of things that won’t be happening anytime soon. Pigs flying, for instance; that won’t happen. All of the raindrops becoming lemon drops and gumdrops; that won’t happen either. And despite what you have been reading practically everywhere today, no, China won’t be deploying a submarine capable of moving at 6,100 mph (9,800 k/h) and covering the distance from Shanghai to San Francisco in 100 minutes—at least not in anything remotely like the near future.

Let’s begin with the source of the story: engineer Li Fengchen, of the Harbin Institute of Technology, the project’s lead researcher. Mr. Li is surely an impeccably honest man and a very good engineer, but the Chinese government has not always covered itself in glory when it comes to candor and there’s no reason to believe they’d start with a program as sensitive as this.

“The idea that any Chinese research association would talk about its best ideas is ludicrous beyond words,” says physicist and naval weapons expert Norman Friedman, of the U.S. Naval Institute. “They simply don’t go public with this kind of project, though they do sometimes show off things that don’t exist.”

The bigger problem involves a couple of matters Friedman knows a thing or two about: physics and engineering. The technology that has caused all the buzz is something called supercavitation, and there’s nothing fanciful about it—it’s been around since the Cold War, though it’s been used only in torpedoes. Supercavitation involves agitating water in such a way that it forms a bubble of vapor completely surrounding the moving body, dramatically reducing friction, and dramatically increasing speed. Traditional propellors can’t be used to generate that speed, since they have to touch the water and all any part of the sub or torpedo touches is vapor. Instead, rocket engines provide the push, relying on the same action-reaction principle rockets use in space.

“It’s not a friction-free ride,” says Friedman, “but you do get some distance out of it and it can move at high speeds.”

But how much distance and how high a speed? There, it turns out, is the rub. The best-known supercavitating torpedo, the Russian Shkval—or squall—achieves a speed of around 200 knots (230 mph), according to Friedman, but it’s a short-range weapon, able to sprint only about 10,000 yards, since it must be stuffed with enough hardware both to churn water to vapor and run the rocket engines and still have enough room left over for an explosive charge. With all that, it can carry only a limited amount of fuel.

A submarine, Friedman estimates, could possibly stretch the range to 40 mi. (64 km). But as for somehow increasing the speed from 230 mph to 6,100 mph? Even the Chinese spokesfolks who are talking so freely don’t pretend to have an answer for that one.

Finally, there’s the problem of trying to point the sub where you want it to go. For both surface vessels and submersibles, that job is achieved by turning a rudder against the water, but poke a rudder into the water of a supercavitating vessel and you pop the bubble that surrounds the ship—not to mention snapping the rudder completely off when it suddenly encounters resistance. “Steering,” Friedman says, “wouldn’t be any fun.”

None of this is to suggest that these problems won’t be solved some day. But that’s true of almost any technical challenge you can name. Despite what China is saying, the submarine’s some day isn’t a soon day.

TIME psychology

How to Drink Less and Still Have Fun

Set 'em up Joe—and pay the price tomorrow
Set 'em up Joe—and pay the price tomorrow Paul Taylor; Getty Images

A new study suggests using a smaller glass, keeping your glass on the table while you pour, and never filling it over half-full

If you’re like most people, your brain loves it when you drink—and it shows you its appreciation by rewarding you for it. A few sips of the right stuff and you feel funnier, smarter, more confident, and certainly more attractive to the opposite sex—even if not all of this stands up to later, sober scrutiny. Your body, however, was never consulted on the deal, which may be why it makes you feel absolutely lousy the day after a night on the tiles.

Down through millennia, drinkers have sought to thread that brain-body needle, drinking just enough to have fun but not so much as to be miserable in the morning, and there have been no shortage of strategies: take a glass of water between each drink; hold it to one drink per hour. Now, a study in the International Journal of Drug Policy, conducted by researchers at Iowa State and Cornell Universities, takes a new look at the cues and conditions that cause people to drink too much and, more important, suggests ways to avoid them.

For all its cultivated rep, it’s wine that can cause drinkers the most headaches—literally and otherwise—because in many situations it’s hard to gauge how much you’re consuming. Beer is typically served in bottles or cans, which are easy enough to keep track of. And liquor is often poured and mixed by the shot—one of the few units of measure that enjoys diplomatic recognition in both the imperial and metric scales. But wine? That comes in wide glasses and narrow glasses, stemless glasses and flutes; often as not you free-pour it—about the least precise method of portion control imaginable—and while wine frequently accompanies a meal, it’s just as often simply walk-and-talk party fuel.

To study what makes drinkers free-pour too freely, the investigators recruited 73 student volunteers (“all of legal drinking age,” the study stressed) and allowed them to serve themselves wine at a variety of testing stations. Sometimes standard wine glasses were made available, sometimes larger glasses, and sometimes extra wide ones. Red and white wine were both offered, and students were alternately instructed either to hold the glass while pouring or leave it on the table. Every one of these variables made a difference in how much the students served themselves.

Wide glasses caused subjects to pour 11.9% more than narrow ones—the same fill-the-space phenomenon that leads people to heap more pasta onto a big plate than a small one. Holding the glass as opposed to leaving it on the table resulted in a 12.2% bigger serving—perhaps because when the glass moves even a little it’s harder to gauge the level of liquid accurately. And when the glass sizes were the same, participants poured 9.2% less red wine than white because, the researchers theorize, the lower color contrast between white wine and a clear glass makes the glass look less full.

Gender made a difference too, as did body mass index (BMI). As in the world outside the lab, the men in the study poured more than the women did—about 9% more, the researchers found. And men with high BMI poured about 19% more than men with average BMI. For women, body mass didn’t make a difference. But there was a way for both sexes and all sizes to bring their intake down, and that was to establish—and stick to—simple rules of thumb.

For the purposes of consistency, the rule of thumb the researchers chose was the half-glass rule: drink as much as you want, but fill the glass only halfway up each time you pour. High-BMI men who didn’t use that rule drank 31% more than those who did, and men of average BMI drank 26% more. Women, on the whole, drank 27% less when they used the half-empty rule.

These aren’t hard and fast rules, of course. How much people pour in a single go is not the same as how much they drink, and it doesn’t take terribly sophisticated math to figure out that 16 half-glasses works out to a whole lot of wine. Rate of consumption—gulping versus sipping—makes a big difference too. Even the best rules of thumb can take you only so far. After that, it’s best just to leave the party early—without your car keys, thank you very much.

TIME animal behavior

What Are Animals Thinking? (Hint: More Than You Suspect)

The mind of an animal is a far richer, more complex thing than most people know — as a new TIME book reveals

Let’s be honest, you’d probably rather die than wake up tomorrow morning and find out you’d turned into an animal. Dying, after all, is inevitable, and there’s even a certain dignity to it: Shakespeare did it, Einstein did it, Galileo and Washington and Twain all did it. And you, someone who was born a human and will live your life as a human, will end your life that way too.

But living that life as an animal — an insensate brute, incapable of reason, abstraction, perhaps even feeling? Unthinkable. Yes, yes, the animals don’t recognize the difference, and neither would you. If you’re a goat, you possess the knowledge of a goat, and that can’t be much. But there’s more to it than that.

Human beings have always had something of a bipolar relationship with the millions of other species with which we share the planet. We are fascinated by them, often dazzled by them. They can be magnificently beautiful, for one thing: the explosive color and frippery of a bird of paradise, the hallucinatory variety of the fish in a coral reef, the otherworldly markings and architecture of a giraffe. Even the plain or ugly animals — consider the naked, leathery grayness of the rhino or elephant — have a certain solidity and equipoise to them. And to see an animal at what appears to be play — the breaching dolphin, the swooping raptor — is to think that it might be fun to have a taste, a tiny taste, of their lives.

But it’s a taste we’d surely spit right out, because as much as we may admire animals, we pity them too: their ignorance, their inconsequence, and their brief, savage lives. It’s in our interest to see them that way — not so much because we need to press our already considerable advantage over them; we don’t. But because we have certain uses in mind for them. We need the animals to work for us — to pull carts, drag plows, lift logs and carry loads, and stand still for a whipping if they don’t. We need them to entertain us, in our circuses and zoos and stage shows. And most of all, we need them to feed us, with their eggs and milk and their very flesh. A few favored beasts do get a pass — dogs, cats, some horses — but the rest are little more than tools for our use.

But that view is becoming impossible to sustain — as a new TIME book reveals. The more deeply scientists look into the animal mind, the more they’re discovering it to be a place of richness, joy, thought and even nuance. There are the parrots that don’t just mimic words but appear to understand them, for example, assembling them into what can only be described as sentences. There are the gorillas and bonobos that can do the same with sign language or pictograms. Those abilities are hard to dismiss, but they also miss the point; they are, in many way, limited gifts — animals doing things humans do, but much less well.

A better measure is the suite of behaviors the animals exhibit on their own: crows that can fashion tools, lions that collaborate on elaborate hunts, dolphins and elephants with signature calls that serve as names, and cultural norms like grieving for their dead and caring for grandchildren. There are the complex, even political societies that hyenas create and the factory-like worlds of bees and ants. There are the abiding friendships among animals, too — not just the pairs of dolphins or horses or dogs that seem inseparable but the cross-species loyalties: the monkey and the dog, the sheep and the elephant, the cat and the crow, members of ordinarily incompatible species that appear never to have thought to fight with or eat one another because, well, no one told them they had to.

Animals, the research is proving, are creatures capable of reflection, bliss, worry and more. Not all of them in the same ways or to the same degrees, surely, but all of them in far deeper measures than we’ve ever believed. The animal mind is nothing like the wasteland it’s been made out to be. And if it’s not the mind you’d want to have as your own, it’s one that is still worth getting to know much better.

(The Animal Mind is now available on newsstands.)

TIME psychology

Quiz: Are You A Narcissist?

Take the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, developed by Robert Raskin and Howard Terry.

Check the answer in each pair that comes closest to describing you. Don’t leave any pairs blank; try to complete the survey in just a few minutes. The highest possible score is 40, the lowest is 0.

Excerpted from The Narcissist Next Door: Understanding the Monster in Your Family, in Your Office, in Your Bed—in Your World

Penguin Group

Read More: The Evolution of a Narcissist

TIME psychology

Robin’s Pain: The Mystery of Suicide — and How to Prevent It

Sad Goodbye: Where Robin Williams once stood, flowers now lay
Sad Goodbye: Where Robin Williams once stood, flowers now lay Paul Archuleta—FilmMagic/Getty Images

Robin Williams was just one of 39,000 Americans who take their lives each year. The long-standing puzzle is why anyone arrives at so tragic a place. Increasingly, there are answers

The great paradox of the human brain is that it can’t feel pain. The organ that is the seat of all joy and worry and love and sorrow and whimsy and fear is itself insensible to injury. It’s the reason brain surgery can be conducted on conscious patients without their being any more physically aware of the cutting than if a garment they were wearing were being violated the same way.

But the pain the brain can cause — the bottomless well of grief, the psychic blackness of depression — is something else again. There is both presumption and a certain pointlessness in trying to explain the awful convergence of sorrow and circumstance that drove Robin Williams to end his life. Williams himself may not have known, and if he did, the secret died with him. That doesn’t stop others from trying to make sense of it, of course — and so we hear that he was suffering from clinical depression or bipolar disorder, or that his battles with substance abuse finally claimed him.

Williams was publicly sanguine about his mental state, telling NPR in 2006, “No clinical depression, no. I get bummed, like I think a lot of us do at certain times. You look at the world and go, ‘Whoa.’ Other moments you look and go, ‘Oh, things are O.K.’” But after his death, his representative released a statement saying he had been “battling severe depression of late.”

The only thing that can be said with certainty is that Williams arrived at the same terrible place 39,000 other Americans reach each year, and like them, he concluded that the only way to annihilate a terrible despair was to annihilate the self. All anyone can do responsibly is reason back from there — reverse engineer the tragedy — and see what that might reveal.

The numbers can tell you something — sort of. Up to 90% of all people who commit suicide have been diagnosed with depression or some other form of mental illness in their lives. About one third of people with serious depression have had struggles with drugs and alcohol, perhaps as a result of trying to medicate their pain chemically. About 25% to 35% of people who commit suicide have a chemical substance in their blood at the time of death.

But there are plenty of depressed or chemically dependent people in the world, and while their struggles are real, their stories — and their lives — don’t end the way Williams’ did. The difference appears not just to be pain, but pain of a particular valence.

“It’s intolerable, unbearable anguish that can’t go away,” says psychologist Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) and U.S. representative to the International Association of Suicide Prevention. “No matter what people have tried — treatment, medication — it doesn’t help. Logic becomes unreal. Attention and focus fall apart. The brain is just an organ and at some point it says, ‘I can’t take the pain anymore. I must take myself out.’”

But that doesn’t happen overnight. There’s a certain ambivalence and a strange kind of deal-making that can go on before a decision to die is actually reached. Suicidal scenarios may be considered, even planned, taken off the shelf and toyed with as a possibility. “This starts to play certain tricks on the mind,” says Reidenberg. “People think, ‘If someone smiles at me today I’m not going to do it. I’m going to have my last meal and if that goes well, I won’t do it.’”

Not all suicides creep up so slowly — or at least they don’t seem to. Situational despair — the kind that comes from the death of a loved one or a sudden bankruptcy — can, anecdotally, precede a suicide, but this happens less than is popularly believed. All of those investors who leapt to their deaths when the stock market crashed in 1929? Those were mostly a myth — though there were some isolated suicides in the days and months that followed the crash. And even in those cases, there was likely an underlying depression or mental illness that was exacerbated by circumstance. If tragedy were the threshold requirement for suicide, a spectacularly successful and globally celebrated person like Williams — or Kurt Cobain or Ernest Hemingway or Marilyn Monroe — would never have ended things as they did.

On those occasions that short-term pain does play a role in suicide, it’s likelier to occur among teens. That’s partly because the impulse control region of their brains have not fully come online yet — which is why even happy teens make such wildly poor decisions sometimes — and partly because they have such a flawed sense of the long arc of time. “The teenager cares about right now, what’s in front of me,” says Reidenberg. “They’re not looking at the next 60 years, they’re thinking about the next six minutes.”

The biggest thing working in the teens’ favor is that they often seem less than entirely certain about the wisdom of suicide, even after they’ve resolved to try it. “There’s a much higher rate of suicide attempts among adolescents than among other groups, but a much lower rate of actual death,” says psychologist John Draper, project director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which runs a website and 24-hour hotline (1-800-273-8255) for people in crisis. “A big part of them doesn’t want to die and the overwhelming majority get through those moments and are glad they’re alive.”

Indeed, says Reidenberg, both teens and adults who attempt suicide but survive often report that in the instant after they took the decisive step — swallowing the pills, leaping from the window — they began hoping that they’d survive the fall or be found alive before the drugs could do their work. Some never try again.

Stopping people short of that point — or pulling them back from the brink if they’ve reached it — can sometimes be a matter of simple preparation. For anyone who has flirted with suicide, Draper recommends putting together a safety plan that can be used in a time of crisis — a list of friends, family members and professionals to contact for help, as well as reminders of self-calming activities or short-term distractions that have worked in the past. Keeping the instruments of self-harm out of reach is important too. About 60% of the 33,000 gun deaths in the U.S. each year are suicides.

Making psychotherapy more widely available can help as well. Roughly 60% of the people who need mental health services in the U.S. each year do not get it, often beause of the stigma of seeking help, though just as often because of lack of insurance. The Affordable Care Act is changing that, with requirements that all policies cover mental, not just physical illnesses.

Early detection of people prone to suicide could make a difference, and one finding earlier this summer revealed that a gene known as SKA2, which is abundant in the prefrontal cortex, may play a role in helping people manage negative feelings and contain impulsive behavior — both important brakes on suicidal behavior. Handily, the gene produces blood markers that indicate its level of activity, providing a quick way of diagnosing potential problems long before they start. Talk therapy is important too, and medications may be an important adjunct, though just which drug is best depends on just which patient is being treated — antidepressants for the depressive, mood stabilizers for the person with bipolar disorder.

As with any deadly disease, of course, there is nothing certain about who will be lost to suicide and who will not. Williams himself seemed to understand the knife edge on which such mortal matters balance. In a 2006 TV interview, after completing two months of treatment for a relapse into alcoholism, he described how easy it is for a former drinker to pick up the bottle again. “It’s the same voice that … you’re standing at a precipice and you look down, there’s a voice and it’s a little quiet voice that goes, ‘Jump.’” This week, in his own way, Robin Williams jumped — and a little bit of all of us went with him.

TIME Infectious Disease

Watch a Science Cop Take on Donald Trump

TIME's Jeffrey Kluger takes on The Donald for crimes against science

The Ebola outbreak that is causing such fear and suffering in Africa is a very real and very deadly thing. But the fact is that the nature of the Ebola virus is such that it stands a very low chance of ever causing a pandemic like AIDS or H1N1. That hasn’t stopped America’s great foghorn—Donald Trump—and others like him from spreading all kinds of misinformation about the disease, warning people that patients should not be brought to the U.S. and that flights from West Africa should be stopped, otherwise we face an American epidemic.

But Trump and his ilk are committing a science crime—the crime of misinformation. Here’s the truth, from TIME’s Jeffrey Kluger.

 
 

TIME mental health

How Do You Spot a Narcissist? Just Ask

Like the view? The original Narcissus and his BFF
Like the view? The original Narcissus and his BFF John William Waterhouse; Getty Images/The Bridgeman Art Library

It's not easy to diagnose most personality disorders. But narcissism is a snap—since the narcissists themselves know who they are

Narcissus got a bad rap. Sure, the guy was self-absorbed—what with all that staring at his own reflection in a stream. But once he fell in and drowned, well, lesson learned, and he wasn’t around to cause anyone else any grief. But the modern-day people who suffer from the disorder named after him? They’re a whole different matter.

Narcissists are alternately preening, entitled, aggressive, greedy, insensitive, vain, unfaithful, dishonest, lethally charming (a charm you buy at your peril) and sexually exploitative. They may represent merely 1% to 3% of the general population—but that’s only full-blown, capital-N narcissism, the kind formally known as narcissistic personality disorder. There are plenty of other people with lowercase, sub-clinical cases of the condition who can do all kinds of damage—and the odds are very, very good there are at least a few in your life.

How can you learn to recognize a narcissist at a glance? Easy, suggests a new study published in PLOS ONE: Just ask them.

Narcissism is typically diagnosed with a 40-item questionnaire known as the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, or NPI. (Take it here.) The NPI is a so-called forced choice test, one that asks people to choose between two generally contradictory statements such as “I prefer to blend in with the crowd” and “I like to be the center of attention,” or “I like to have authority over other people” and “I don’t mind following orders.” In many cases, both qualities may apply—it’s entirely possible to like to be the boss and to accept another person’s authority as well. But the “forced” part of “forced choice” means you must pick the quality that more closely describes you.

The lowest you can score on the NPI is a zero, the highest is a 40. Average in the U.S. is between 15 and 16, depending on age, gender and other variables.

The problem with the NPI is it’s time-consuming and inconvenient—hardly the kind of thing you can administer on a first date to find out if you’re getting mixed up with a charming louse before you accept a second date. But a team headed by psychologist Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan suspected that in some cases it might be possible to go at things more directly, asking people one carefully phrased written question:

“To what extent do you agree with this statement: ‘I am a narcissist.’ (Note: The word ‘narcissist’ means egotistical, self-focused, and vain.)” The parenthetical was included to ensure that all participants in the study were working from the same definition. They were then asked to rate themselves on a 1 to 7 scale, with 1 meaning “Not very true of me” and 7 meaning “very true of me.”

To a remarkable, statistically significant extent, the scores on this Single Item Narcissism Scale (SINS) correlated with the subjects’ scores on the more-complex NPI. Even with those results in hand, the researchers wanted to probe further, so they also tested their subjects on ten other personality metrics such as extraversion, agreeableness, aggression, sexual adventurousness, entitlement and more—all of which are either direct or inverse indicators of the narcissistic personality. Here too, the results lined up tidily.

The reason narcissists are so honest—a lot more honest than you’d be if someone asked you, say, “Are you a sociopath?”—is because they just don’t think their narcissism is a problem, which is perfectly consistent with people who think so highly of themselves. “Narcissists have these great mental health outcomes,” Konrath told me when I was researching my upcoming book The Narcissist Next Door. “If you’re trying to think of a group of people who are low in depression and anxiety, high in creativity and accomplishment, that’s narcissists.”

That, by itself, doesn’t sound bad at all. But narcissists often possess those good qualities to the general exclusion of others—especially social and relationship skills, a shortcoming that can hurt both them and those around them. Indeed, one of the metrics Konrath’s group looked at was whether the subjects rated primal rewards—such as a favorite food—higher than social rewards, such as seeing a friend. The friendship thing just doesn’t mean much to someone in the grip of narcissism.

“If you told a narcissist he’s not good in interpersonal relationships, he wouldn’t be any more upset than anyone else,” said Ohio State University psychologist Brad Bushman, another participant in the study, whom I also interviewed for my book. “But if you tell them they’re not smart, they get angry.”

All of this—the fragile ego, the tenuous human ties, the overweening self-regard–inevitably comes crashing down, even if less calamitously than it did for the proto-Narcissus. It’s for the narcissists themselves to recognize the dangers in the condition to which they admit so readily. And it’s for everyone else to get out of the way while they’re figuring it out.

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