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.

TIME Environment

California Catastrophes: Why is the Golden State Always a Mess?

First it's droughts, then wildfires, then mudslides. But despite how it seems, the coast isn't really cursed

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California is burning. In several places. Of course, this is news, especially since lives and property are at risk—but in a sense, it isn’t news at all. California burns every year at around this time. California is also sliding downhill. That isn’t really a headline either, since mudslides are annual events too, as a result of torrential rains in the non-burning part of the state. So far this year the slides have caused one death.

California’s Central Valley, meanwhile, is dangerously parched, as a drought that’s already lasted three years shows no signs of letting up. The only hope for desperate farmers is that a long-awaited El Niño weather pattern kicks in later in the year, bringing heavy rains (at which point, see above under “mudslides”). And then there’s the next major earthquake, which is sure to come sooner or later—probably sooner given California’s luck.

In fact, it almost seems as though the state is a disaster magnet. That, however, is something of an illusion. Much of the American West is more or less starved for rainfall, with the exception of the immediate Pacific Coast. It’s hardly a surprise that the region as a whole suffers from periodic droughts; all it takes is a ridge of heat and high pressure to park itself off the Pacific coast and most rainfall will veer northward into Canada before dipping bock down into the inland U.S. The dried-out forests and grasslands that result are then ready fuel for fires caused by lightning or human carelessness. When rains do start, steep hillsides that have been logged or burned or overdeveloped are prone to mudslides.

These are by no means problems unique to California. But the state is so huge, and the population so large, that natural disasters there simply affect more people than they do elsewhere in the U.S. Still, for those of us watching from the other side of the continent, it sometimes seems like you’d have to be a little bit crazy to live in California. But then you consider Mt. Whitney or Yosemite Valley or the Coast Range or the redwood forests—never mind the southern California warmth and the Pacific Ocean as your swimming pool.

So maybe it’s not entirely crazy to live in California. What is entirely crazy is the need to push the envelope—to build houses on hillsides and in forests which may be the most gorgeous locations in the nation’s most gorgeous state, but which are often the most dangerous in terms of natural hazards. If you lived on an airport runway and got hit by a plane, it would be a tragedy—but an entirely predictable and preventable one.

We’re not immune to this sort of craziness out East: we keep putting houses on beaches, for example, when we know perfectly well that they could wash away with the next storm. Once you get away from the shore, though, you’re relatively safe. On this last point, the East may have the edge: Move inland in California, and you could end up next to an active volcano.

TIME space

SpaceX Is Building a New Launch Site In Texas

The next launch site for billionaire Elon Musk's space company will be built in one of the poorest cities in America

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Texas Governor Rick Perry announced Monday that private space company SpaceX will build the first-ever exclusively commercial launch site near Brownsville, Texas. SpaceX, owned and operated by PayPal billionaire Elon Musk, received a $2.3 million investment from the state to build its site in Texas.

Brownsville has a median income of $30,000, and nearly 40% of Brownsville’s population lives below the poverty line — the highest percentage in the country. Perry said in his announcement that the SpaceX site will bring 300 new jobs and inject $85 million into the local economy.

TIME Environment

Gulf of Mexico ‘Dead Zone’ Now the Size of Connecticut

Mike Coleman and Jarad Williams check their crab traps on October 4, 2013 in Grand Isle, Louisiana.
Mike Coleman and Jarad Williams check their crab traps on October 4, 2013 in Grand Isle, Louisiana. Marianna Massey—Getty Images

Surveyors measured a 5,052sq mile expanse of asphyxiating water off of the coast of Louisiana

A survey of marine life in the Gulf of Mexico has found the world’s second-largest “dead zone” ballooning out from the mouth of the Mississippi River and covering an expanse of ocean roughly equal in size to the state of Connecticut.

Scientists for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration measured the dead zone, an expanse of asphyxiating water marked by unusually low oxygen levels and marine life, at roughly 5,052 square miles. Scientists trace the dead zone to nutrient runoffs from farmlands upriver. The nutrients stimulate algae growth, creating massive algae blooms that sink, decompose and consume oxygen that is vital to the surrounding marine life.

“The Dead Zone off the Louisiana coast is the second largest human-caused coastal hypoxic area in the global ocean and stretches from the mouth of the Mississippi River into Texas waters and less often, but increasingly more frequent, east of the Mississippi River,” wrote the study’s author Nancy Rabalais of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON). The largest dead zone is thought to be in the Baltic Sea, in Scandinavia.

NOAA scientists note that this year’s dead zone is smaller than the one recorded last year, but still well above the federal target of 1,900 square miles.

TIME Culture

Study: Society Flourished When Humans Got Less Manly

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A model of Peking man (Homo erectus pekinensis), who lived 1-2 million years ago Getty Images

Does lower T lead to higher tech? Research links decrease in manly traits to an increase in sophisticated toolmaking in early humans

Some anthropologists now believe that advanced human behaviors like toolmaking only developed when early humans evolved to have lower levels of testosterone than their ancestors, according to a new study published in Current Anthropology.

“All of a sudden, in the archeological record, culture and advanced technology suddenly becomes more widespread. And at that time we also see a decrease in testosterone,” said the study’s lead author Bob Cieri, a graduate student at the University of Utah. “Before 50,00 years ago, there were brief flashes of advanced behavior and artifacts, but they’re not persistent and widespread.”

Cieri measured the browridge of different human skulls, which indicates the level of testosterone in the skeleton. Heavier brows and longer faces indicate more testosterone, and more rounded heads indicate less testosterone, according to Stephen Churchill, the Duke professor who supervised Cieri’s work. Cieri measured 13 human skulls that were more than 80,000 years old; 41 skulls between 10,000 and 38,000 years old; and over 1,200 20th-century skulls from different ethnic populations. He found that the modern skulls had substantially more rounded features and less heavy brows than the early skulls, indicating a drop in testosterone between our early ancestors and modern humans.

Cieri says the decrease in testosterone levels could be attributed to the rise in the Homo sapiens population, which meant that people had to be nicer to each other because they were living in closer quarters. “If population density starts increasing, not only are there more people in your immediate environment that you have to get along with, but all land would be occupied with human groups,” he explains. “You wouldn’t just go across to the other side of the valley to hunt bison by yourself, you’d go to the other side of the valley and maybe make a treaty with the other people who live there.”

It’s important to note that these early humans didn’t yet have “culture” as we know it — they were still hunter-gatherers, Cieri says, but they were much less aggressive about it. But he thinks this lowering of testosterone led to more cooperation between people, which laid crucial groundwork for cultural advances thousands of years later.

So if you’re still worried about low T after reading TIME’s recent cover story, “Manopause?!,” consider that a little less T isn’t always a bad thing.

TIME sustainability

Giant Floating Duck Proposed to Bring Green Energy to Copenhagen

Energy Duck: A submission to the 2014 Land Art Generator Initiative Copenhagen design competition by artists Hareth Pochee, Adam Khan, Louis Leger and Patrick Fryer. Courtesy Land Art Generator Initiative

The unique structure could theoretically provide the environmentally conscious city with solar energy and hydropower

Here’s an idea for energy sustainability that’s not mere quackery: A team of British designers and artists have proposed a floating tourist attraction that would gather solar energy in Copenhagen Harbor as the Danish city works to become carbon-neutral by the year 2025.

The 12-story-high structure just happens to also be in the shape of a giant sea duck.

Built from lightweight steel and covered in solar panels, the “energy duck” would by day collect the sun’s rays and by night bask the harbor in LED lights that change color in rhythm with the hydro turbines inside it, according to blog designboom.

Visitors wouldn’t just be able to admire the light show from a distance, they’d be able to board the energy duck and see the inner workings for themselves.

The supersized bird was developed by artists and designers Hareth Pochee, Adam Khan, Louis Leger, and Patrick Fryer as part of a competition run by the Land Art Generator Initiative, a project that aims to integrate art with sustainable design to come up with alternative energy solutions.

It’s just a concept, of course, but let’s hope this plan doesn’t go a-fowl.

 

TIME Paleontology

Want to See a Live Dinosaur? Set Up a Bird Feeder

An exciting new study lays out in detail how our fine feathered friends evolved from the same ancestors as the T. Rex and velociraptors over the course of millions of years, and how they managed to avoid the same doomed fate as their dinosaur cousins

When the theory first arose that birds evolved directly from dinosaurs, it was enormously controversial. It was even more contentious when some paleontologists argued that birds are dinosaurs—the only branch of the family that survived a cataclysmic asteroid strike 65 million years ago.

That initial controversy has largely vanished, thanks to a series of astonishing discoveries over the past 20 years or so—for example, that many dinosaur species sported feathers, and that the bone structures of birds and dinos are similar in all sorts of ways. “We now know birds are a subgroup of dinosaurs, like humans are a subgroup of apes,” says paleontologist Michael Lee, of the South Australian Museum, in Adelaide.

Now a new report in Science by Lee and several colleagues has laid out in unprecedented detail the exact bird branch of the dinosaur tree that sprouted and evolved over some 50 million years—and how that evolution may have saved birds from extinction when the asteroid struck.

The study is based on a cross-species analysis of more than 1,500 anatomical features across 120 species of early birds and therapod dinosaurs—the branch that includes velociraptors and T. Rex, and which is most closely related to birds. Of all the evolutionary changes that reshaped the bird lineage, says Michael Benton, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol in the UK, writing in a commentary on the new paper that also appears in Science, “The key seems to be miniaturization.”

Starting about 200 million years ago, the paper shows, one group of therapods began to shrink rapidly, from an average weight of more than 350 lb. to less than two. Not only that, says Lee, but, “It turns out that birds and their direct ancestors evolved about four times faster than other dinosaurs over that time.”

It’s not unusual to see different rates of evolution in related species, he says. “Rodents are the most successful mammals by far, for example,” Lee says, “and one reason is that they have the most rapidly evolving DNA.” Rapid evolution could be one reason there are now 10,000 species of birds, but only a few dozen species of crocodiles, even though both are equally ancient.

Shrinkage isn’t the only change that transformed therapods into birds, says Benton. “There was miniaturization, but also modifications to the eyes, the elaboration of feathers, the development of wings out of the small, silly-looking forelimbs therapods have.”

These changes might have been driven by their helpfulness in letting birds adapt to living in trees—previously uninhabited ecological niche. It’s still just a hypothesis, says Benton, but “there might have been an opportunity to conquer a new habitat by getting smaller, developing the ability to climb and to glide, developing better vision so you don’t go banging into branches.”

The changes could also have given birds a huge advantage over other dinosaurs when the asteroid finally struck. “Birds obviously didn’t evolve knowing in advance that it would hit,” says Lee, “but the adaptations might have incidentally helped them survive—they could warm themselves with feathers [when dust from the asteroid cooled the Earth], fly long distances for food.”

What most people don’t realize, says Lee, is that birds didn’t show up just as the other dinosaurs were dying out. “They shared the world for 100 million years.” The quintessential proto-bird, Archaeopteryx, lived 150 million years ago, he points out. But the terrifying T. Rex wouldn’t show up until many tens of millions of years later.

 

TIME Environment

Florida’s Attempt to Ban This Fish Has Virtually No Chance of Working

A winged lionfish at the Beijing Aquarium on May 30, 2012.
A winged lionfish at the Beijing Aquarium on May 30, 2012. Mark Ralston—AFP/Getty Images

Why the lionfish is here to stay

If you were trying to create the perfect invasive aquatic species, a fish capable of out-eating and out-breeding anything it comes across, chances are you wouldn’t be able to improve upon the lionfish. The spiny, venomous fish can produce up to 15,000 eggs every four days, and feed voraciously on small fish, invertebrates and mollusks. They also tend to have a hostile territorial attitude to other reef fish and scuba divers alike. Introduce a lionfish into a coastal coral reef, and it can quickly clear the habitat of any competitors.

Since the lionfish—which is native to Indo-Pacific waters—was accidentally introduced off Florida in the 1980s or 1990s, that’s exactly what has happened. The lionfish has been identified as a major threat through the coastal waters of the Atlantic, from North Carolina to the Caribbean. There have been sponsored lionfish derbies, underwater hunts where divers stalk the invasive fish, and restaurants have even tried to make an industry out of harvesting the lionfish, serving them to diners. (They’re not bad, provided you remove the poisonous spikes.)

And starting on Aug.1, Florida will no longer allow the importation of invasive lionfish—though that might seem like closing the barn door after the horse has left, given that the first lionfish introduced into the Atlantic likely came from aquarium, and the population has since exploded. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will also allow lionfish to be hunted by divers equipped with a rebreather, a machine that recycles oxygen so that divers can remain below the surface for much longer. That might help divers spear a few extra lionfish, but given that a female can produce as many as 2 million eggs in a year, divers will need to be awfully busy to keep up.

The reality is, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said, “it is unlikely that the lionfish invasion can be reversed.” Which means divers should get used to the sight of the striped-lion fish, fins open like a sail, patrolling its new territory. That’s the challenge of responding to invasive species—there is no cure. There is only prevention.

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