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.