The Enigma of the Narcissist’s Appeal

It seems as though lately it’s difficult to avoid hearing about narcissism—one has only to turn on any coverage of this unique Presidential cycle to be exposed to any number of armchair diagnoses, mostly involving a particular candidate who is a proverbial poster child for this topic. But are such assessments throwaway observations, or do they reveal something deeper about the current direction of society in its valuation of certain narcissistic traits? And is narcissism a trait that signals power and good leadership?

How to classify Narcisissm

First, it is important to know how to begin to think about narcissism. Psychologists must decide whether any condition is binary or occurring on a continuum, meaning it must be classified either as something people have or do not have (the former) or something that falls on a spectrum from slight to severe (the latter). What poses the problem is the difficulty in identifying a specific point at which narcissism (or any condition or trait) moves from a varying degree in healthy individuals to an extreme psychological impairment that can be classified as a disorder.

Narcissism seems to run on a continuum, as most psychologists would attest. So then, how does such narcissism manifest in individuals, and at what point can their traits be classified as part of a greater disorder? What if one person’s egotism and bullying is just another person’s confidence and assertiveness?

Typically, in any discussion about narcissism, as a clinical disorder or merely a personality trait, the common manifestations are grandiosity, entitlement, and arrogance. Believing one is better than most other people and deserves special treatment and subsequently acts arrogantly are the hallmark traits for sure. But one reason why narcissism in general can be dismissed as less harmful than it should be is the inclusion on the lower end of the continuum of confidence and assertiveness, traits which can be beneficial to success and are often lauded. When such traits are included in a discussion of narcissism, society can look at the successes of a person and decide that while some arrogance can be abrasive, it really is not only a sign of a successful person but perhaps even the reason for that person’s success.

The Problem: People really like narcissists. At first.

In a 1984 study, Robert A. Emmons named four facets of narcissism:

  • Leadership/Authority—those who enjoy being a leader and being seen as an authority
  • Self-Absorption/Self-Admiration—those who admire their own physical appearance and personality
  • Superiority/Arrogance—those who overestimate their own abilities
  • Exploitativeness/Entitlement—those who enjoy manipulating and exploiting others and expect favors from them

A paradox, however, found in a study by Delroy L. Paulhus is that at first, narcissists are seen as more agreeable than others, they are viewed as conscientious, open and entertaining, well-adjusted, and often as highly competent.

In the Long Term

Narcissists don’t work well with others, and they don’t tend to do well in long-term relationships. In fact, they often suffer from a range of interpersonal problems, and after a period of time are seen by others as less agreeable, less well-adjusted, less warm, and more hostile and arrogant.

A recent study by Mitja D. Back, Stefan C. Schmukle, and Boris Egloff hypothesized that narcissists give off four particular cues at a “zero acquaintance” level that are used to form those first impressions when no other information is presented:

  • Attractiveness—usually stemming from the self-absorption, narcissists often dress in flashy or neat attire
  • Interpersonal warmth—narcissists are known to give charming glances at strangers
  • Competence—mostly this is derived from the self-assured behavior
  • Humor—also part of the self-absorption, narcissists often employ humor and witty expressions

These cues often lead new acquaintances to describe narcissists as charismatic, competent, warm, attractive, and fun.
A shocking point of this study, however, was that the research revealed that the most appealing trait at the “zero acquaintance” level was actually Exploitativeness/Entitlement—more than Leadership/Authority (or any other trait).

Why is narcissism detrimental?

According to extensive research, narcissists have no use in general for people beyond what serves to boost their egos. Narcissists do not value people in their own right, and they are not motivated to nor are they used to cooperating with others. Being cooperative is at odds with narcissists’ typical intrapersonal processes and interpersonal strategies.

Furthermore, narcissists operate at a highly impulsive level, relying on constant gratification. Because of this, they behave less dependably—and find it difficult to delay gratification. They constantly seek status self-enhancement, which is then highly disruptive to group processes and organization.

This goes back to that trait of Exploitativeness/Entitlement, which may come across as a sign of power and strength, a quality deemed important for leadership (and even survival) dating throughout human history and extending even to complex social orders in the animal kingdom. While such displays may be appealing to others at the outset, when it involves manipulation and exploitation, usually an observer’s sense of empathy kicks in. Or the narcissist turns this exploitation and entitlement onto the observer, so that person is no longer a passive witness to the degradation and maltreatment.

Furthermore, because narcissists rely on short-term positive feedback, narcissists lack the ability for self-criticism because they don’t see a need for it, and therefore they tend to possess an uncommonly high lack of insight.

When the jig is up

According to the research by Back, Schmukle, and Egloff, the attention and admiration from others serve as a drug for narcissists. Though they devalue others, they rely on approval—which they tend to burn through after a short acquaintance. People can easily recognize the patterns after a period of even short exposure, leading to the withdrawal of admiration required by the narcissists. Therefore, the long-term relationships are either hard to come by or come with many challenges.

Narcissism can be catastrophic to relationships, but with the lack of insight, narcissists aren’t likely to seek help in repairing these damaged relationships.

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