Narcissism is something that looms large in our cultural consciousness. We accuse friends and family of being narcissistic, think we observe the quality in politicians and celebrities, and wonder if society is becoming more self-absorbed over time.
But what is narcissism, really, once you get beyond the pop cultural conception and colloquial buzzword? My guest will unpack that for us today. His name is W. Keith Campbell, and he’s a professor of psychology and the author of The New Science of Narcissism. Keith explains that narcissism centers on an antagonistic sense of entitlement and self-importance, that there are actually two types of it — grandiose and vulnerable — and how the latter can actually underlie seeming cases of anxiety and depression. We then discuss what causes someone to become a narcissist, whether narcissism has increased in younger generations, and when narcissism tips over into an outright personality disorder. Keith explains how narcissists are attractive early on in a relationship, but lose their shine over time, and how, in a similar manner, narcissists readily emerge as leaders, but then often struggle to hold onto their position and power. We then get into the relationship between narcissism and social media, and how to get the benefits of narcissism — which isn’t entirely a bad thing — while mitigating its downsides.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- The Narcissism Epidemic by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell
- DSM criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- AoM Podcast #675: The Humble, Narcissistic Leader
- AoM Podcast #738: The Character Traits That Drive Optimal Performance
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Read the Transcript!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to a new edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now, narcissism is something that looms large in our cultural consciousness. We accuse friends and family of being narcissistic, think we observe the quality in politicians and celebrities, and wonder if society is becoming more self-absorbed over time. But what is narcissism really, once you get beyond the pop cultural conception and colloquial buzzword?
Well my guest today will unpack that for us. His name is W. Keith Campbell, and he’s a professor of Psychology and the author of The New Science of Narcissism. Keith explains that narcissism centers on an antagonistic sense of entitlement and self-importance, and there are actually two types of it, grandiose and vulnerable, and how the latter can actually underlie seeming cases of anxiety and depression.
We then discuss what causes someone to become a narcissist, whether narcissism has increased in younger generations, and when narcissism tips over to outright personality disorder. Keith explains how narcissists are attractive early on in a relationship but lose their shine over time, and how in a similar manner, narcissists readily emerge as leaders but then often struggle to hold on to their position and power.
We then get into the relation between narcissism and social media and how to get the benefits of narcissism, which isn’t entirely a bad thing, while mitigating its downsides. After the show’s over, check at our show notes at aom.is/narcissism.
Alright, Keith Campbell, welcome to the show.
Keith Campbell: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So you are a professor of Psychology at the University of Georgia, and you spend a lot of your career researching and writing about narcissism. How did that happen? How did you end up starting psychology and you think, “I’m gonna study narcissism.”?
Keith Campbell: Yeah, I have been studied narcissism a good 25, 30 years now since graduate school, and the story isn’t as dramatic as you would think. It wasn’t some relationship or bad boss or something. Really I was interested in basic questions of how people think about themselves and how people overestimate their own sense of worth or their own abilities, and we call these “self-enhancement effects” in social psychology.
A lot of us do it, we think we’re more attractive than we are, more humble than we are, and we sort of say we’re taller than we are. We do a lot of things like this. So I started studying narcissism initially as a way to get at that sort of basic self-enhancement, understand ego. Why are some people more prone to inflate their egos than other people? Why are some people hogging credit and other people more humble? So it was really a basic research question at the beginning and it just sort of took off.
Brett McKay: Well, so the word “narcissism” gets thrown around a lot in our culture. We accuse people of being narcissist all the time, we might accuse a friend, “You’re being so narcissistic right now.” So I think there’s a popular idea of what narcissism means, sort of you think a lot about yourself, but as a psychologist as a researcher, how do you define narcissism?
Keith Campbell: Yeah, you’re exactly right. We use the word and it usually means something like, “You’re a little selfish. You’re being self-centered. You’re kind of a jerk.” And it’s often, “My ex-boyfriend was really narcissistic,” or “My boss,” or whatever. So we use it, but we don’t know why.
In psychology, there’s these technical or more technical definitions, and there’s really a few different ways to think about narcissism. The first way is as a personality trait, meaning, we all have some level of narcissism, some of us are relatively high, some of us are relatively low, most of us are somewhere in the middle.
And in terms of that trait of narcissism, it has a couple of different forms or faces. What most people that are listening are familiar with is grandiose narcissism. So it’s this combination of I have a sense of entitlement, I’m important, I am better than you. I’m attractive, but I’m also confident and outgoing and driven, I wanna be a leader. I’m really a likeable person when you meet me because of my energy and confidence. So it’s this more… It’s the kind of narcissism we see with actors or politicians, the Tony Stark kind of narcissism.
And this other face of narcissism shares this sense of entitlement and self-importance, but it’s much more insecure and vulnerable and easily threatened, and we call this the vulnerable form of narcissism or vulnerable narcissism. And these are folks that are, sort of think they’re really important, but don’t do much, they’re a little more introverted, they’ll have little lower self-esteem, they end up in therapy more, they end up running the world, they end up sort of seeking help, and it’s a different form.
So we have those two basic traits of narcissism, vulnerable and grandiose, and then to make it even more confusing, there is a clinical or psychiatric disorder known as “narcissistic personality disorder” or NPD, which is an extreme form of narcissism that is grandiose, but also with some vulnerability. And when that becomes so extreme, it messes up your life and in significantly clinically significant ways it can be diagnosed as a disorder and treated, and that’s relatively rare, like one or 2% of the population.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. I’d like to dig in more into narcotic personality disorder. Do you see a lot in the popular culture about that as well? And you’ve written a lot about that. So I think it’s a thing to point out is narcissism is a personality trait. It’s not a mood. And that’s something people often confuse, they kind of throw in these mental health terms, “narcissism, depression, anxiety,” but narcissism… Depression and anxiety is about mood. Narcissism is about personality.
Keith Campbell: Yeah, absolutely. These are traits, meaning this is sort of how you are. The way we think about a trait, it’s the way you are across time, you know you’re this way now, you’re gonna be this way in a few years. And also across situations, so the way you are at work and the way you are at home, if you’re kind of consistent.
So people who are narcissistic tend to be narcissistic over time. If you’re just narcissistic this afternoon, I think, well, maybe you got into the whiskey and cocaine or something, and if you’re narcissistic across situations, it makes sense. If you’re only narcissistic at your workplace, but not at home, maybe that’s just a job requirement. So to be a personality trait it has to be general in your life.
Brett McKay: Okay, so narcissism is a personality trait, but it’s a personality trait made up of other personality traits?
Keith Campbell: Absolutely. And that’s really true of a lot of these more… It’s a complex trait, and it has components of it of more general traits, which I’m happy to talk about if you want.
Brett McKay: Yeah, talk about this. I think most people are familiar with the big five, but for those who aren’t, what are the big five personality traits? And which of those make up narcissism?
Keith Campbell: Yeah, so the big five personality traits are what happened when you look at all the potential personality traits that we have, and we can find those in dictionaries or thesauruses, and you kinda go, “Let’s put those together. How many are there really?” And you go, “Well, there’s about five that kinda hang together well,” and those five are easily remembered because they spell “ocean” or “canoe”.
If you spell “ocean”, which is my preferred way, that the first of the big five traits is “openness to experience”, and this is a combination of being sort of creative and interested in ideas and philosophy. So a lot of people in academics and philosophy are really high in openness, a lot of artists. The next is “conscientiousness”, which is the trait most associated with work and discipline, and it’s made up of sort of discipline and organization, but also industriousness and work ethic.
The third of the big five, the E, is “extraversion”, and this is when most people are familiar with, meaning sociability, like extroverts like to go out to parties and things, but it also means drive and ambition. So leaders are very extroverted. And this extraversion piece is what you see with grandiose narcissism, that’s that sort of drive, and this is why grandiose narcissists are likable, is the extraversion.
The next in the ocean is A for “agreeableness”, and agreeableness is a combination of really being polite, following rules, and also being compassionate and kind, and this is something you see with narcissism as well, it’s really core to narcissism and a lot of the more toxic traits, but reversed. So what we see with narcissism and psychopathy and other dark traits is high antagonism or low agreeableness.
And the final trait in the big five is “neuroticism”, which sounds bad, but really neuroticism is a combination of anxiety, depression and some hostility, and that’s what you see with vulnerable narcissists, a lot of neuroticism. So if you take those big five together and you want to understand grandiose narcissism, you take some antagonism, somebody who’s sort of self-centered and mean and entitled, but you take that person say, and you’re also really extroverted and driven and charming, and that’s your grandiose narcissist.
You take that same antagonism and maybe a little bit more suspiciousness and hostility because your vulnerability, and you make that person neurotic, anxious, insecure. And that’s vulnerable narcissism. So that’s kind of how you put it together with the big five traits.
Brett McKay: You mentioned earlier that vulnerable narcissists are more likely to end up in therapy. Is it because of the neuroticism aspect of it?
Keith Campbell: Absolutely, and when you talk to therapists, what happens is they say yeah, you have a client come in and they have symptoms of, “I’m kinda depressed. Things aren’t going my way. The world doesn’t seem fair.” And you go, “Oh, you seem like an anxious, depressed person,” and you dig in a little bit, and the person also says, “Well, I’m really smarter than everybody else and I should be running the show,” and a lot of other things that are hard to see in someday who’s depressed.
So sometimes vulnerable narcissism is referred to as “covert narcissism” because it’s narcissism that’s really hard to see until you press. On the surface, it looks like somebody who’s sort of anxious, and George Costanza is the example we used to give in the old days, or the comic book guy from the Simpsons, but somebody on the surface who seems kind of weak and neurotic, but inside really wants power and status.
Brett McKay: When someone goes to therapy and they present, say as like a depressive, how do clinicians diagnose, “You actually, this is narcissism.”? What does that look like for the diagnostics of narcissism? Is it pretty difficult to do?
Keith Campbell: Yeah, I wanna be clear, I’m not a clinician, so this is just reading and talking to people. What seems to happen is it takes a while to dig up. You don’t really notice it, and then different conversations, you start hitting triggers. So, “Oh, this is what makes you depressed. Why did you get depressed?” “Well, I was disrespected.” “Well, why were you disrespected?” “Well, people didn’t pay attention to me.” “Did you do anything?” “Well, no, they should have noticed me.”
So an example of something like this would be in the Elliot shootings in Santa Barbara, where he asked a girl out, she doesn’t say anything back, and he goes, “I was rejected by that girl, I’m gonna take revenge.” So it’s a very vulnerable thing to do. Most of us, you go, “Hey, go out with me.” Somebody doesn’t say anything, you go, “Well, they probably didn’t hear me.”
But if you’re more vulnerable and insecure, you assume people are out to get you, they’re disrespecting you, slighting you, and when a therapists starts seeing that kind of behavior, they go, “Okay, there’s some ego involvement in this depression.” It’s not just, “I’m a bad person,” it’s like, “I’m a good person who’s not getting the respect they deserve.” If that made sense.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that makes sense. What about grandiose narcissism, I guess? They’re the opposite. They have a thicker skin. They don’t…
Keith Campbell: Yeah, yes, thicker skin, they sometimes call ’em “thick and thin skin narcissists”. With grandiose narcissism, it’s often not seen at first because you meet people who are really confident and extroverted and likable, and if you meet people like this in a social situation or in public, like in performance, your initial response is, “This is a really confident person that I really like. They’re a good person.”
And where you start seeing the grandiosity is over time, when there’s options for that person to do something that’s warm or loving, or the trust… You have a position where you have to trust them, and it turns out, “Well, they’re not that trustworthy. Or really, they don’t care that much about me, they care more about themselves. Or they’re not as interested in me as I’m in them.”
So what you see over time, you see that lack of empathy, that’s self-centeredness, but it takes a little time. Often it takes a little time, because you like the grandiosity at first.
Brett McKay: Do we know what causes narcissism, like why are some people more narcissistic than others?
Keith Campbell: Yes, and it’s a combination. So with personality, what we see is a lot of us are genetics, and I’m talking about 50%, maybe a little more is heritable in any of our traits, so it comes from our ancestry. Doesn’t mean if your parent’s a narcissist you are doomed to be a narcissist or anything, but there is that genetic sort of association.
Parenting matters, but it doesn’t matter as much as most people think. With grandiose narcissists, you see parents that said, “Hey, you’re special.” Put the kid on a pedestal, were very permissive. And with vulnerable narcissists, you see the parenting that you see with a lot of more negative psychological outcomes, so you see parents who are more cold and abusive, that are a little more traumatic for the kid.
The other piece with narcissism is what we call “non-shared family environment”, and the research, but really it’s just the random stuff that happens to you growing up. So you grow up and maybe one kid ends up with a bunch of really nice friends and a nice group and develops really warm and loving relationships, and another group ends up with a little more high status, competitive group of friends and becomes a little more self-promoting and self-centered just to fit in with the friend group, and that leads to more narcissism later on. So it’s complex, there’s no single path, but there are some things that we know lead to it.
Brett McKay: Well, you also in the book, you mention culture can also have an influence as well, I think the comparison between eastern and western cultures where western cultures tend to be more narcissistic compared to eastern cultures.
Keith Campbell: Oh, oh, for sure. There are cultural differences across cultures, that classic east and west difference, and you see that at the continent level, they even have data looking at East and West Germany before and after the break-up, where you saw lower narcissism in East Germany that was communist versus West Germany.
Another thing you see culturally is the shift toward cities, smaller family sizes, more competitive workplaces, and we see that in China pretty clearly, but some data in the US as well, that as a society is become more urbanized, we have smaller families, less long-term trusting relationships, everybody’s hustling to build a brand, to get attention, to fight their way through the economic system, there’s just more pull for narcissism.
Brett McKay: There’s also differences across generations as well. A couple of years ago, actually more than a couple of years ago, I think is a decade ago, you wrote a book with Jean Twenge, The Narcissism Epidemic, talking about the increase we’re seeing in narcissism. Tell us about that. What is the state of narcissism? Is there… Can we see a difference in narcissism from one generation to the next?
Keith Campbell: Yes, and it’s unfortunately… Well, fortunately or not, it’s more complicated. So Jean and I wrote The Narcissism Epidemic, in ’08 I think. Or ’09. It’s right before the great financial crisis, and what we had was it was kind of at the height of the Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian narcissistic grandiose era, and we found real increases in narcissism in college students from the ’80s to then.
And what happened since then is we had the great financial crisis kick in, and the job market collapsed, and we saw narcissism start to drop with a lot of young people, they just didn’t… I think vulnerable narcissism’s gone up. I don’t have really good data on that. But the grandiose narcissism seems to have gone down because of the job market in large parts.
And right now with the pandemic, it’s really hard to know what’s going on. We’re seeing lots of mental health decreases, lack of trust in society, so it’s hard to know what’s going on in this cultural stew. But in general, more individualistic societies, more low trust societies, you’re gonna get more narcissism.
Brett McKay: I’m curious, as a researcher, how do you figure that stuff out? How do you figure out narcissism on a scale that large? What do you…
Keith Campbell: Yeah, it’s really challenging because it’s, how do you find data? So what we did was we would look at every single person who’d measured narcissism, we’d get the mean scores and we collect those, in what we call a “cross-temporal meta-analysis”, which is a fancy way of saying is we’re looking at all the studies across time and we’d see if those means are increased or decreasing.
Ideally, what you have is you have these national data sets that have these data, but we just don’t have that for narcissism, so we have to go and look at it. And then if you wanna look at things like narcissism culturally, which is a little different question, you have to figure out what to look at, and we look at things like what people are naming their children, what are people buying? There’s a lot of other things you can look at.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve heard song lyrics is one thing you look at, like the instances of “I” in song lyrics have gone up, and then the instances of “you” have gone down.
Keith Campbell: Yeah, song lyrics, books, there’s lots of things that have changed, and a lot of those in our society are in the direction of individualism. We’re just, we’re in a very individualistic society right now.
Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s recap. I think we did a good breakdown broadly of what narcissism is, it’s a personality trait. Everyone is narcissistic to some extent or another. You might be narcissistic in some instances, but not in others. There’s two types of narcissism, there’s the grandiose narcissism, which I think everyone is familiar with, and I think that’s kind of the popular idea of what a narcissist is.
But there’s also that vulnerable narcissist, where they think they’re the center of the world, but they don’t really do anything to promote themselves, but they just feel like people… They feel like the world is obligated to meet their needs and just know about it, and they get really upset when that doesn’t happen. Would that be a fair estimation?
Keith Campbell: Yes, slighted. And that’s that vulnerability piece, it’s like you’re easily threatened, because they think the world is… They think the world owes them something, but they haven’t been out there fighting enough to have a thick skin.
Brett McKay: Okay, so that’s a personality trait. Everyone can experience that to some extent or another. But then you mentioned earlier that there is a clinical diagnosis called “narcissistic personality disorder”. So when does narcissism tip over into a disorder, and how do psychologists figure that out?
Keith Campbell: Yes, so personality is designed to be ideally sort of flexible, so I have one personality when I’m at work, maybe I have to be more directive, I have to be an authority, I’m in charge. I might have another personality when I’m with my kids, it’s not totally different but I’m gonna… It’s gonna go up and down. I’m gonna be flexible depending on my environment.
Well, what happens with personality with some people, is it can be, it can get sort of extreme and it can be inflexible, so that my narcissism, when I’m at work, it’s like, “Hey, let’s just talk about me.” When I’m with my wife, I’m like, “Yeah, I hear that, but let’s talk about my day.” When I’m with my kids, I’m like, “You know what? I’d love to pick you up, Honey, but I’ve got the golf clubs in the back of the Mercedes and I just don’t have room for you, and maybe you can just take an Uber to the birthday party.”
And so what happens is your own ego, because it’s so extreme and it’s not flexible enough, it starts to interfere with your life. So then what a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist has to do is say, “Well, is this really messing you up in a couple of different ways?” And one of the ways narcissism really seems to affect people is relationships.
So your narcissism, you might feel good, and personally you might not depressed, but your wife or your husband might be suffering, your kids might be suffering, your employees might be suffering. So one issue is your relationships could be a problem, and so narcissism is implicated in a lot of divorce.
It could be that you’re making poor decisions at work because you won’t take feedback, so you think you’re so smart, people are saying you’re making a mistake and you’re like, “No, I’m in charge here.” Or you want the opportunity for glory and you take risks. It’s destroying your work.
So if a clinician says, “You know, it’s messing you up in a couple of areas, it’s extreme and inflexible, you’ve been this way for a long time, it’s not just some drug you’re on, it’s not a brain tumor, it’s a personality disorder and let’s start to treat it.” So that’s the process.
Brett McKay: And that’s tricky because with a lot of mental health diagnoses like depression, the cue is like, is this impairing your life? That’s how if sadness is impairing your life to an over-long period of time, but it sounds like a narcissism, it could be like the narcissist’s life isn’t being impaired, but other people around them, their life’s miserable.
Keith Campbell: Yes, and it has the other set of disorders that’s somewhat similar are addictive disorders, where you can have people with addictions that say, “You know, it’s sort of working for me, but other people are suffering.” But yeah, it’s set up in a bad way in terms of treatment seek, and this is a challenge.
So if I’m narcissistic and the people really suffering from my narcissism are my kids, when I go into therapy and it gets challenging, and the therapist is like… The psychiatrist’s like, “Dude, let’s start thinking about who you really are,” I go, “You know what? I’m out of here. I don’t wanna do this.” And so that is the challenge with narcissism and psychotherapy, is they just won’t stick with it. Because they’re not suffering enough.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Or even just getting into therapy, how do you say… “You’ve got a problem.” “No, I don’t.”
Keith Campbell: Absolutely, that’s part of that defensiveness. “I’m not the problem. Everyone else is the problem.” So it’s hard to get people into therapy who are narcissistic, it’s hard to keep them in therapy, because the nature of the disorder is the person suffering is often not the narcissist. Or if they are, it’s sort of they’re suffering and it’s the second order effects of their own egos, it’s not the first order effects.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. Okay, and just to be clear, I think is an important distinction. Narcissistic personality disorder is a clinical diagnosis. You can’t just accuse someone of narcissistic personality disorder willy-nilly. This is something that has to be probably diagnosed by an expert.
Keith Campbell: Yes, it should be diagnosed. And I don’t go around labeling people with NPD, there’s processes for doing this technically.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. I think that goes for any type of mental health issue. Like ADHD, depression, anxiety. You might think you have it. Always go find, make sure you do, from an expert.
Keith Campbell: And especially the challenge, and you mentioned this earlier, is a lot of these disorders are also normal conditions, so if somebody says, “Dude, I’m really anxious.” Well, does that mean I’m anxious? Or does that mean I have generalized anxiety disorder? “Man, I’m scared of the snake.” Am I scared of snakes like a normal person? Or do I have a snake phobia? So a lot of these conditions kind of ride a line between normal and psychiatric, and it’s not a very clear line in a lot of cases.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So the first part of the book, you describe narcissism, then the rest of the book, you discuss its effects on different aspects of our lives. We mentioned relationships, it seems like narcissism has the biggest impact on relationships. Let’s dig deeper in there. What does the research say about narcissism and relationships?
Keith Campbell: Well, it’s complex in an interesting way. So what you find is that the effect of narcissism and relationships is different at the early stages than in the committed stages. So in early parts of relationships, let’s say you’re dating, typical American dating relationships with the young people, people who are narcissistic are going to be attractive when you first meet them, they’re gonna be likeable, they’re likeable in 30-second movie clips.
They’re gonna seem confident and they’re gonna be very effective at dating. They’re gonna have more dates, they’re gonna have more connections on social media, they’re gonna, they’re gonna date more quickly, they got lots of things. So in the beginning of relationships, narcissism is really good for starting relationships, and when people start relationships with grandiose narcissists, they report that those relationships are kind of fun at first because they’re exciting.
So what happens though over time is that relationships, and this isn’t always the case, but often what people want is they want a more committed or emotionally intimate relationship. And so there’s a sort of a transition in relationships from, “Hey, we’re having fun, this is dating,” to, “Hey, let’s get to know each other, let’s have something more committed. Maybe let’s talk about something more permanent.”
Brett McKay: In that transition, narcissism falls apart, because what you see with narcissism is not so much an interest in committed or warm or empathetic relationships, but instead, you see the narcissist maybe being a little bit unfaithful, being a little bit controlling, being a little materialistic, treating you like a prop or a trophy. You see a lot of negative behaviors come up over time. Sometimes abuse, sometimes violence.
Keith Campbell: So the relationships often will start off really strong with grandiose narcissists, but over time, they tend to fall apart and they get really, really bad. So there’s just a very interesting pattern, and what happens is people end up dating lots of narcissists because of this, or some people do, and it can be really bad. So that’s the short version. Medium-short version.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s interesting. The grandiose narcissist, you also highlight research that they typically tend to be more attractive physically, because they invest more in their physical attractiveness. They’re gonna buy nice clothes, work out, etcetera.
Keith Campbell: Yeah, that’s a great point. There’s some really interesting research where they did these studies like, “These grandiose narcissists, these men and women are more attractive. Why is it?” And one of my colleagues did a study where he brought people in and had ’em shave their beards, take their makeup off, and just did just normal face shots. You can’t see any difference, it’s just people are narcissistic, want to be attractive, they want to be a attracted, people attracted to them, and they’ll put effort into it, and it’s effective.
Brett McKay: Right, but the issue is later on, the person in the relationships just goes, “Well, this person doesn’t really think too much about me, and this is not gonna go anywhere.”
Keith Campbell: Right, if your job are the narcissist’s partner is to make the narcissist look good, that can be exciting for a little while, but it gets boring very quickly.
Brett McKay: What about vulnerable narcissists in relationship, what does that look like?
Keith Campbell: It’s a different deal, because vulnerable narcissists are not necessarily attract… They’re not really attractive people as a rule, because they’re, well again, a little neurotic, little introverted. It’s not an attractive thing. What happens, and this is less research, so it’s a little bit this is just from talking to people, is you start a relationship, sometimes it’s a caregiving relationship, “Well, I’m dating this person, they’re a little weak, they’re a little neurotic,” maybe I’m taking care of them.
I assume once I take care of them, they will be more grateful and loving to me. So I date somebody who is a vulnerable narcissism, I’m really nice to them. I go, “Well, they’re gonna be less depressed pretty soon, and then we’re gonna be close.” Well, once they’re less depressed, it turns out they’re kind of a narcissistic jerk. So you get rid of the neuroticism, but you haven’t taken care of the disagreeableness and now you have kind of a jerk is a partner.
Brett McKay: Okay, so it sounds like narcissism in relationships, it could be good in the beginning, but slowly fades away.
Keith Campbell: It’s not… Yeah, it’s not a good recipe. I said this once, I said, “Except on the summer fling,” and then there was a newspaper headline that said, “Dr. Campbell tells people to have flings with narcissists.”
So I’m not saying that. I’m just saying, life is complicated. If you’re gonna have a relationship with a narcissist, make sure it’s short-term and it’s on summer, over summer.
Brett McKay: What about narcissism in leadership, what does the research say there?
Keith Campbell: That’s another really complicated area, and narcissism, again, grandiose narcissism seems to really fit with leadership, and we see this in a lot of research now. We see that narcissists are good at emerging as leaders, which means that, hey, if we have a group of 10 people, the narcissist is more likely to become the leader.
And this works in family businesses, it works in companies, we just see the people who are more… Works in assessment centers, with smart people looking for leaders. People with grandiose will gravitate towards leadership because they want it, and they seem confident. So you find narcissists emerge as leaders. The challenge is, how are narcissists once they get there?
Their narcissism is really a double-edged sword. People who are narcissistic can do big risky things, they tend to take public risks. When those risks as leaders work and they can take credit for it, everyone thinks they’re a hero. And when those risks fail, they try to blame other people and they look really bad and people say, “Why were you so stupid to believe that Theranos woman?”
So it really depends on the outcome, but what you see is this big risk-taking and it can go either way, but very volatile leadership, typically, with more grandiose leaders.
Brett McKay: Now, we had a Brad Owens on the podcast, but he’s a professor of Business Ethics at BYU. He’s done a lot of research on narcissism and humility in leadership, and I think he found the same thing, narcissists tend to emerge as leaders faster, but in the long run, they do poorly as leaders because of the grandiosity and whatnot.
Keith Campbell: Yes. The only… The exception to that is if they can, every once in a while, they’ll just hit it out of the park. So I can tell you 100 stories of narcissists who were brought in and destroyed everything and were then drummed out, but every once in a while, they can just get lucky, and then they just write books about it.
One of the great books on Larry Ellison is called, The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison, is the title of the book. Something like that, and then the subtitle is, “God doesn’t think He’s Larry Ellison.” The CEO of Oracle, I should have mentioned that. But he’s a very narcissistic character and he’s done extremely well as a business person and doesn’t seem like a very likeable guy, but I bet I would have a great time hanging out with his collection of whatever he’s gonna show me. So it can work either way. It’s not always bad, but it can go really bad, and humility is something I would rather have in a leader.
Brett McKay: What about vulnerable narcissism in leadership? Do they typically emerge as leaders? Or no, they’re just gonna be kind of wallowing there, like, “I should be the leader, but no one recognizes me.”?
Keith Campbell: Yes, you’re 100% right. And when they do get into leadership, vulnerability is a very bad trait in a leader. Because leaders who don’t have thick skin will get… ‘Cause once you’re a leader, everyone’s taking shots at you, it’s just like being famous, just like… Anybody who puts their head out there is gonna have people taking shots at it, and vulnerable leaders who have power, they can be real dangerous, because when their ego gets wounded, they can lash out in thoughtless ways and hurt a lot of people.
So I think vulnerability in leaders are a real mistake. I can deal with the standard grandiose narcissist psychopaths we have, but the vulnerability, they can be dangerous in unpredictable ways, not just predictable ways.
Brett McKay: So I think a lot of us, we typically associate the increase in narcissism with social media, that’s kind of… It feels like that, okay, we have this platform where it encourages self-promotion. What does the research say about narcissism in social media?
Keith Campbell: It’s one of those things that’s a little bit complicated. At first, I thought, “Well, everybody who gets on social media is gonna become more narcissistic,” and maybe that happened a little bit, but it doesn’t seem that way. What it seems to be is that people who are narcissistic or grandiose do very well on social media.
They have more friends on Facebook, more followers on Twitter. They just tend to have bigger social media networks on all the accounts. So if you open up your social media account, look at all your people you’re following, you’re gonna see more narcissism than really exists. And social media seems to be good at reinforcing narcissism, so people who are narcissistic can use social media to get attention, and that will make their narcissism survive or inflated, whatever.
So it’s a way of maintaining narcissism, but it doesn’t seem to be making narcissists. In fact, it seems to make people a little bit depressed, but that’s another topic. It seems more it’s a tool for people who are narcissistic to self-promote and it works well for them.
Brett McKay: Okay, so social media self-selects for narcissists, basically. That’s why it seems like everyone’s a narcissist?
Keith Campbell: Yes, yes.
Brett McKay: Okay. And I thought it was interesting some of the research being done right now. It’s, again, it’s kind of speculative right now, but it’s interesting, is that you can actually look at someone’s social media postings and figure out if they’re higher on narcissism than others, like the amount of selfies being taken is possibly a sign that someone’s narcissistic.
Keith Campbell: Yeah, it’s really interesting. So we started doing this with a student, and maybe it’s almost been 10 years ago. We were doing back in the day was we’d look at student… This is when undergraduates had Facebook and no one else had social media, and we’d look at their Facebook pages and code them and we’d use that to predict narcissism. We’re like, “Yeah, we could do this pretty well.” It was very laborious and old-fashioned.
About three or four years ago, people started using more machine learning to start scraping websites and using things like likes of products or other information on there to predict personality. Some of this, if you’ve heard about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, that’s what they were doing, and that turns out to work pretty well, but not great.
So you can detect narcissism, maybe 0.2, 0.3 correlations from some sort of machine learning would be my guess, but it’s not perfect and it’s not a secret pathway into people’s lives, if that makes sense. It’s not like a window into their soul.
Brett McKay: No, yeah, that makes sense. One of the things that came out of that research is that narcissists, not only do they take more selfies, but they actually like when other people take selfies and post selfies. Which is interesting, cause when I see someone post a selfie, it kinda makes me feel like, I experience some sort of like second hand embarrassment, I’m like, “Wow, that’s… Why would you?” But there’s people who are really into that, “Yeah, that’s great. Keep doing that.”
Keith Campbell: Well I mean, that’s why I love personality, because people are just wired differently. When I would take selfies, it would horrify me, I’m like, “I can’t. Who puts a picture of themselves? This is so wrong.” It was just how I wasn’t raised that way, and I’m sort of neurotic, I’m like, “God, I look so horrible in this picture.” I couldn’t do it. People who are narcissistic, it’s pretty easy.
It’s like, “Hey, I look good. Let’s look at everyone else look good. I’ll look good alone, I’ll do more selfies with my own body.” So it’s more comfort in doing it, and they’re cool with it. So people are just different.
Brett McKay: Yeah, if you were… I’ve taken one selfie where I’ve actually held the camera, and it made me feel… And I never wanted to do it again. So if I have to take a picture, I’d hand the camera to someone else, “You take the picture.” And it’s funny, whenever I see people take selfies in public, I look away.
We’re in the gym, at the locker room like, “Okay, this is some kind of weird private experience and I shouldn’t be looking at it.” [chuckle] That’s just me.
Keith Campbell: Yes. It’s you’re from a different culture and you’re wired a little differently, and if you’re from the modern digital culture and you were a little narcissistic, you’d think, “God, I am so grateful to be born in the era where I could take pictures of myself all the time. Imagine those poor Gen X kids that didn’t even have cameras.”
Brett McKay: So we talked about grandiose narcissism in social media. Do we know how vulnerable narcissists use social media?
Keith Campbell: We have data on it, and it’s a lot less data, so it’s not as clear. What it looks like is there’s a lot more struggle and insecurity, sort of like we were just talking about, people are vulnerable, don’t feel… Is they wanna put selfies out there, they wanna get liked, but they don’t feel really good about it. So they spend more time waffling back and forth, and it’s not necessarily a fun process.
And you can talk to some Instagram stars, I don’t know, maybe you have, that you look at their Instagram and you’re like, “Oh my God, this person must be the most confident, they just knocked this shot off just hanging in Dubai,” and when you talk to them, it turns out they spent a day doing that shot. They didn’t sleep for a day or two, worried about how they look. So there’s a lot of vulnerability, but you don’t pick it up in the pictures.
Brett McKay: Those are some of my favorite articles that come out, where you have some journalists that goes into these influencer houses where they all live together and see what it’s like. Yeah, it’s a lot more going on than you think, a lot of anxiety and neuroticism and just being anxious about how things are gonna be received, and they spend a lot of time on this stuff.
Keith Campbell: Yeah, I think that the real celebrity culture, and I was just up in, I was just up doing a celebrity podcast last week in LA, it was really fun, but that culture, there’s a lot of anxiety about performance because it’s so competitive. It’s just so brutally competitive. It’s not as fun as it looks.
Brett McKay: And another related to this idea of narcissism in digital technology, narcissism can also help explain the phenomenon of trolling. How can narcissism help us understand that?
Keith Campbell: Yeah, so trolling, the idea on social media is just putting out bait to see if you can get people to get upset or riled up about. People looked at that with trolling and other dark traits, and the traits that really seem to predict trolling are narcissism, some psychopathy, and sadism. Which is basically just, “I enjoy watching people suffer.”
So there’s some narcissism in trolling, and there’s also just some plain old meanness. But it’s not people… It’s not fun love, it’s not a loving… A thing loving people do. It’s a little bit darker.
Brett McKay: And is that situational, like does that only happen on social media? Or is this carry over to other aspects of life, because they are personality traits?
Keith Campbell: These things generally will carry across situations because they are traits, but they’ll come out in different forms. Somebody who’s a great troll would be somebody like Elon Musk, who comes across as narcissistic, but he comes across is also what we call a “trickster figure”. You know, a guy who’s kind of a joke or a trickster, and those figures are interesting ones in that they’re often very creative. So they can seem narcissistic, but they’re also kind of interesting and creative, and not enough research on that type of troll.
Brett McKay: So listening to you speak about narcissism, I think we typically focus on the downside, so we’ll talk about that here in a bit, but it does sound like there’s some upsides to be narcissistic on occasion. In the realm of relationships, if you spend more time on how you present yourself and you put yourself out there more, you’re more likely to get in a relationship.
Or even in the job hunt, you have to put yourself out there to be considered for a promotion or a raise or something. So how can you get the benefits of narcissism without the downsides?
Keith Campbell: Yeah, I try to look at narcissism, I try to look at most things as a trade-off, because that’s how nature is. If something was just always bad all the time, we just wouldn’t really have it so much. So most of our personality traits have some benefits at some point, and narcissism is no exception.
I think narcissism works really well in dating, it works really well in public speaking, it works really well in leadership, works really well in self-promotion, maybe marketing, maybe competition, walking into a boxing match. So what you can do is you say, “Well, let’s look at the narcissist doing that, and maybe I can use some of that swag or… ” But I’ll just do it in limited domains.
So maybe I’ll have a swagger when I walk into the boxing boxing ring, but I’m not gonna carry that home with my kids. Or maybe I’ll have the confidence when I walk on stage instead of going, “I’m gonna fail,” I’m gonna say, “Yeah, I got this one,” and try to feel really positive about it and just see how it goes.
So I think there’s a lot to learn from watching especially the more grandiose, the more grandiose people and how they can really succeed in life and imitating some of that stuff, but not starting to believe you’re on hype, because you’re just not that big of a deal.
Brett McKay: So let’s say someone’s listening to this and they’re thinking, “Maybe I’m more narcissist than I need to be, and it is affecting my relationships.” We’re not talking narcissist personality disorder, we’re just talking, you’re higher in narcissism than you like and you’re seeing that it’s affecting your relationship. Is it possible to tamp that down?
Keith Campbell: Yes. I think one thing we’ve learned in personality science in the last 10 years, I think very clearly, is that personality can change. And to change, you need to identify what it is you wanna change and then make an effort over time. What I would suggest to people is say, “Look, I’m all narcissistic.”
I would say, what is it specifically that’s really messing you up? Is it the way you treat your… Is it the way you treat your relationship partner? Is it something at work? Is it the way you relate to people? And figure out what that is and say, “Look, I’m gonna address that one specific behavior.” You don’t have to change your whole personality, just try to do one thing.
One example I have, and I’m not super narcissistic, but I’m really extroverted and I have a tendency to talk over people, I’ll go to conferences and I’ll start talking, I’ll get real excited and just drown people out. And so I go, “Well, this is my tendency. I look a little bit self-centered ’cause I am, so I’m gonna really just… Every time I talk to people, I’m gonna put in breaks, so I give them a chance to talk.” And it’s a practice.
So my suggestion to people is, if you find things like that just go, “Hey, it’s something I would rather not do so much, it’s not benefiting me. What could I do to make it a little better?” A little simple thing like that.
Brett McKay: And then how we broke things down with narcissism, the difference between grandiose and vulnerable, and the personality traits that are involved in each one, that can help you pinpoint what you need to work on. So if you’re more of a grandiose narcissist, you might need to tamp down the extraversion a bit, let other people have the limelight. If you’re a vulnerable narcissist, I imagine the thing you gotta tackle there is the neuroticism or the anxiety.
Keith Campbell: Yes, it’s the neuroticism. How do you do that? Exercise, meditation, yoga, walks, SSRIs. There’s things you do to try to get rid of that anxiety or depression in your life, that can be helpful that way. And then the other key piece is that antagonism, and that could be practice of compassion.
There’s compassion meditations you can do to treat everybody like they’re your mother in a past life. That’s an old one. But there are different practices that you can… Be nice to puppies. Whatever it is, just find something and focus on that, and see if you can make some headway that way.
Brett McKay: Yeah, focus on other people, not you. Is the key.
Keith Campbell: Yes.
Brett McKay: You have to be careful of the meditation. I’ve seen research lately saying that certain types of meditation can actually make you more narcissistic.
Keith Campbell: That is really an interesting question because we have some research in Ayahuasca that we’ve been looking at too, and I think there’s a challenge in the meditation, it’s the energy-based practices, which are what I do, is some of the more energy-based yoga practices that are associated with narcissism.
What happens is people have an enlightenment experience and they go, “Okay, I’m enlightened now. Well, I guess I’m a guru. I’m gonna go get followers.”
So I don’t think those practices are the best for grandiosity. I think they’re good for vulnerability and neuroticism, but for grandiosity they can be a real mixed bag, and a lot of narcissistic gurus.
Brett McKay: Right. If you’re grandiose, you want to do the lovingkindness or the compassion.
Keith Campbell: Lovingkindness would be what I would suggest.
Brett McKay: That’s the prescription. What about narcissistic personality disorder? I’ve read things that it’s really hard to treat, and sometimes it seems like it’s impossible to treat. Is that true?
Keith Campbell: It can be, but… Okay, so we don’t have the gold standard clinical trial because it’s never been done, but if you look across all the different clinical trials where they’ve looked at narcissism, and these aren’t always perfect studies, what you find is that narcissists and narcissism can be changed.
The big challenge is keeping people in therapy and getting people to therapy, but if people stick with it, it seems to be possible to change. So it’s really a challenge of getting people in there and find a therapist you can deal with people who are narcissistic, and this is a challenge in finding the therapy that fits the person.
Brett McKay: We talked about reducing narcissism in yourself. How do you handle someone, if you have someone in your life who’s a narcissist, whether that’s a spouse, a boss, a friend? Any tips there so you can maintain the relationship?
Keith Campbell: Yeah, it depends on how tied you are with the person. One, I guess no matter what the relationship is, if you’re dealing with somebody you think is really narcissistic, it’s good to find some support, find some other people that agree with you. So that if you get into conflict, the person can’t…
They’ve used the term “gaslighting”, but basically people who are narcissistic can make you think you’re crazy, so you get some social support around you, take notes about things, start understanding the situation in a very stable and solid and secure way, in case there’s a conflict.
And then you have to deal with whatever conflict comes up, so it could be you have a narcissistic boss that’s stealing credit from you, and then you go, “How do I handle this? Do I give them the credit and then try to get him promoted out? Do I try to get some of the credit? Do I try to get another boss?” It just depends on what the situation is, but I might get a support network first and get outside help if you can. Yeah.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. Well Keith, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about the book and your work?
Keith Campbell: Yeah, my website, wkeithcampbell.com. It’s not great. It’s got some stuff. Book could be found anywhere. And I’m sometimes on Twitter @W.KeithCampbell.
Brett McKay: Alright. Well, Keith Campbell, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Keith Campbell: Oh, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Brett McKay: My guest today was W. Keith Campbell. He’s the author of the book, The New Science of Narcissism. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You find more information about hi work at his website, wkeithcampbell.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/narcissism, where you find links to resources, where we delve deeper into this topic.
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