Brain power

Insights into the behaviour of narcissists

Writing in Scientific American, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman draws on a range of research to provide key insights into the behaviour of narcissists. Narcissism is “the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one’s own attributes.”

The key insights are:

  • Narcissists are popular at first acquaintance. Narcissists have an immediately perceived charm and charisma due to four particular cues: attractiveness, competence, interpersonal warmth, and humour.
  • Initial popularity of narcissists depends on the behaviours triggered. Expressive and dominant behaviours are linked to a positive impression, while arrogant and combative behaviours are linked to a negative impression. High popularity at first acquaintance may be due to narcissists wanting to display behaviours that create a good impression.
  • Narcissism can be described as having an “emerging zone” and “enduring zone”. In the initial “emerging zone” of relationships, narcissists are popular, successfully make new friends, and acquire social status. As relationships progress into the “enduring zone”, narcissists start to display behaviours that are seen negatively, so they have difficulty maintaining meaningful and intimate relationships. The negative consequences of narcissism are primarily seen in the enduring zone, as shown in Table 1 below.
  • Narcissists’ loss of popularity can be explained by the “narcissistic admiration and rivalry concept”. This theory proposes that narcissists pursue the two separate pathways of narcissistic admiration (assertive self-enhancement) and narcissistic rivalry (antagonistic self-protection). Initial popularity is due to narcissistic admiration, but over time narcissistic admiration decreases and narcissistic rivalry increases, causing a loss of popularity.
  • In relationships, people need to look beyond initial behaviours and appearances. People make decisions in the first few minutes of a relationship that decide the long-term nature of that relationship. However, while narcissists have positive evaluations initially, relationships with them tend to decline dramatically after just a few months. Because of this, Kaufman advises that before a relationship is taken to the next level, see the person in multiple contexts first. I would add that this also supports the need for probationary periods in employment.
  • Don’t try to change the behaviour of a narcissist you are dating. Narcissists are not deeply insecure. They are very aware that other people don’t see them as positively as they do themselves, and they rationalise this.
  • The insights above relate to grandiose narcissism, but also apply to neuroticism and vulnerable narcissism. Neuroticism is also not detected at first acquaintance, and neither is vulnerable narcissism, which is a quieter form of narcissism. Vulnerable narcissism is associated with emotional instability and introversion, while grandiose narcissism is associated with emotional resilience and extraversion.
  • Narcissists often don’t realize that their behaviours are self-sabotaging. They don’t see how their behaviours prevent them from having the benefits of close and intimate relationships, so maybe clinicians could help them to tone down their narcissistic rivalry traits, while at the same time keeping the positive aspects of their personality.
  • There is a need for more research to better understand the social consequences of personality. These insights into narcissism highlight how such research can benefit people’s lives: “Hopefully more research will help us better understand the varieties of human behaviors, what they mean in terms of underlying personality dispositions, and how we can use this information to form happy and healthy relationships.”
The consequences of narcissism for the self and others
(Source: Scientific American).
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Also published on Medium.

Bruce Boyes

Bruce Boyes ( is a knowledge management (KM), environmental management, and education professional with over 30 years of experience in Australia and China. His work has received high-level acclaim and been recognised through a number of significant awards. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation Group at Wageningen University and Research, and holds a Master of Environmental Management with Distinction. He is also the editor, lead writer, and a director of the award-winning RealKM Magazine (, and teaches in the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) Certified High-school Program (CHP).

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