How to Spot a Narcissist
Welcome to the contradictory universe of narcissism
By Scott Barry Kaufman, published on July 05, 2011 - last reviewed on October 27, 2011
I Portrait of the Narcissist as a Young Man
As he tells it, the man was a 21-year-old on break from college and eager to try a new sex act with his girlfriend. Well, technically she was not his girlfriend because "she thought we were dating. I knew better, but she was way too hot to bother correcting." He convinced a friend to hide in the closet and film the act so as to record his prowess for posterity. The plan went amok and the woman fled his apartment wrapped only in a fouled sheet. How do we know this intimate detail? It's on his Web site.
The man in question, Tucker Max, has built a publishing empire out of such moments, cataloging them online and in books that have sold more than 2 million copies. Max, who spawned the literary genre "fratire," boasts that he gets about five sexual offers a day via email, Facebook, and Twitter alone.
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"This is the norm for pretty much any male celeb," says Max. "I'm just the first guy who ever wrote stuff down in a really funny, really honest, really compelling way. I'm famous for this sh*t."
Tucker Max and his ilk stoke our attention and our ire —sometimes in equal measure. They are a decidedly mixed bag; therein lies one of the many paradoxes of narcissism and the primary reason narcissists are so difficult to identify and understand. If narcissists were just jerks, they would be easy to avoid. The fact that they are entertaining and exciting as well as aggressive and manipulative makes them compelling in the real world and as subjects of psychological scrutiny.
A cross section of the narcissist's ego will reveal high levels of self-esteem, grandiosity, self-focus, and self-importance. They think they are more physically attractive and intelligent than just about everyone, and would rather be admired than liked. They are enraged when told they aren't beautiful or brilliant but aren't affected much if told they are jerks.
Odious as these qualities may be, we've all got a narcissistic streak within. Narcissism is a stable trait that varies in degree from person to person. Some aspects, including confidence and self-sufficiency, are healthy and adaptive. It is only at the extreme end of the spectrum that narcissism becomes a disorder, often because toxic levels of vanity, entitlement, and exploitativeness are on display. The idea that narcissism is a constellation of traits that exists on a continuum, rather than a single, dichotomous label (you are or are not narcissistic), is reflected in plans to jettison the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder in the forthcoming DSM-V, the diagnostic manual for clinicians.
Narcissists thrive in big, anonymous cities, entertainment-related fields (think reality TV), and leadership situations where they can dazzle and dominate others without having to cooperate or suffer the consequences of a bad reputation. "A narcissist monk would not be good, but to be Kanye West and a narcissist is fantastic," notes University of South Alabama psychologist Peter Jonason, an expert on mating psychology and the darker side of human nature.
Narcissism tends to peak in adolescence and decline with age. Psychologist Frederick Stinson and his colleagues conducted face-to-face interviews with 34,653 adults and found that men are more narcissistic than women across the lifespan. Male and female narcissists both share a marked need for attention, the propensity to manipulate, and a keen interest in charming the other sex. This bent is so strong that some psychologists, including Jonason and graduate student Nicholas Holtzman of Washington University in St. Louis, argue that narcissism may have evolved as a strategy to secure sexual partners in the short-term. The ways in which narcissists of both genders pursue their quarry reinforces this possibility.
Women who score high on tests of narcissism consistently dress more provocatively than their more modest counterparts; male narcissists resort to displays of wit and braggadocio —in other words, both narcissistic men and women engage in time-tested sexual strategies. They also report more short-term hook-ups and a greater desire for this type of union. This relentless short-term focus is a key to both their dark charm and to the predictable downward trajectory of their relationships.
II Beware the Opening Gambit
Narcissists will be thrilled to hear that as a group they are rated as more attractive and likable than everyone else at first appearance. Simine Vazire of Washington University and her colleagues found that narcissists have a distinct physical signature. They're considered more stylishly clad, cheerful, and physically appealing at first sight than are those who score lower in narcissism. In Vazire's study, the narcissistic women were impeccably groomed and the men were more chiseled than their non-preening peers. Indeed, a range of studies find a robust link between narcissism and physical attractiveness, and narcissists' tactics for standing out are well-documented, often by themselves. Case in point: the VH-1 self-declared pickup artist Mystery, who sports platform shoes, black fingernails, and just enough odd accessories (goggles/velvet hat) to give shy women a built-in icebreaker.
While narcissists often love the sound of their own voice, they don't always sound pretty to others. Nicholas Holtzman and Michael Strube found that subjects who scored higher in narcissism engaged in more disagreeable verbal behaviors, arguing and cursing more—and using more sexual language than their more modest counterparts.
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