20 Shades of Narcissism - Kindle book by David Thomas


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Narcissistic Responses to Social Comparison Threats

Narcissistic people routinely mirror themselves against everyone they meet or interact with, looking for social comparison threats. As with almost all narcissistic behaviour, it is a defence mechanism. The narcissist is concerned that if the other person with whom he (or she) is interacting is superior in some respect, this will cause him mental pain and lower his self-esteem. On the other hand, if he perceives the other person to be inferior, it will give him a boost.

Mirroring, a theory developed by Heinz Kohut, is particularly illuminating with respect to narcissistic people. The theory relates to how children have their accomplishments acknowledged, accepted, and praised by others, primarily parents. It is important for a child's legitimate feelings of grandiosity to be mirrored by his parents. Children who do not get enough mirroring (admiration, attention, etc.) are considered by many psychologists to be at risk of developing a narcissistic personality later in life. The parent's mirroring gets internalised in time, so as the child gets older he (or she) can provide his own mirroring, his own sense of self-appreciation.1

The basis of healthy self-esteem is an individual's ability to accept and love himself, whilst remaining fully aware of his own emotions, successes, and failures. If the child does not feel his parents love him for himself, apart from accomplishments, he will develop what object relations theorists call the 'false self', the self that is fabricated in order to get the approval of his parents, based on the ability to achieve good grades, a good job, a good mate, etc.2

Narcissism is a result of faulty self-development and results in the narcissist presenting a false self. He constantly 'mirrors' himself against others, and takes immediate action to defend against any perceived negative social comparison threat. As the narcissist's self-esteem is fragile and unstable, it requires constant reinforcement from others, so the higher a person's level of narcissism, the more they need to act, often aggressively, in order to protect and maintain their self-esteem and feelings of self-worth.3

People high in narcissism often stake their self-worth on areas that require external validation. These are domains such as the ability to compete successfully against others or attractiveness. They then self-regulate to maintain positive self-views in those domains that are important to them.4 Narcissists are less concerned about areas that are less important to them in terms of their self-worth, such as moral virtue, or academic performance (if that is an area in which they no longer compete); in fact, being outperformed by a close other in what they consider to be an irrelevant area can actually enhance self-evaluations through the experience of reflected glory.5

Nichols and Stukas6 carried out research that involved both participants and their nominated close others, who completed online questionnaires that measured narcissism, contingent self-worth, and relationship closeness. Subsequently, participants heard that their friend (close other) performed better (or equivalently) on a 'competitive spirit' test. The participants higher in narcissism significantly reduced the closeness of their relationships after a threat, but did not reduce the relevance of competitiveness to their self-worth.

There is a considerable amount of research that demonstrates that people high in narcissism mirror themselves against others they meet in terms of social comparison information, and are fiercely competitive. Their levels of self-esteem and self-worth are contingent upon how they perceive themselves relative to those others. A case study of Roxanne follows; it illustrates how this functions in real life.

Roxanne, a student at a UK university, was nearing the end of a year abroad in Madrid as part of her degree in Spanish. She had spent the year working in an administrative capacity in a Spanish university. Her job involved liaising with students, speaking both in English and Spanish. Her boss, Brian, was also from the UK, but lived permanently in Madrid, having worked at the university for fifteen years.

The relationship between Roxanne and her boss was one of 'mutual back slapping', as one student described it. Roxanne sycophantically praised everything about Brian, in the expectation that she would be praised in return. It seemed that this approach had worked well for Roxanne. Her general behaviour suggested that she was high in narcissism; she was competitive, but not with Brian, who had the power to remove her from her job if she did not perform sufficiently well. Her strategy worked well because, being narcissistic, she was adept at passing the blame onto others when things did not go well in her job. Brian had seen many students come and go in that capacity over the years, with wide-ranging abilities and social skills. He seemed happy to accept her behaviour, particularly as she constantly supplied him with ego boosts. Roxanne was competent in her job, but could not be described as professional. Like all people high in narcissism, she had interpersonal boundary difficulties. She fostered very friendly relationships with both staff and students, making it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain the professional boundaries normally drawn between herself and other staff members, and between herself and the students.

Particular problems emerged when Roxanne was put in a position of authority and asked to train a new intern, Katie. The first few days that Roxanne and Katie worked together went well, both being friendly to each other, and they enjoyed several social occasions together with other colleagues. However, it became apparent that Katie's approach to her social life and to the job contrasted starkly with Roxanne's approach, and Roxanne soon felt the need to denigrate Katie at every opportunity.

From the outset, Katie applied a professional approach to the job. Roxanne usually took the route that involved the least work for her combined with the most pleasure, in terms of social contact with staff and students. Her decision making related to what was best for her ego; Katie's decision making related to what was the best way to do the job. This quickly brought the two into conflict.

For example, Roxanne gave Katie the job of preparing the documentation needed for the forthcoming influx of students, due in a few weeks. She supplied Katie with the template she had used the previous year, and suggested that Katie should update it with the new students' information. After a short while, it became obvious to Katie that the template was laid out in a manner that made it difficult to collate the necessary information, so Katie proceeded to redesign it, making it much easier to input the various bits of information, and make access to it easier in the future.

Roxanne, rather than seeing this as an improvement, a positive contribution to making the work more efficient, perceived it as a threat to her ego.

Similar problems quickly became evident between the two in their social lives. Katie's boyfriend, Jake, had visited her early on for a few days, before going back to university in the UK, the same university Katie attended, but on a different course. Jake was good looking, quiet, and polite. Roxanne had met Jake on several occasions, before he returned to the UK. The disparity between the two, Roxanne and Katie, in their attitudes to socialising was vast. Whilst Katie wished to remain true to her boyfriend, Roxanne thought the more male conquests she made, the more successful she was.

Roxanne took to taunting Katie, criticising the things she did both at work and outside work, and disparaging Jake, saying on the one hand that he was too quiet, and on the other hand that he would be dating numerous girls back at their university in the UK. Katie was unable to understand why Roxanne's behaviour to her was so caustic, so nasty, and unkind when she had only ever been polite and kind to Roxanne.

The answer lay in Roxanne's narcissism; her self-worth was contingent upon external factors like winning in competition with others, Katie in particular, and flaunting her body to the opposite sex to prove to herself that she is attractive. Katie did not feel a similar need, her self-worth being contingent primarily upon internal factors like moral virtue. Roxanne's upward comparisons with Katie resulted in a hostile response by her, denigrating Katie at every opportunity in an attempt to self-regulate and maintain positive self-views.

Bogart et al.7 wrote on the subject of narcissism and mirroring:

'Overall, individuals high in narcissism displayed amplified responses to social comparison information, experiencing greater positive effect from downward comparisons and greater hostile effect from upward comparisons.'

In addition, it has been recognized for some time that narcissists prize intellectual performance above almost everything else,8 so a better educated or qualified work colleague would likely evoke a hostile effect through upward comparison. Roxanne had failed her first year at university and had to repeat it, so when she became aware that Katie had gained very high grades in her examinations before leaving school, and gained a 'first' in all of her second year examinations at university, examinations that count towards the final degree grade, Roxanne reacted with aggression. Her hostility to Katie appeared to be as a result of her narcissism combined with upward comparisons in domains she is reliant on to self-regulate in order to maintain positive self-views.

Nichols and Stukas9 reviewed work by Campbell, Brunell, and Finkel10 and concluded that, 'To these authors, narcissism involves a struggle to maintain interpersonal relationships while experiencing a conflict between focusing on oneself and focusing on others. This suggests that an individual high in the narcissistic personality trait may be more likely to derogate relationship partners when they are threatened by another's success rather than to reduce the importance or relevance of the particular task domain to their self worth.'

In the case of Roxanne, the option to reduce the importance or relevance of the particular task domain to her self-worth was not an option. From the outset, she made strong representations to Katie about how the job was so complex and, at times, stressful, so she could not reduce the importance or relevance of the job. This left, in her mind, the only remaining option of derogating Katie.

In addition, Morf and Rhodewalt11 conducted an experimental test of people high and low in narcissism. They found that those high in narcissism were more likely to derogate the personality of an experimental confederate portrayed as similar and as performing better on a social sensitivity task (thought to be 'ego-relevant') than people low in narcissism.

There is now a considerable body of evidence that suggests people high in narcissism respond to upward social comparison threats with hostility, and, anecdotally, Roxanne's aggressive behaviour towards Katie tends to confirm this view.

Dweck12 differentiated between people who hold entity theories and incremental theories. Those who hold entity theories about their abilities view those abilities as fixed. Failure lowers their self-esteem because they believe that it indicates they lack the capability in question and will never have it. On the other hand, failure for those people with incremental theories does not have such a devastating effect on their self-esteem. They believe that although they might currently lack the capability that was the cause of their failure, they will be able to overcome the problem over time through increased effort. They view their abilities as malleable, rather than fixed, focusing on what can be learned from experience, including learning from failure.

The self-esteem of entity theorists, therefore, is vulnerable to failure. Roxanne appeared to fit into this category as she reacted with hostility when Katie redesigned the template on the computer. Rather than view Katie's improvement to the system as an opportunity to learn, she viewed it as a personal failure, which lowered her self-esteem. Roxanne suffered similarly when she mirrored herself against Katie in terms of boyfriends, perhaps believing that she was not capable of sustaining a stable relationship with another man, as Katie was. Roxanne also appeared to suffer a blow to her self-esteem when mirroring herself against Katie in terms of intellectual performance, identified earlier as what narcissists prize above almost everything else, probably believing that her own intelligence was fixed, with no hope of emulating Katie's achievements.

Niiya, Crocker, and Bartmess13 acknowledged that Dweck's entity theories of ability suggest, to those who hold them, that their abilities are fixed and consequently improvement is not possible. They pointed out that in the face of failure, not only do entity theories impact negatively on self-esteem, but also contingent self-worth suggests that global self-worth depends on succeeding, and not failing, in the domains on which self-esteem is contingent. Thus the combination of entity theories and contingent self-worth is particularly toxic.

Roxanne appeared to be stuck in a narcissistic mental state in which she believes her abilities are fixed and her self-esteem is contingent upon succeeding, and not failing. In the company of Katie, who was once described while attending a short course at Oxford University as having a 'formidable intellect', it is likely that Roxanne felt inferior; thus she felt that her self-esteem was threatened and reacted by denigrating what she perceived to be the source of the threat, Katie.

The research by Niiya, Crocker, and Bartmess found that having a learning orientation eliminated the effect of failure on self-esteem. Moreover, they found that for those with high academic contingencies of self-worth, incremental theories of intelligence buffer self-esteem from failure. Katie, who appears to have adopted a learning orientation, tends to focus on what can be learned from experience, including failure. She felt that she had failed in establishing a good relationship with Roxanne, but by adopting her default learning orientation and identifying what she considered to be the root cause of the problem, that is, Roxanne's entity and contingent self-worth orientations, she was unaffected by the hostility aimed at her. In fact, she felt stronger as a result of the experience, feeling that she would be better able to deal with similar situations that may occur in the future.

1. Kohut, H. (1971), The Analysis of the Self, New York, International Universities Press, Inc.
2. Thomas, David (2010), Narcissism: Behind the Mask, Book Guild, UK.
3. Morf, C. C., and Rhodewalt, F. (2001), Unravelling the paradoxes of narcissism: A dynamic self-regulatory processing model, Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 12, pp. 177-196.
4. Crocker, J., Luhtanen, R. K., Cooper, M. L., and Bouvrette, S. (2003), Contingencies of self-worth in college students: Theory and measurement, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 85, pp. 894-908.
5. Tesser, A. (1988), Towards a self-evaluation maintenance model of social behaviour, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 21, pp. 181-227.
6. Nicholls, Emma, and Stukas, Arthur A. (2011), Narcissism and the Self-Evaluation Maintenance Model: Effects of Social Comparison Threats on Relationship Closeness, The Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 151, No. 2, pp. 201-212.
7. Bogart, L.M., Benotsh, E.G. and Pavlovic, J.D. (2004), Feeling Superior but Threatened: The Relation of Narcissism to Social Comparison, Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Vol. 26, Iss. 1, pp. 35-44.
8. Campbell, W.K., Goodie, A.S. and Foster, J.D. (2004), Narcissism, Confidence, and Risk Attitude, Journal of Behavioural Decision Making, Vol. 17, pp. 297-311.
9. Nicholls, Emma, and Stukas, Arthur A. (2011), Narcissism and the Self-Evaluation Maintenance Model: Effects of Social Comparison Threats on Relationship Closeness, The Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 151, No. 2, pp. 201-212.
10. Campbell, W. K., Brunell, A. B. And Finkel, E. J. (2006), Narcissism, interpersonal self-regulation and romantic relationships. In K. D. Vohs and E. J. Finkel (Eds), Self and relationships: connecting intrapersonal and interpersonal processes (pp. 57-83), New York: Guilford.
11. Morf, C. C., and Rhodewalt, F. (1993), Narcissism and self-evaluation maintenance: Explorations in object relations, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 19, pp. 668-676.
12. Dweck, C. S. (2000), Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development, Lillington, NC, Psychology Press.
13. Niiya, Yu, Crocker, Jennifer, and Bartness, Elizabeth, N. (2004), From vulnerability to resilience: Learning orientations buffer contingent self-esteem from failure, Psychology Science, Vol. 15, No. 12, pp. 801-5.

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Book - 20 Shades of Narcissism - by David Thomas