How did the study find this out?
First, the researchers administered the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (or the NPI) to several undergraduate students. This test is designed to measure the narcissism personality trait through how much respondents agreed with statements like “The world would be a better place if I ruled it.” Narcissists (surprise, surprise) tend to agree with such statements.
It’s important to note that the NPI doesn’t measure clinical narcissism. Rather, it measures the personality trait of narcissism. To one degree or another, we all have some element of self-love in our personalities, only some people love themselves to excess.
After taking the NPI, the students’ faces were then photographed, and the researchers asked a sample of participants to judge how narcissistic the photographed faces appeared. At this stage, all participants were able to accurately guess how highly each photographed person had scored on the NPI. This result was no surprise since it’s already known that observers can judge narcissism from a person’s appearance alone.
Using a clever cognitive trick, the researchers could determine if it was the faces as a whole or a distinct feature of the faces that conveyed narcissism: People process upright faces as wholes, but inverted faces are processed as collections of features. Because the participants could predict narcissism when the faces were inverted, the researchers concluded that one specific feature of the face was clueing people in.
Then, the researchers obscured different features of the faces until they had narrowed down which was giving off the telltale vibes of a narcissist. Surprisingly, participants could judge how narcissistic someone was even if they could only see a single eyebrow.
The participants were also asked to rate eyebrows in terms of femininity, grooming, and distinctiveness, but only distinctiveness was correlated with accurately judging narcissism. What exactly does distinctiveness mean? Density, bushiness, brow power; a narcissist’s calling card.
Of course, the study was not able to tell whether people who are more likely to be narcissists also have inherently bushy eyebrows or whether narcissists tend to deliberately cultivate bushy eyebrows. And, although it ought not to need to be said, not everybody with bushy eyebrows is a narcissist and not every narcissist has bushy eyebrows. Regardless, the study provides insight into how we process faces and our latent ability to detect toxic people before it’s too late. For more information on how best to deal with narcissists and other high-conflict personalities, check out the video below.