Why Do People Mistake Narcissism for High Self-Esteem?

Why Do People Mistake Narcissism for High Self-Esteem?

The “charismatic air” of narcissists– from their flashy attire, to their self-assured behaviors, to their charming glances, to their witty humor– often makes a big first impression. At the same time, people seem to be really good at accurately perceiving narcissism in others based on minimal information (even just physical appearance is usually enough of a cue to accurately perceive narcissism). Which raises an interesting question: why are narcissists– which are characterized by extremely high levels of exhibitionism, arrogance, sense of superiority, vanity, entitlement, exploitativeness, and the incessant need for acclaim from others– so attractive?

Canadian researchers Miranda Giacomin and Christian Jordan thought there might be more than meets the narcissistic eye. To shed further light on the allure of narcissism, they examined whether narcissists make positive first impressions because people may confuse narcissism for high self-esteem. While many people tend to think that narcissists score sky high in self-esteem, the association between narcissism and self-esteem is actually rather small, and narcissism and self-esteem have very different developmental pathways and outcomes.*

Those with a healthy self-esteem believe they are worthy and competent, and strive for intimate, meaningful connections with others, but do not necessarily see themselves as superior to others. In contrast, narcissists think they are superior to others, but they don’t necessarily view themselves as worthy. Indeed, because they often lack an inner stable sense of self-security, the narcissists’ sense of self-esteem is often almost entirely dependent on the validation of others. Could it be that people are confusing the two?

This is just what the researchers found. People who scored high in narcissism and self-esteem were perceived as having higher self-esteem than people who were equally high in self-esteem but less narcissistic. They even looked at dating profiles and found that heterosexual female participants indicated greater interest in meeting males who were more narcissistic based on their Tinder profile pictures, and this effect was specifically explained by higher perception of self-esteem, not narcissism. These results suggest that perceptions of narcissism were being overridden by the positive effect of perceptions of self-esteem on liking.

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