Why Do People Mistake Narcissism for High Self-Esteem?

But here’s the kicker: perceptions of narcissism by itself were associated with less liking of the person. In fact, the pattern of greater liking of narcissists was reversed when perceivers were explicitly told that narcissistic targets scored high in narcissism. In these cases, people preferred those who scored high in self-esteem but low in narcissism.

Why do people perceive narcissists as having especially high self-esteem?

These findings suggest that those scoring high in narcissism make positive first impressions because people perceive them to have high self-esteem, causing them to overlook their narcissism (even in dating profiles). However, people aren’t attracted to the narcissism per se, and the pattern of greater liking was reversed when perceivers were explicitly told that people scored high in narcissism. Why are so many people misperceiving narcissism as self-esteem? The researchers raise some possibilities.

One possibility is that people hold an implicit belief that narcissists have exceptionally high self-esteem, and so perceptions of narcissism may lead them to infer higher self-esteem. This possibility seems unlikely considering perceptions of narcissism were negatively associated with liking of the person.

A more likely explanation is that narcissists are expert manipulators of the signals associated with self-esteem. Self-esteem is a socially valuable trait, and other studies have also found that people are viewed more positively when they are perceived as having higher levels of self-esteem. It’s likely that those scoring high in narcissism are very aware of this fact, and strategically present themselves in ways that convey high self-esteem.

There is also likely an interaction between the perceiver and the narcissist. It takes two to tango. Because those scoring higher in narcissism do tend to be more popular and have larger social networks than those scoring lower in narcissism, people may have the drive to associate with them to attain status by association. After all, to have narcissistic needs is to be human, and narcissists are very good at drawing in vulnerable people who are particularly deficient in their esteem needs.

With that said, some people may be more likely than others to perceive narcissists more positively not because they are vulnerable, but because they have their own extremely high drive for social status and power, and think the narcissist can help them reach their goals. It would be interesting for future studies to look at the narcissism levels of the perceiver.

While narcissists can be so alluring at first, the attraction is likely to falter once people begin to recognize the narcissists’ less desirable qualities and the superficial nature of the connection. Indeed, narcissists live in the “emerging zone”, situations involving unacquainted individuals, early-stage relationships, and short-term contexts. It is in this zone that narcissists are more likely to be perceived positively, because they are motivated to make a good first impression.

In contrast, narcissists tend to crash and burn in the “enduring zone”, situations involving acquainted individuals, continuing relationships, and long-term consequences. As the relationship develops, narcissists start displaying behaviors that are evaluated negatively, such as arrogance and aggression. Narcissists cyclically return to the emerging zone because they are addicted to the positive social feedback and emotional rush they get from the emerging zone. As a result, they are good at being popular, making new friends, and acquiring social status, but often have great difficulties sustaining meaningful and intimate relationships.

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