Why Do People Mistake Narcissism for High Self-Esteem?


There are obvious implications here for dating and politics. In the realm of dating, often the most valuable dating partners will not announce themselves with flashy attire and a perfectly orchestrated smile. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: those with a healthy self-esteem usually don’t feel the incessant need to announce their greatest qualities upfront, because they are confident that all will be revealed in time (they have a stable sense of worth). Perhaps we should all give people more of a chance in the realm of dating and relationships, and not mistake being reserved or even just quietly confident as a lack of self-esteem.

In terms of implications for politics, consider this study: “Is high self-esteem a path to the White House? The implicit theory of self-esteem and the willingness to vote for presidential candidates.” Since so many people are swayed in their voting decisions by their perceptions of the self-esteem levels of the candidates, it seems important to accurately distinguish between narcissism and high self-esteem– especially considering that the current president of the United States is giving so much hope and inspiration to narcissistic entertainers that they, too, can one day become president.

Finally, I think there are some important implications for those scoring high in narcissism. I like to think compassionately about all different sources of variation, and I think those who score high on the narcissistic spectrum create a lot of unnecessary suffering for themselves as well as others. Instead of spending so much strategically manipulating the perceptions of others, I believe their time would be better spent cultivating a real sense of self-worth, and genuinely mastering things that make them feel proud of their earned competence.

While we often don’t think about narcissists as suffering, and it’s very easy to look at the showy exhibitionist with mocking glee, we must recognize that to be narcissistic is human, and we all shift our placement on the spectrum throughout our lives. When grandiosity gets too big (my colleague Emmanuel Jauk and I have quantified this tipping point), it can lead to great vulnerability, fear, anxiety, and even depression. Therefore, accurately distinguishing between narcissism and healthy self-esteem is pretty important, not only for the perceiver who scores low in narcissism, but also for those who are addicted to esteem.

Note: A big limitation of these studies is that it that they are mostly conducted on college undergraduates. There is undoubtedly a huge age effect here, and as people get older they most likely become more accurate at distinguishing between narcissism and high self-esteem, and are less likely to find narcissistic displays of confidence attractive even at first acquaintance.

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