Light and dark narcissism


It makes sense to think of personality traits as existing on a continuum. Every trait becomes unpleasant if it becomes too pronounced. What is too much depends on the person’s environment.

For example, conscientiousness, which is in itself a positive characteristic, can be debilitating if it goes too far and leads to obsessive behavior. And extroversion, for its part, can make a person, such as a salesperson, a bit too much to take. Furthermore, a certain amount of wariness can be a good thing, but can degenerate into paranoia. And so on.

But this is not the whole truth. Some personality traits have bright and dark sides, even in small amounts, and narcissism is a typical example of this.

What this means in practice is that narcissism may be a very unpleasant trait, even at a mid-level, if it leans towards the dark rather than the bright side. And the same is true the other way round: even narcissism that goes beyond the middle level is not always a problem if it is more strongly of the bright rather than the dark variety.

What makes narcissism?

Professionals who work with various personality disorder classifications know that narcissism often involves a strong need for power. Sometimes this comes across as a powerful motivation for leadership positions, and as such it may even be a desirable trait, at least if the job requires it.

However, other typical symptoms of narcissism are a lack of empathy, excessive self-regard, and a strong preoccupation with status. There is nothing positive that comes from dividing people into upper and lower classes, and sucking up to the former while showing contempt for the latter, or from exaggerated self-love or heartlessness.

The problem is that a superficial job interview or a certain score on a personality test are usually not enough to differentiate between partly positive and mostly negative narcissism. The difference is easy to articulate in theory, but in practice is can be very hard to pin down.

An experienced interviewer may be misled if the jobseeker is verbally skilled, charming and knows how to put on a show of modesty for a while.

Few tests for narcissism have been developed, and those that exist are not very good at distinguishing between the dark and brighter sides.

Get measuring!

Theory and practice are not the same thing. We wanted to experiment empirically, so we collected and analyzed a large amount of data. The measure we used was Psycon’s SRS test, which has been found to work well and also has one dimension for narcissism.

Until now, the problem has been that the SRS test gave a score for narcissism, but did not shed light on its specific nature in any given case. However, armed with our large data set (N = 1696) and a new analytical method (MIRT), we managed to dig deep enough to tease out every component out of this unpleasant trait.

We’ll give more details of the analysis and the results over the coming year, since a master’s thesis in psychology is also being written on this topic. But for now, here are a few of our findings in a nutshell.

Light and shadows

First of all, we found that narcissism does indeed have more than one side to it. Motivation for leadership stood out clearly, and was in a sense the most acceptable sub-feature in this dimension. As long as this remains within reasonable limits, and is not coupled with the darker sides of narcissism, then this can be a positive feature in managerial positions in particular.

On the other hand, the other sub-features of narcissism showed a grim combination. This combination presents a person who is grandiose, seeing only brilliance in all their own ideas, able in their own mind to solve any problem, and exceptionally talented in every way. All they need is to get hold of enough power.

Interestingly, these features seemed to be more strongly linked to psychopathic manipulation than to motivation to become leaders. In other words, all the bad sides of narcissism seem to go hand in hand. So if someone is a nasty piece of work in regard, it’s a safe bet that they’re just as nasty in some other way too.

And indeed our next goal is to analyze the even more toxic features of psychopathy by the same method. When this analysis can be placed side by side with the most malignant narcissism, the result will be a profile of a person that combines the darkest sides of both features.

If things go well, then in the future it should be possible to give up on simplistic labels altogether and to replace them with much more nuanced and accurate analyses. This would enable us to move on from simplified categorization and come closer to real life.

Mikael Nederström