Do narcissists realize that others do not share the glowing view they have of themselves? Do they know that they are narcissistic? The goal of this paper is to test two competing views about these questions. The first view, which we are calling the Narcissistic Ignorance view, argues that narcissists lack insight into their personality and reputation. That is, they fail to understand that they have narcissistic characteristics, and they overestimate how positively others see them (i.e., their meta-perceptions are just as overly positive as their self-perceptions). The second view, which we are calling the Narcissistic Awareness view, argues that narcissists have insight into their personality and reputation. That is, they understand that they have narcissistic characteristics, and their meta-perceptions are closer to others’ perceptions (i.e., less positively biased) than are their self-perceptions. For reasons discussed below, we predict that the Narcissistic Awareness view is correct.
As shown in , the two views make a few similar predictions. First, both views predict that narcissism will be strongly associated with positive self-perceptions. That is, we should observe a strong, positive correlation between narcissism scores and self-perceptions on positive traits (e.g., intelligence). Second, narcissists’ self-perceptions will be more positive than others’ perceptions. Specifically, narcissism should be positively associated with self-other bias (i.e., the difference score between self-perceptions and other-perceptions) for positive traits. Third, narcissism will be associated with having a narcissistic reputation. That is, we should observe a strong, positive correlation between narcissism scores and others’ perceptions of narcissistic traits. The critical difference between the two views is the predictions they make about narcissists’ meta-perceptions (i.e., their positivity and the degree to which they match up with others’ impressions) and whether they believe they are seen as narcissistic. Next, we outline four pairs of competing predictions that follow from the two views and provide our rationale for favoring the predictions made by the Narcissistic Awareness view.
Figure 1 Two views about narcissists’ insight into their personality and reputation. The top panel reflects the predicted correlations between narcissism scores and perceptions (self-, meta-, and other-perceptions) of positive traits (e.g., intelligent). (more ...)
Positivity of Self-Perceptions versus Meta-Perceptions
Narcissists are known for holding very positive self-views (e.g., Bleske-Rechek, Remiker, & Baker, 2008
; Farwell & Wohlwend-Lloyd, 1998
; Gabriel, Critelli, & Ee, 1994
; Paulhus, 1998
; Vazire & Funder, 2006
). Morf and Rhodewalt’s (2001)
dynamic self-regulatory processing model proposes that narcissists are motivated to maintain their positive self-perceptions and might do so by assuming that others see them in positive ways. For example, they might use self-presentational strategies to garner positive feedback or they may generally perceive feedback in positive ways. If narcissists’ positive self-perceptions are reinforced by their meta-perceptions, then narcissists should believe that they are seen just as positively by others as they see themselves. Narcissists do overestimate the desirability of their behavior suggesting that they probably also assume that others see them in positive ways (Gosling, John, Craik, & Robins, 1998
). Thus, according to the Narcissistic Ignorance view, narcissists should believe that others see them just as positively as they see themselves and that narcissists use meta-perceptions to reinforce their positive self-perceptions.
In contrast, the Narcissistic Awareness view predicts that narcissists do understand that others see them differently than they see themselves. Evidence for this prediction comes from studies showing that narcissists are sensitive to negative feedback and tend to criticize such feedback (e.g., Horton & Sedikides, 2009
; Kernis & Sun, 1994
; Zeigler-Hill, Myers, & Clark, 2010
). That is, they are likely aware that others do not always see them in positive ways. The strongest evidence for this prediction comes from recent empirical research that shows narcissists are able to acknowledge that others do not see their performance as positively as they see their own performance (Robins & Beer, 2001
). That is, narcissists’ meta-perceptions of their performance were less positive than were their self-perceptions. Based on this evidence, we predict that, consistent with the Narcissistic Awareness view, narcissists can and do understand that their reputation is less positive than their self-perceptions and they maintain their positive self-perceptions in ways other than through meta-perceptions. These competing hypotheses are illustrated in the top panel of .
Bias Relative to Others’ Perceptions
As discussed above, narcissists’ self-perceptions are positive. In fact, they are often more positive than others’ perceptions of them (e.g., Paulhus, 1998
; Paulhus & John, 1998
). Are their meta-perceptions just as positively biased relative to others’ impressions of them? As discussed above, the Narcissistic Ignorance view predicts that narcissists’ meta-perceptions are just as positive as are their self-perceptions. Thus, the Narcissistic Ignorance view also predicts that, relative to others’ perceptions of them, narcissists’ meta-perceptions are just as positively biased as are their self-perceptions.
In contrast, the Narcissistic Awareness view predicts that narcissists’ meta-perceptions are not as positively biased as are their self-perceptions, relative to others’ perceptions. As discussed above, recent empirical research suggests that narcissists are able to acknowledge that others do not see them as positively as they see themselves. Given that others generally do hold more negative perceptions of narcissists than narcissists hold of themselves, this leads to the prediction that narcissists’ meta-perceptions will be closer to others’ perceptions than are their self-perceptions. In other words, we predict that, consistent with the Narcissistic Awareness view, narcissists’ meta-perceptions will be less positively biased relative to others’ perceptions than are their self-perceptions. The competing hypotheses are presented in the middle panel of .
Awareness of Changes in Others’ Perceptions
One fascinating aspect of narcissists is their ability to make a very positive first impression. At first sight, narcissists have a reputation for being charming, likeable, extraverted, open to experience, and physically attractive (Back et al., 2010
; Friedman, Oltmanns, Gleason, & Turkheimer, 2006
; Friedman, Oltmanns, & Turkheimer, 2007
; Holtzman & Strube, 2010
; Oltmanns, Friedman, Fiedler, & Turkheimer, 2004
; Vazire, Naumann, Rentfrow, & Gosling, 2008
). Even short, in-person interactions can result in positive impressions. For example, Paulhus (1998)
found that after meeting narcissists for the first time, new acquaintances perceived them as high on all of the positive dimensions of the Big Five, as performing well on a group task, and as well- adjusted.
Although narcissists make a positive first impression, their reputation becomes much more negative as people get to know them. Paulhus (1998)
also found that, although individuals scoring high on narcissism were initially seen positively, over several weeks narcissists developed a reputation for being especially disagreeable and relatively low on conscientiousness, emotional stability, openness, and adjustment. In sum, the reputation of a narcissist seems to depend on timing - narcissists make flattering first impressions that sour over time.
To our knowledge, no study has examined meta-perceptions of narcissists over time or across social contexts (e.g., meta-perceptions in first impression situations versus meta-perceptions for acquaintances), so the degree to which narcissists are aware of their changing reputation is unknown. One possibility is that, consistent with the Narcissistic Ignorance view, narcissists believe that they are seen positively across all contexts, from new acquaintances to close others. However, Back and his colleagues (2010)
have pointed out that narcissists’ failure to pursue long-term relationships and friendships may reflect their awareness that only new acquaintances see them in a positive light. Thus, consistent with the Narcissistic Awareness view, we predict that narcissists do recognize that their reputation deteriorates over time. This argument hinges on the idea that narcissists are aware that they are seen more positively by new acquaintances than by people who know them well.
Awareness of Narcissistic Traits
Interestingly, others are able to detect narcissistic traits at above chance levels from minimal information (Buffardi & Campbell, 2008
; Friedman et al., 2007
; Vazire et al., 2008
). But is the narcissist herself aware of this aspect of her personality? We know of only two studies examining this question, and the results are mixed. One study suggests that people who score higher on a subclinical measure of narcissism do not describe themselves as narcissistic (e.g., as selfish, egotistical, or conceited; Emmons, 1984
), while another study suggests that narcissism, controlling for self-esteem, is associated with self-reports of experiencing hubristic pride (e.g., feeling smug; Tracy & Robins, 2007
). Thus, at least for subclinical narcissism, the current evidence as to whether narcissists have insight into their narcissistic personality is unclear.
As mentioned above, lack of self-insight is considered to be a hallmark of narcissism, and some models of narcissism assume that narcissists do not fully appreciate how their behavior comes across to others (e.g., Morf & Rhodewalt, 2001
). Thus, it would be difficult for them to know that their behavior qualifies as arrogant or narcissistic. This line of argument suggests that, consistent with the Narcissistic Ignorance view, narcissists’ self- and meta-perceptions should not reflect an awareness of their narcissistic traits.
It is possible, however, that narcissists do understand that they are arrogant and narcissistic. Perhaps, as the opening quote attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright suggests, narcissists feel like they have earned the right to be arrogant and denying their arrogance would be insincere. Furthermore, it is possible that narcissists do not view narcissistic traits as negative, at least when they are backed up with actual superior qualities (e.g., they may view bragging as acceptable or even appealing, as long as it is true). In line with this, we predict that, consistent with the Narcissistic Awareness view, narcissists’ self- and meta-perceptions will reflect an awareness of their narcissistic traits. These competing hypotheses are presented in the bottom panel of .