Ensnared by Delusion: The Paradox of the Narcissistic Personality
Do others see you as you see yourself? This question underscores everything we do here at YouJustGetMe, and social science researchers are constantly looking to flesh out the implications of people's identities being out of synch with other people's perceptions. One of the most fascinating - and often frustrating - areas that this paradox can be explored is in the drama of the narcissistic personality.
Narcissism can be defined as the personality trait of excessive egotism. When in a healthy proportion, narcissistic impulses function as a sort of emotional-immune system, safeguarding the familiarity and the well-being of the individual against invasion by outside influences. When it's out of proportion, though, one's personality starts to display self-involvement, arrogance, an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, and a tendency towards exploitation. Paradoxically, though, narcissists are also fascinating to others. Why do we like them despite on some level recognizing their dysfunction? How did people let their personalities get to this unpleasant state?
A new study published by Mitja Back, Stefan Schmukle, and Boris Egloff in the January 2010 edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology illustrates both the way that narcissists ensnare others in a cycle of attraction and repulsion, and the way that narcissists are paradoxically self-absorbed and display little self-awareness of the traits that repel others.
Back et al. found that narcissism leads to popularity at first sight - test subjects registered that they liked self-identified narcissists at first sight (or what social scientists call "zero acquaintance"). Second, the aspect of narcissism that most turn people off in the long run - the exploitativeness and sense of entitlement - proved to be most attractive at zero acquaintance. Why was this? Part of the reason that narcissists were popular were due to external signifiers - they used more charming facial expressions, a more confident speaking tone, wore more fashionable clothes, had more trendy haircuts and were funnier. Put another way, narcissists seem cool, which lead the participants to believe - at first sight - that the narcissists are cool. This "exploitativeness equals coolness" equation can be seen in another effect of modern life - cultural appropriation, in which people adopt aesthetic elements of oppressed cultures, effectively displaying a sense of entitlement as a fashion statement. Some social theorists even purport that the concept of "cool pose" (or movement) is itself appropriated from African-American culture!
Returning to narcissism - as anyone who's had a truly narcissistic friend or partner can attest, the annoyance and frustration of having a self-absorbed, authoritarian, arrogant, exploitative friend quickly overshadows any sense of that friend's coolness. In short order, the narcissistic friend is abandoned - that is, abandoned to go off and dazzle someone else, starting the cycle again.
Why do the narcissists continue to behave selfishly when it only ruins their relationships with others? Why don't narcissists spot the cycle of early attraction followed by rejection? The first is partly explained by narcissistic behavior's initial attractiveness to others. Behaving with a sense of entitlement seems to bring them a rush of admiration which they get addicted to.
The second question's answer is somewhat more heartbreaking, and proposes an important potential use of tools like YouJustGetMe. PsyBlog explains it perfectly: "The reason narcissists fail to spot this cycle may well be that friends and partners never hang around long enough to tell them in such a way that they actually believe it and want to do something about it."
To summarize: it's a tragic lack of actual self-awareness that keeps the narcissistic personality ensnared in their own self-defeating habits. However, it's not only the entitled and exploitative who are at fault in this scenario - the audience, the people who allow themselves to be dazzled by and then abandon the narcissist without intervening, are the factor that perpetuates the cycle. PsyBlog asserts that people should simply ignore narcissists as a means to break the cycle of narcissism.
We at YouJustGetMe propose a second possible resolution: could informing people of their personality makeup also help to break the cycle of narcissism? In this usage, tools like YouJustGetMe could function as both a dazzled audience and as a sort of gentle intervention. What do you think? Sound off in the comments!
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