While positive self-views are generally considered healthy, adaptive, and attractive, OVERLY positive self-views often have social costs. For example, when I asked my friend’s boyfriend if his classes this semester were challenging, he responded as follows: “I’ve done better than EVERY OTHER student in EVERY SINGLE grad class that I’ve taken. I certainly don’t except my classes this semester to be a problem.” If you’re like me, this statement made you shudder. The sense of superiority and the overt “bragginess” screams creep. Again, if you’re like me, you aren’t surprised that I was less interested in a friendship with him the second he uttered the statement, and that when this statement was followed by similar statements later on, my friend quickly ended the relationship. Although I’m certainly not qualified to diagnose my friend’s boyfriend with any disorder, or to label him as a particular type of person, this attitude of superiority is consistent with narcissism, colloquially defined as an inflated sense of self-importance, egotism, vanity, and selfishness.
As this example demonstrates, there is often a large disconnect between narcissists’ self-perceptions (e.g. how positively he sees himself) and others’ perceptions of him (how positively his friends, coworkers, classmates, and acquaintances sees him). Interestingly, narcissists often create positive first impressions – they are initially rated as charming, likable, extroverted, and physically attractive (e.g. Back, Egloff, & Schmukle, 2010). However, over time these impressions sour, with others progressively seeing them as disagreeable, emotionally unstable, and poorly adjusted (like my example above). Despite the deterioration of their reputation, narcissists often continue to see themselves in overly positive ways. This begs the question – are narcissists self aware? More precisely: do narcissists know that others don’t see them in such a positive light? Are they aware of their own negative characteristics? DO THEY KNOW THEY’RE NARCISSISTS?
These questions were formally examined by Erika Carlson and colleagues (2011) at Washington University in St. Louis. Carlson formally contrasted two different perspectives on narcissism. The Narcissistic Ignorance View argues that narcissists lack insight about their own personality and aren’t aware how others see them. This is the dominant view of narcissism. Alternatively, the Narcissistic Awareness View argues that narcissists do have insight about their own personality and are aware that others see them less positively than they see themselves.
To determine which view is more accurate, Carlson conducted three studies that each followed a basic structure. To start with, participants completed scales or interviews that determined their level of narcissism. Then, participants completed two sets of ratings. First participants rated themselves on a variety of personality dimensions (e.g. rate your agreement with the following statement: I’m ingenious, a deep thinker). These are called the participants’ self-perceptions. Next, participants rated how they thought others saw them on those same personality dimensions (e.g. how would your coworker rate you on the following statement: He is ingenious, a deep thinker). These are the participants’ meta-perceptions (i.e. how they think others see them). Finally, that other person (e.g. the coworker) then rated the participant on those same personality dimensions (e.g. how would you rate your coworker (the participant in this study) on the following statement: He is ingenious, a deep thinker). These are called the other-perceptions.
So Carlson thus compared participants’ self-perceptions, meta-perceptions, and other-perceptions. If the Narcissistic Ignorance View was accurate, narcissists would have very positive self-perceptions and similarly, very positive meta-perceptions. They would think that others see them just as positively as they see themselves. If the Narcissistic Awareness View was accurate then narcissist would have very positive self-perceptions, but would have less positive meta-perceptions. They would see themselves very positively, but recognize that others don’t see them in such a positive light.
Using this basic design, Carlson in fact found support for the Narcissistic Awareness View across all three studies. Here are the results:
Consistent with prior studies:
Narcissists saw themselves very positively (positive self-perceptions)
Narcissists saw themselves more positively than other people saw them, whether the other person was an acquaintance, a close friend, a classmate, or a coworker (more positive self-perceptions than other-perceptions)
As in prior studies, others saw narcissists less and less positively as they got to know them more over time (deteriorating other perceptions)
New to this study, Carlson also found:
Narcissists rated themselves more positively than they believed others would rate them (self-perceptions more positive than meta-perceptions)
Narcissists were aware that others see them more positively initially and then like them less over time (deteriorating meta-perceptions just like other-perceptions)
Narcissists rated themselves somewhat higher on negative qualities that are associated with narcissism (e.g. conceited). That is, narcissists were somewhat aware of their narcissistic traits
Given that the Narcissistic Ignorance View (which again holds that narcissists lack self-awareness) was the prevailing view of narcissism, these results are pretty extraordinary. Even more extraordinary when you consider the fact that although narcissists know that others don’t think they’re so great, they maintain their overly positive self-views anyway. How exactly do narcissists maintain such positive self-views despite others’ dislike of them? Carlson proposed a few interesting ideas. First, narcissists might believe others are just too stupid to see how amazing they truly are, or they may believe others’ negative views are simply the result of jealousy. It might also be the case that narcissists, aware of their deteriorating reputation, cut off long-term friendships and instead, maintain a flow of new acquaintances that see them as the charming and likable person they believe they are. The process by which narcissists retain their positive self-views remains an interesting and important question future work should address. Nonetheless, Carlson’s results are an important, and to me, quite interesting contribution.