Narcissistic personality disorder – a trait that’s characterised by self-centred, arrogant behaviour and thinking, an over-the-top desire to be admired and an inability to empathise or show consideration for others – isn’t usually associated with positive mental wellbeing. But people who think and behave like narcissists may be more mentally resilient, say Queens University Belfast researchers. And that, they say, could make them less vulnerable to stress and depression.
Led by Dr Kostas Papageorgiou, director of the InterRaCt Lab at the university’s School of Psychology, the researchers have recently written two papers on the potential benefits of narcissism – one published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, the other in the journal European Psychiatry (Dr Papageorgiou was also a key speaker at the recent Mental Toughness Symposium held in Belfast).
“Narcissism is part of the ‘Dark Tetrad’ of personality that also includes Machiavellianism, Psychopathy and Sadism,” he explains.
“There are two main dimensions to narcissism – grandiose and vulnerable. Vulnerable narcissists are likely to be more defensive and view the behaviour of others as hostile whereas grandiose narcissists usually have an over-inflated sense of importance and a preoccupation with status and power.
“Individuals high on the spectrum of dark traits, such as narcissism, engage in risky behaviour, hold an unrealistic superior view of themselves, are overconfident, show little empathy for others, and have little shame or guilt. However, what this research has questioned is – if narcissism, as an example of the dark tetrad, is indeed so socially toxic, why does it persist and why is it on the rise in modern societies?”
The papers examine three studies, each of which involved more than 700 adult volunteers. What the researchers discovered was that the volunteers who were classed as grandiose narcissists had lower stress levels and were more mentally tough than others who didn’t display such tendencies.
“The results from all the studies that we conducted show that grandiose narcissism correlates with very positive components of mental toughness, such as confidence and goal orientation, protecting against symptoms of depression and perceived stress,” Dr Papageorgiou adds. “While of course not all dimensions of narcissism are good, certain aspects can lead to positive outcomes.
Dr Papageorgiou argues that traits mostly seen as negative – including narcissism – shouldn’t be seen as either good or bad, but as a natural aspect of human evolution and human nature. This, he says, could help researchers develop ways of encouraging some aspects of these traits, while discouraging others
Indeed, healthy narcissism is nothing new – psychologists have been talking about it since the late 20th century. A healthy narcissist, for instance, has realistic self confidence but also has empathy for others. They’re aware of their strengths, but also their shortcomings. They’re self aware but they don’t feel the need to show off and boast about themselves to anyone who’s in listening distance. And they take good care of themselves but they’re not obsessed with the way they look