A Day in the Life of a Narcissist

The finding that every generation is the “Me” generation fits with developmental psychologist David Elkind’s adolescent egocentrism theory.  According to Elkind, teenagers believe that they are the center of their universe. They feel that they have an imaginary audience that follows them everywhere, watching and being impressed by their behaviors. Roberts and colleagues pointed out that this self-focus diminishes as teens develop close interpersonal relationships in the early twenties and begin their own families, causing their focus to shift away from themselves and toward their loved ones.  People should, then, get less narcissistic as they get older through these normative developmental changes.

Who’s left? The people high in narcissism exit their teenage and young adult years without making the developmental shift that shifts their focus to others. However, some people never move down to the middle of the narcissism spectrum.  My PsychToday colleague, Scott Barry Kaufman, wrote an excellent article on how to “spot a narcissist.” Consider this your guidebook to determining who fits or does not fit the narcissism profile.

Short of the diagnosable adults and self-centered teens, however, there are many people who show mild to moderate levels of narcissism in their everyday behavior. In reformulating DSM-5, psychiatrists took seriously the research by personalitypsychologists on the”Big 5.”  People’s personalities don’t come in categories, they come in measurable dimensions.

The Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) contains a list of 40 statements that measure four of the narcissistic tendencies seen in the new DSM diagnosis– exhibitionism, exploitativeness, entitlement, and vanity.  High scores on all of the narcissism scales don’t necessarily qualify you for the official diagnosis but they indicate that you lean in that direction.

The NPI has produced many valuable findings, including the results of the generational change studies. However, it’s got one obvious problem in that it’s asking people to report on their own personal foibles. People high in narcissism tend to deceive themselves and others.  When they take these tests, they continue to lie. Their scores underestimate their true narcissistic tendencies.

This premise led Washington University researcher Nicholas Holtzman and his team to take their study of narcissism out into the real world.  Investigators typically study people in the lab, creating artificial situations and watching how participants respond. However, as Holtzman pointed out, it’s more relevant and informative to study what people do in their actual environments. Because people high in narcissism try to present themselves in the best possible light they’re not going to show their true stripes in the psych lab.

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