Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Feb 21, 2020

Do Narcissists Feel as Good about Themselves and Their Lives as They Seem To? A Lie Detector Investigation

by Amy B. Brunell
Young man wearing gold crown taking selfie with smartphone

Have you ever heard that narcissists dislike themselves down deep inside? They usually don’t look like it, of course.  In fact, narcissists are usually overly positive about themselves and their lives. But, is it possible that when narcissists say they feel good, they aren’t being completely honest, even to themselves?

Narcissism is a complicated topic because there are different kinds of narcissism. As a personality-social psychologist, I investigate narcissism as a complex personality trait rather than as a personality disorder. (In other words, I study ordinary, garden-variety narcissists and don’t diagnose anybody with a psychological problem.) Instead, personality-social psychologists believe that characteristics of narcissism can exist in everyone at some level, and we simply label those people who show narcissistic characteristics much of the time as “narcissists.”

The issue is further complicated by the fact that there are at least three forms of narcissism: agentic grandiose narcissism, communal grandiose narcissism, and vulnerable narcissism. Psychologists know the most about agentic grandiose narcissists, who tend to have inflated self-views of their intelligence, power, status, and other characteristics. Agentic grandiose narcissists tend to be charming, outgoing, overconfident, and vain, and think they are better than other people. But, although agentic grandiose narcissists come across as very confident and satisfied with themselves, some psychologists have suggested that they don’t actually feel as good about themselves as they appear.

Communal grandiose narcissists also seem to feel good about themselves and have inflated views of how helpful and caring they are. They tend to believe that they will make the world a better place, but ironically, they also appear to be concerned about their personal power as well, although they might not admit it.  And, again, questions have been raised about how communal grandiose narcissists really feel about themselves and their lives, deep inside.

Last, vulnerable narcissists tend to be insecure and defensive. They admit to feeling bad about themselves, which makes some people question why they are considered narcissistic. Despite feeling badly about themselves, vulnerable narcissists—like grandiose narcissists—are self-centered, feel entitled to special treatment, and lack empathy for others.

In order to examine how narcissists actually feel about themselves, we first asked research  participants to complete personality measures to gauge their level of narcissism. We then gave them measures of anxiety and depression and asked them to rate how they have been feeling lately. To indicate how they have been feeling, they were given a list of words to rate that included positive feelings (such as alert, inspired, and determined) and negative feelings (such as distressed and upset).

Knowing that people don’t always tell the truth when they rate themselves, we hooked some of our participants up to a lie detector (which wasn’t really functioning).  So, some participants thought they were being monitored by a lie detector that could tell is if they were being honest in their ratings of how they were feeling, whereas other participants simply answered the questions without thinking  we could tell whether they were telling the truth.

We were able to conclude three things with this study. First, we were able to determine whether people lie about how narcissistic they are in the first place. Our results showed that participants were more likely to admit they had vulnerable narcissistic characteristics when they were hooked up to the lie detector. So, participants seemed reluctant to describe their insecurities unless they thought we could tell whether they were lying.  However, participants didn’t distort how grandiose narcissistic they are when their honesty was monitored.  So, those people must really believe all of the positive things they say about themselves.

Second, we examined whether the participants who were hooked up to the lie detector reported different levels of  anxiety, depression, negative moods, and positive moods than those who didn’t think they were being monitored.  The groups didn’t differ in their reported levels of anxiety, depression, or  positive moods. However, they did differ in their ratings of negative moods:  participants  who were hooked up the lie detector indicated they had been experiencing more negative moods lately than those who were not hooked up to the lie detector.

Third, we found that agentic grandiose narcissists and communal grandiose narcissists both reported feeling good. Vulnerable narcissists, by contrast, indicated they tended to feel anxious, depressed, distressed, and upset.

So, do narcissists feel as good about themselves and their lives as they usually seem to? For agentic grandiose narcissists and communal grandiose narcissists, the answer appears to be yes. And vulnerable narcissists, who freely admit to feeling bad about themselves, are not exaggerating; they really do feel bad about themselves. In general, then, narcissists seem to be  pretty honest when they tell you how they’re feeling.


For Further Reading

Brunell, A. B., & Buelow, M. T. (2019). Using the bogus pipeline to investigate trait narcissism and well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 151, 1-6.

 

Amy B. Brunell is Associate Professor of Psychology at the Ohio State University at Mansfield and co-editor of the Handbook of Trait Narcissism: Key Advances, Research Methods, and Controversies.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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