There are actually only slight differences between people with high self-esteem and people with narcissistic tendencies. This is why we tend to see so many narcissists succeed in the workplace.
Confident individuals express a firm trust in themselves while narcissists express an unmoving insistence of themselves at the expense of the consideration of others.
The question is, how can you tell the difference between the two? Two researchers, Miranda Giacomin and Christian Jordan from the Department of Psychology, at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, recently posited an answer in the Journal of Personality.
From the abstract: “We examine why people form positive first impressions of grandiose narcissists, even though they can identify others’ narcissism. We test whether this occurs because narcissists are perceived to have especially high self‐esteem, which is socially valued.”
Grandiose narcissism and self-esteem perceptions
Across four separate studies, each using undergraduates as target stimuli, the researchers presented participants with photographs of targets previously determined to exhibit high levels of narcissism or high levels of self-esteem.
Each target was photographed above the waist in front of a gray background with either a smile or a neutral expression. Sixteen percent were Caucasian, 16% were Middle Eastern, 9% were Asian, and 3% were African American.
Following review, the subjects were asked to rate the attractiveness of each of the targets and guess if they were either supremely confident or narcissistic.
In the initial experiments, narcissistic targets were consistently ranked fairly higher than their high self-esteem counterparts. Researchers suspected this had to do with perceptions. When assessing a person’s character through visuals alone, narcissism likely reads as extreme confidence more times than not; which is to say that the negative markers of the personality disorder are effectively masked by the socially advantageous ones.
The authors write, “Positive initial impressions of narcissists may be driven by inflated perceptions that they have high self‐esteem.”
To test this hypothesis more resolutely, Giacomin and Jordan set up a similar experiment but used online dating profiles instead, and then segmented the pool into two groups. The first group resembled the group from the first couple of studies; attempting to gauge attractiveness and degrees of esteem versus narcissism at zero acquaintance using only pictures. It should come as no surprise then, that the results of this experiment additionally mirrored that of the first two.
“To alleviate concerns that our results are due to target gender, we replicated the analyses excluding male targets, and results remained identical. Target gender also did not moderate any of the results,” the authors added.
The second group, however, were explicitly told which of the targets were narcissistic before evaluation; this outcome proved to be very different than the first three. This time around targets that scored high in self-esteem fared much better than those that expressed grandiose narcissism— which indicates that all positive associations with narcissism were just co-opted from the self-esteem targets.
“Perceivers rated more narcissistic targets to be higher in self‐esteem and liked them more. This effect disappeared when targets’ narcissism was made salient, suggesting that trait narcissism is not inherently attractive. Finally, path models revealed a negative effect of perceptions of narcissism on liking that was suppressed by a positive effect of perceptions of self‐esteem on liking, even for ratings of people’s online dating profiles.”
The study was authored by Miranda Giacomin and Christian Jordan and can be read in full in the Journal of Personalty.