The actual relationship between narcissists and intelligence explained


If the past is any indication, warped perception and genius seem to flourish in unison. Sometimes this is evidenced through overt social abnormalities, as was the case with Sylvia Plath and her promethian roman à clef.  Other times it’s more like a stubborn internal drive; a sense of superiority that persists in spite of societal consensus. The latter more effectively outlines the legacy of the genetic pioneer, Gregor Mendal; a man who spent much of his early life flunking out of the same kind of courses his postulations have become synonymous with in the years since his death. 

These two are outliers in the field of thought of course, but does heightened appreciation of the self or one’s surroundings contribute to actual intellectual prowess?  A new paper published in the Journal of Personality helmed by Marcin Zajenkowski of the University of Warsaw takes a deeper look at narcissism’s nuanced relationship with objective intelligence—if there even is such a thing.

“Intelligence and narcissism are among the oldest constructs studied in contemporary psychology, each having more than a century of research tradition,” Zajenkowski and his team explained to Psychology Today. “The current research indicates that a belief in intellectual superiority is an important building block of self‐concept among individuals with high grandiose narcissism.”

A delicate understanding

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (alternatively known as DSM-5) locates true narcissism via two varying forms; the one governed by grandiosity, and the other by sensitivity.

Grandiose Narcissism describes the classic manifestation. Individuals express elevated self-esteem, demonstrate a theatrically dominant speaking style and more times than not fail to learn from their mistakes.

Conversely, a vulnerable narcissist expresses their distorted sense of self much less flamboyantly than their counterparts. They’re generally avoidant, especially in social situations, and defensive whenever their intellect comes into question.

Across four studies, and equipped with a sample comprised of 232 participants, the researchers behind the new study tested the associations between both incarnations of narcissism, subjectively and objectively assessed intelligence, basic personality traits, test‐related stress, beliefs about intelligence, and well‐being.

They began with a personality scale exam meant to compartmentalize respondents in accordance with the two forms of the mental disorder mentioned above. Following this, individuals were tasked with gauging their own intelligence using the following statement: “People differ with respect to their intelligence and can have a low, average, or high level. Using the following scale, please indicate where you can be placed compared to other people.”

Before the final review, the sample partook in objective intellect exams. The results suggested a plethora of things. First, just as the authors had projected prior to the experiment, grandiose narcissists reliably ranked themselves as being more intelligent than others, even though this did not translate to higher marks on the intellect exams.

Vulnerable narcissists did not appear to rate their intelligence as either superior or inferior, nor could any discernible conclusion be drawn about their actual intellect. The most notable association intimated by the new report posited that vulnerable narcissists reported a much higher degree of anxiety and negative emotions when completing all of the tests.  On this the authors remark,

“Individuals with high grandiose narcissism maintain unrealistically positive self‐views with regard to intelligence. They feel that high intelligence is a resource that buys people benefits in multiple domains, and they feel that they possess that resource. Thus, people scoring high on grandiose narcissism are indeed preoccupied with the topic of intelligence.”

Both variants of narcissist personality disorder conflate the value of intelligence as it relates to character. The discrepancy comes down to articulation.  Because the grandiose narcissist perceives intelligence as a significant predictor of a consequential individual, they are willing to convince themselves that they are in possession of it, even in the instances wherein they are not. Because the vulnerable narcissist surveys intelligence’s social application the very same, they succumb to panic when their possession of it encounters  scrutiny.

It should be noted that there is no real objective way to measure one’s ability to apply knowledge and skills effectively. Intelligence owes itself just as much to ingenuity and perseverance as it does to standardized cognitive expertise. Developed by French psychologist, Alfred Binet, in 1905 (revised in 1908 and again in 1911), the practical Intelligence Quotient test has recently energized indecision among the psychology community at large as a method of determining cognitive excellence and or developmental delays.

Dana Dovey of Medical Daily reports,  “While the IQ test may give an indication of general intelligence, it can’t measure the entire complexity of the human thought process. Creativity, emotional sensitivity, social understanding, and various acquired skills such as music or art, are excluded from the test’s measurements of intelligence. If you’d like to get an idea of your IQ take this test, but just remember that whatever your score be, it doesn’t necessarily define how smart you really are.”