This study just blew open a major myth about narcissists

Narcissists love themselves, right? 

Wrong, according to a new study just released by New York University. Psychology researchers say the opposite actually holds true. Narcissism is primarily driven by insecurity and self-doubt, not an inflated view of oneself. On a related note, study authors add that their findings may help explain common behaviors seen across social media platforms as well.

“For a long time, it was unclear why narcissists engage in unpleasant behaviors, such as self-congratulation, as it actually makes others think less of them,” explains senior study author Pascal Wallisch, a clinical associate professor in New York University’s Department of Psychology. “This has become quite prevalent in the age of social media–a behavior that’s been coined ‘flexing’.”

“Our work reveals that these narcissists are not grandiose, but rather insecure, and this is how they seem to cope with their insecurities,” he continues.

Much of this project’s findings can be summed up with a single word: overcompensation. The research suggests narcissism develops in an individual as a way to make up for low self-esteem or self-worth. Ironically, narcissistic tendencies (or flexing) usually produce the opposite of their intended effect. No one likes being around someone who is constantly patting themselves on the back.

“More specifically, the results suggest that narcissism is better understood as a compensatory adaptation to overcome and cover up low self-worth,” says lead study author Mary Kowalchyk, an NYU graduate student at the time of the study. “Narcissists are insecure, and they cope with these insecurities by flexing. This makes others like them less in the long run, thus further aggravating their insecurities, which then leads to a vicious cycle of flexing behaviors.”

Social media is all about seeking validation from other users. And, while in real life constant bragging is a quick way to find yourself eating lunch all alone, online it’s almost expected. Considering all of the recent research that indicates social media is wreaking havoc on millions’ self-esteem and mental health, one can’t help but wonder if all of the flexing seen online is due to insecurity more than the pursuit of likes and followers.

Close to 300 people with an average age of 20 years old took part in this study (60% female, 40% male). Each person answered a series of 151 survey questions.

Two scales were developed for this project. The first was the PRISN (Performative Refinement to soothe Insecurities about SophisticatioN), which measured self-perceptions of psychopathy (“I tend to lack remorse”), self-esteem (“On the whole, I am satisfied with myself”), and social desirability (“No matter who I am talking to I am a good listener”).

The second scale was called FLEX (perFormative seLf-Elevation indeX), and it “captured insecurity-driven self-conceptualizations that are manifested as impression management, leading to self-elevating tendencies.”

Researchers say the FLEX scale was made up of four main dimensions: social dominance (“I like knowing more than other people”), self-elevation (“I have exquisite taste”), impression management (“I am likely to show off if I get the chance”), and the need for social validation (“It matters that I am seen at important events”).

An investigation into participants’ responses placed within these frameworks revealed high correlations between FLEX measures and narcissism. For instance, the need for social validation (measured by FLEX) was found to correlate with the habit of “performative self-elevation” (putting on a show to make yourself look good to others).

All in all study authors conclude that their research strongly suggests genuine narcissists are insecure about themselves at the end of the day, regardless of how they may portray themselves publicly. 

The full study can be found here, published in Personality and Individual Differences.