When you look in the mirror, what do you see? Do you see yourself as on par with how others see you, do you devalue yourself, or do you inflate your attributes more than is healthy?

Authors of the study described below in the journal Personality and Individual Differences (2021) review the literature on narcissism and self-image. Narcissistic people rate themselves as more attractive than others. Not only that, but narcissistic people enjoy looking at themselves, experiencing self-confidence and self-admiration. In spite of this pleasure in self-gaze, there is trouble below the surface. Brain scans of narcissistic people looking at their own images show increased blood flow consistent with inner conflict and negative feelings, betraying insecurity beneath a mask of self-regard.

While pathological narcissism has benefits—including offsetting the negative impact on other dark triad traits (i.e. Machiavellianism, psychopathy) on well-being (2021)—it is generally negative. People with narcissism overestimate their ability to lead, don’t take constructive feedback, cross ethical lines, take advantage of others, create toxicity, and take more than their fair share of the profit.

Views of narcissism

There are two types of pathological narcissism, grandiose and vulnerable. Research finds grandiose narcissists appear less troubled by how they are and what others think, and are perhaps more temperamentally narcissistic, more authentically grandiose. Vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, are thought to use the appearance of entitlement, arrogance and pride in themselves to cover up deep feelings of shame, doubt about oneself, and insecurity.

There are two basic causal models of narcissism. The psychoanalytic model says that narcissism is a defense against underlying devaluation of oneself, an over-compensation for inner feelings of inadequacy, generally the result of being devalued (or even traumatized) growing up. The social learning theory says that narcissism comes from being praised too easily, highly valued with a clear basis.

Looking below the surface

To glean a deeper understanding of self-image evaluation in narcissism, Steiner and colleagues (2021) used a clever study design in which people are shown many pairs of distorted images and asked to rate them so quickly and so many times it is impossible to throw off the results, a procedure called “reverse correlation”1. By looking at correlations between the image ratings for different comparison instructions (e.g. which image is more attractive), we can determine the role of underlying grandiosity (supporting the social learning model) and insecurity (pointing toward the psychoanalytic “mask” model).

Participants in the study were 96 college students, 56 women, aged 18-25. They participated in two experiments, the first designed to look for inaccuracies in self-perceived self-image, and the second to look for distortions in how attractive participants saw themselves. In both experiments, narcissistic self-image perception was correlated with measures of self-concept clarity and subtype of narcissism. 

Self-Concept Clarity (SCC)2 looks at how crisp or how vague the idea of oneself is, rating for example how much conflicting beliefs one has about oneself, feelings of inauthenticity and difficulty sharing who one is with others. The Pathological Narcissism Inventory (PNI) has multiple items, the “grandiose fantasizing” component correlating with the social learning theory model and the “hiding the self” with the psychoanalytic.

In experiment 1, participants were given 500 pairs of reference images randomized with noise drawn from a standard database to compare with one another, making judgements about which looked more like themselves. Based on these choices, a “composite” image of the participant was generated by computer software which represented the unconscious inner way participants saw themselves. This composite was then compared with their actual image to calculate a measure of self-image distortion. 

Experiment 2 used a similar procedure for unconscious self-perceived attractiveness. Participants’ photos were rated by independent judges using a validated approach. Participants  compared pairs of photos, either of themselves or of reference images, rating them on an attractiveness scale. Ratings were analyzed to derive a measure of self-image enhancement, in reference to judges’ independent ratings.

Findings

Those with poorer SCC had greater distortion in how they saw themselves. Narcissistic insecurity–not grandiose fantasizing—accounted for 75 percent of the connection between self-concept clarity and distorted self image, supporting the psychoanalytic model of hidden vulnerability. 

Grandiose fantasy actually had the opposite effect—weakening the connection between identity stability and self-image distortion by 25 percent. Likewise, increased self-enhancement was connected with greater narcissistic insecurity and not grandiose fantasizing. The greater the tendency to hide themselves out of insecurity, the greater participant’s belief that they were more attractive than others deemed them.

The study authors conclude that that “1) individuals with low SCC have more distorted self-images, 2) the relation between low SCC and distortion of one’s self-image is mediated by the hiding-the-self dimension on the vulnerable narcissism factor, and 3) this distortion of one’s self-image, via vulnerable narcissism, is one of enhancement.”

Implications

These results are informative, though as is always the case, further investigation is warranted. However, this study design minimizes inaccuracy by using a technique which infers underlying attitudes from behavior. Simply asking people what they think about themselves is often subject to inaccuracy. 

Reverse correlation—much like the implicit association test (IAT)3, which measures consciously imperceptible differences in reaction times when pairing words with images to reveal unconscious bias—shows what is going on outside of awareness. 

One of the most significant findings is the key role played by insecurity, supporting the psychoanalytic hypothesis that unconscious vulnerabilities and unresolved conflicts about oneself lead to defensive over-estimation of one’s attractiveness.

This research did not support social learning theory, suggesting that narcissistic self-image self-enhancement may not develop because of undeserved praise. If anything, it may be that undeserved praise undermines motivation, resilience and self-efficacy by making it too easy to win the prize. This ultimately may increase vulnerability and intolerance of failure, amplifying the insecure core sense of self.

Self-concept clarity is a key factor. The more diffuse our identity, the more distorted one’s view is of oneself. This distortion is toward self-enhancement. When we don’t know who we are, we may compensate for this uncertainty by unconsciously puffing up ourselves. 

SCC has also been shown to be important in breaking-up. Research suggests that anxiously attached people with a poor sense of self are more likely to return to unwanted relationships simply to hold on to a strong sense of identity as part of the couple rather than tolerate the uncomfortable uncertainty of being single. This is all the more relevant because, somewhat counterintuitively, when people divorce, research (2021) suggests personality does not change–though it may free up who they are.

Contrary to explaining narcissistic over-evaluation, grandiosity did not significantly impact distortion or self-enhancement in this study. In fact, grandiosity reduced the impact of unclear sense of self, ironically leading to greater self-perception accuracy. This is consistent with the finding of research suggesting that grandiose narcissists are more intrinsically narcissistic, as compared with vulnerable narcissists where preoccupation with oneself is self-protective.

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