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A MECHANISM FOR NARCISSISM – PART 1
(A note to readers: This is the piece on narcissism I promised. Turned out it was rather long – to say the least – so I’m splitting it up into two articles. This one lays the groundwork for the causes while the second one describes the mechanism, the behavior, and different “types” of narcissists. The second one will be published soon. This is a rather large and complicated issue so there might be more articles in the future.)
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This is a follow-up of an article I wrote recently on narcissism. The main subject of that article was the role of empathy in narcissism and how the psychiatric and psychological professions, among others, have misrepresented it. I suggest that empathy (not lack of it) is indeed a major symptom of narcissism, and in fact one of the main tools narcissists use to exploit and manipulate others.
Any work on any scientific subject, whether it is psychological or other, needs to take into account the “explanatory level” it is dealing with. Are we describing something? Are we defining something? Are we explaining something? We should always strive to explain phenomena, even though perfect mechanistic explanations are rarely possible. We simply do not know enough about our physical reality to do that. Still, we should try.
While definitions generally have a practical purpose, they tend to have limited scientific value. Descriptions (such as symptoms), on the other hand, are the foundations for an explanation. In the case of narcissism, the only way to proceed (at this point in time anyway) is to use the symptoms to theorize about the causes behind them. These causes need to contain two components: a) Plausible (or at least semi-plausible) biological causal traits or variables (the fewer the better) and b) a mechanistic explanation of how those traits create the observed symptoms. This mechanistic explanation needs to be specific enough to be testable via hypotheses.
This article attempts to provide a mechanism like that. It is not going to be perfect because we simply can’t be sure about the biological traits behind it – or biological traits in general. We are just not there yet. Still, there are some indications regarding those traits that we can use. The mechanism itself should be regarded as a theory which will need to be tested. If it is found defective, it will need to be rejected or modified – depending on the scale of the defectiveness. The other purpose of the theory is to provide insight for further work, and in general.
The theory makes one specific assumption; that narcissism is a result of a position on one or more primary personality traits. It does not exclude that extreme narcissists may have additional psychopathic symptoms – but in general it does not regard narcissism as a product of classical psychopathy. This will be discussed further in this article, and perhaps in a dedicated one later.
The first thing we need to do is to review all the symptoms of narcissism which have been put forward. I will not list them here to save space, but they were discussed in my last article on narcissism. They are also freely available all over the web.
If we look carefully on narcissistic symptoms, are there patterns? Are there some kinds of common themes or threads? Determining these common themes is to a degree speculative, but let us proceed anyway. It seems that there are three major themes visible through most or all the symptoms; misjudgment, dependence on others, and a need to control the environment – particularly other people. Let’s discuss these themes one by one.
A good proportion of observed narcissistic symptoms refer to the narcissist’s view of himself (image of self) and how it is in relation to others. He sees himself as superior, either intellectually or morally. This breeds a sense of entitlement because a superior person deserves things. A superior person cannot fail, and failure is thus attributed to others. Repeated failures must be caused by systematic targeting or oppression, which the narcissist explains by assuming victim status. This victim status can be elevated to a virtue to enhance the narcissist’s image of self. Rationalized contempt is also a common result, like when a junkie despises people who “let him” steal from them - for their weakness or stupidity.
All these symptoms are logical consequences of regarding oneself as superior, while not actually being superior. This elicits two important questions:
· What is behind this misjudgment of self?
· Why is this misjudgment unrealistically positive rather than negative?
One of the most cited symptoms of narcissism is low self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is essentially the ability to observe one’s inner mental processes. People with high self-consciousness can evaluate their own performance better, have greater internal consistency, and understand themselves better in general. People with low self-consciousness have poor access to their inner self. They are, for example, able to “doublethink” – i.e. holding two contradictory views simultaneously without noticing.
Self-consciousness is probably a much more important symptom or trait that it is given credit for. It is likely that it is a result of a primary biological trait which can be called inward/outward orientation of the brain. It is a well-established trait, visible in most or all personality tests. It is a key trait behind introversion/extraversion (albeit not the only one) and it has an extremely strong relationship with mental skills, such as are measured on IQ tests (the inwards have a particular set of skills while the outwards have a different set of skills). The trait seems to describe some kind of “default setting” of the brain. It looks primarily outward at the environment, inward to an “internal world” or both in equal or unequal proportions. Inward-looking people are introspective, they like to systematize things and solve puzzles, and they receive gratification from their mental accomplishments. For many of them, their internal world is far more interesting than reality.
The outward oriented people have poor understanding of themselves (poor “theory” of their own mind), and their internal mental processes are partly hidden from them, just like subtleties in the environment are hidden from the inward looking. They have very good eye for detail, notice changes in the environment immediately, and can read people well.
In other words; inward looking people are blind toward the environment while outward looking people are blind toward themselves. Self-blindness so strong that people are capable of expressing doublethink in consequent sentences would seem to be a likely reason for misjudging yourself in general.
There is some evidence for this. Firstly, this exact trait is very strongly associated with narcissism – although it is called (low) self-consciousness in that case. Secondly, people with narcissistic tendencies tend to be inconsistent in their views, which includes doublethink. This characteristic is so common that it is probably difficult to find a narcissist who doesn’t have it in abundance.
It is very likely that this trait is the reason for the misjudgment of self. If we assume that it is normally distributed, an unscientific rule of thumb might indicate that 30-40% of people have noticeable problems with “self-identification.”
So, why is this misjudgment unrealistically positive rather than negative? This is indeed the big question. Let’s consider what lack of self-identification really means. If you are unable to evaluate yourself to begin with, you will also be unable to correct your perception of yourself as time goes by. An important part of self-knowledge is the constant reevaluation of self. You fail at something you thought you could do: reevaluation. You succeed at something: reevaluation. You make a catastrophic mistake: reevaluation. You trusted someone you shouldn’t have: reevaluation. This is a life-long process for the high self-consciousness person. The high self-consciousness person has an autonomous reevaluation process which constantly reviews his self – without the need for constant feedback or advice from others. His self will be reasonably clear to himself, firmly anchored, and yet subject to constant internal revision.
The low self-consciousness person has a problem with self-identification. He will never fully find himself, and may go on a journey to attempt just that – which will be unsuccessful. So how does the low self-consciousness person develop self-identity or a sense of self? Well, he relies on others to do it in the first place (usually as a child), and then he relies on others to provide the reevaluation throughout his life. This has profound consequences for his relationships with other people - and with reality in general. We could say that a person like that, who has also developed an unrealistically positive self-identity, tends to be a narcissist. So why is an unrealistically positive self-identity developed? There are three issues that may be relevant:
Systematic positive feedback – Let’s assume that a third or more of the population needs significant assistance for self-identification from other people. This need will of course vary based on the position on the inward/outward trait. Also assume that we live in a society where massive change has taken place in the upbringing of children. Instead of suppressing certain behaviors, such as selfishness, they are either not suppressed at all, or encouraged. Let’s also assume that instead of imprinting realistic assessment of self, parents have started to use “positive reinforcement” alone, including constant praise, telling the child how smart and unique it is, saying yes to everything, and protecting it from the consequences of its behavior. Also assume that this is done in the school system from primary to university level. How would this change affect people with low self-consciousness? Would it increase unrealistically positive self-assessment in the population? Would it activate narcissism in low self-consciousness people? If the inward/outward trait predisposes a part of the population to narcissism, it would. There is also evidence that it has, because the occurrence of narcissism has exploded in recent decades – and because these are exactly the changes in the upbringing and education of children and young people in general since circa 1970. It is possible, even likely, that these changes have activated a huge group of potential narcissists, who would otherwise have had more realistic self-assessment.
Systematic evaluation bias – It is well know that a certain evaluation bias is built into certain variables and traits. A good example is the Dunning-Kruger effect. People with low skills in a particular task tend to overestimate their ability. Research also indicates that people with high skills tend to underestimate their abilities. There are indications that this may apply more widely. People who are not physically attractive also tend to overestimate their attractiveness while attractive people tend to underestimate it. It is possible that something like that is going on. Perhaps people with low self-consciousness simply overestimate themselves “automatically.” It is also possible that these people may actually be of generally lower competence than the high-consciousness people, and this would kick in the automatic bias. It is even possible that low vs high self-consciousness actually explains the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is speculation, but systematic and automatic evaluation bias cannot be excluded as a cause.
Malicious envy – One of the most common characteristics of narcissists, and the one most seldom mentioned, is that they exhibit envy toward people they consider more fortunate. This envy tends to be malicious in the sense that they fantasize about the downfall of the fortunate ones, and sometimes even try to bring it about. It is a possibility that if a child is exposed to envy and hatred of the more fortunate in the home, it may react by using a compensatory mechanism to inflate its own sense of self-worth. It is also possible that this is a result of narcissism rather than a cause, because a narcissist will believe that he deserves more than others and hate people who do not fit into that view. It is not clear if this is a cause or an effect, but it cannot be ruled out as a contributing mechanism.
To summarize this section, it is postulated that a significant part of narcissistic symptoms can be explained by systematic misjudgment of self. The mechanism behind that misjudgment is suggested to be the inward/outward trait – which is commonly described as low self-consciousness in the case of narcissists. It is further suggested that a significant part of the population needs the assistance of others to develop a sense of self – and that social conditions in the West have pushed parents and schools to inflate that sense of self – with people with low self-consciousness severely affected. This may have resulted in the activation of significant narcissistic characteristics in up 30-40% of the population.
Dependence on others
Narcissists need other people. They struggle being alone and need to be in a relationship if possible. A narcissist will even usually have arranged a new relationship before exiting the current one. This need for other people is beyond gregariousness – it is an emotional need only other people can fulfill. Their need for admiration and their constant emotional meddling in people’s lives attest to that fact.
The narcissist’s people-seeking activity is based on a very clear need for emotional feedback, or emotional support from others. This need is so strong that it will be fulfilled by manipulation or force if necessary. One should not underestimate the strength of this dependence. I recall an experiment from a few years ago, where subjects were put in an MRI machine and their brain activity was monitored while stimuli were presented to them. They were presented with a potential threat to see which brain regions would become active. A part of the subjects went straight to fight-or-flight response. They analyzed the threat and decided on action. Another part activated different brain regions, seemingly trying to decide what others would think about their action. This group of people was so dependent on feedback from others, that they essentially ignored a threat in front of them. There is a powerful variable indeed behind that kind of behavior.
Narcissists’ emotional dependency is the central theme of their lives. Only a person with very “active” emotions would seek emotional reinforcement like a narcissist does. A less emotional person would neither seek this reinforcement, nor enjoy it. It is clear that narcissists are emotionally driven and emotionally motivated. This emotional need-based motivation results in motives which tend to be selfish – since their behavior becomes directed at emotional self-fulfillment. Furthermore, narcissists have problems understanding people who have non-emotional motives for behavior.
So, one of the main differences between narcissists and non-narcissists seems to be the role emotions play in motivating their behavior and attitudes. It is likely because their emotions are more salient, or less shielded than in non-narcissists. There is a reasonably well established biological trait which likely explains this, and we can refer to as emotional salience. It is a rather well-established trait and is visible in virtually every personality test there is.
On one side of the trait there are “emotional” people, on the other side there are people less affected by emotion. Those people are usually described as “rational” or “logical.” A very important aspect of this trait is that it doesn’t seem to describe the “amount” of emotions or their “strength.” It only seems to describe how naked emotions are, or alternatively how blocked or shielded they are. This means that the “unemotional/rational” person has essentially the same emotional functionality as the “emotional” person. The only difference is that in the rational person, the emotions are shielded, or suppressed – until control is lost for some reason. There is very strong evidence for this. Emotional problems are less frequent on the rational side of the distribution, but they do happen. When they happen, they reveal disruptions to a previously fully functional emotional system, much like they do in their emotional counterparts. You can’t have disruptions to something that isn’t there. This is in stark contrast to psychopaths who have disrupted or damaged emotional systems as default.
It is important to keep in mind that people on the emotional side are not necessarily less able to think logically than the people on the “rational” side. It’s just that emotions seem to have priority when analyzing information and making decisions. The emotional person most likely has ability to think quite logically, but is less likely to do so because emotions are in the way. This is similar to the emotional system of the rational types – it’s there but used less frequently. If this interpretation is correct, this trait definition would predict two things for emotional people:
· They can think quite logically and without emotional input if the situation demands it – they can also be “made to see reason” so to speak.
· They will be vulnerable to emotion-based constructs, such as rigid emotional ideologies, and they will be less likely to be able to think without emotional input as their sense of self is increasingly taken over by them.
This means that as an emotional person becomes more ideologically driven, the more argument-proof he becomes. Some ideologies are basically formalizations of emotions, or emotions set up as systems of belief. As the emotions become more formalized and systematized, the more efficient they become at blocking the brain’s ability for rational thought. These emotional systems can be used by others to totally bullet-proof emotional people against reason and logic.
This means that emotional people are vulnerable to certain types of manipulation and radicalization – which is very difficult to deprogram. Now, imagine that an emotional person who has been programmed like this also has low self-consciousness and inflated self-image. Imagine what that kind of person could be manipulated into doing – and what kind of behavior he could rationalize.
It seems that emotional salience or emotional “nakedness” is a necessary condition for becoming a narcissist. Narcissists are invariably emotionally needy people. This doesn’t mean that every emotional person is a narcissist. In most cases there has to be some kind of intervention by the environment to drive that neediness. There are two issues we need to discuss in that regard:
Instant gratification – An important part of socializing children is to develop a resilient character in them. Patience is a virtue and good things come to those who wait. This has changed a lot in recent decades for two reasons. Firstly, upbringing seems to have changed toward indulging every whim of children and young people in general. Many parents seem to have forgotten that the word “no” exists. Secondly, society has changed technologically – enabling many needs or wants to be instantly gratified. This has changed the structure of emotional reinforcement for many people. Any need or want must be satisfied, preferably immediately, to avoid an emotional “episode.” This change has stripped away emotional control in general, affecting the emotional part of the distribution severely. This is likely to have created stronger emotional “neediness” in a lot of people.
Impulse control – This is not exactly the same process as the one above, although it’s similar. Promoting impulse control in children and young people requires active emotional suppression by a parent, teacher, or other person of authority. This essentially involves punishment and actively enforced discipline. This has almost disappeared in the West. While excessive punishment can cause permanent disruption to a person’s emotional system, a complete lack of it will result in increase of emotionally out-of-control people. This has probably happened large-scale in the West in recent decades.
Relationship between the traits and a summary
Before proceeding further it is prudent to provide a short summary and discuss the relationship between the two traits discussed above. The traits are inward/outward orientation of the brain and emotional salience. The question is: are those traits correlated? Are they perhaps even the same trait?
If we assume that the traits are highly correlated we would essentially have two “groups” – or more accurately two opposing extremes on a distribution:
· Inward looking, introspective people who are unemotional and rational.
· Outward looking people, who are driven by emotion rather than rationality.
The relationship between these traits is not clear at all. They have, to my knowledge, not been measured and correlated in their “pure” form. The closest we have are research on derived or synthetic traits that most likely incorporate them, such as from five-factor tests (agreeableness vs intro/extraversion) and from the Myers-Briggs test (thinking/feeling vs intro/extraversion). Based on that research, it seems that while the traits are quite separate, there seems to be moderate correlation between them. That is not surprising.
This is relevant because the theory above indirectly suggests that while the proportion of “natural” narcissists is low, a large part of people are susceptible to being turned into narcissists. This may be up to 40% for each trait. The less correlated the traits are, the lower this proportion becomes for the population. If they are moderately correlated, we may be looking at something like 25-30% of the population which may be able to acquire significant narcissistic symptoms. This is only a guess, but that’s all we have at this point.
To summarize the article so far, it postulates the following:
· Narcissism is caused by a person’s extreme position on two personality traits at the same time: high emotional salience/motivation and low self-consciousness (caused by outward orientation of the brain).
· This results in an incorrect and overestimated self-image which requires constant reinforcement from others. The need for this reinforcement is strong on an emotional level, compelling the narcissist to acquire it by manipulation and/or by force.
· These traits are both normally (symmetrically) distributed and a significant part of the population may therefore have susceptibility for narcissistic traits, perhaps as high as a third of the population.
· Most of those who are susceptible will not become narcissists unless their underlying characteristics are somehow “magnified.”
· Social factors involving upbringing, education, and other factors, may dramatically exaggerate the “potency” of the traits, thereby increasing the number of narcissists from the “normal.”
· Because the traits vary from “severe to moderate” (from both ends of the distribution) we will see a significant difference between narcissists determined by where they fall on the distribution. We should see moderate-to-extreme narcissists using different tactics to deal with their environment.
· The theory does not exclude the possibility of other biological traits being involved in narcissism. There is some evidence for that, but it is far from clear how they work at this point.
Next we will discuss the narcissist’s need to control his environment, present a mechanism on how that works, and discuss different types of narcissists.
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