Understanding Narcissism as a Personality Trait

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Over the past few years, it’s been nearly impossible to escape the mention of “narcissism” in relation to people and current events. Whether mentioning narcissistic actions or “armchair” diagnosing a public figure with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), the mere hint of narcissism is enough to make people cringe or put them on the defensive.

Instead of completely writing off narcissism as something to be avoided at all costs, it’s important to understand how a little bit of narcissism can be a good thing. 

First a little history.

Narcissism’s Origins

The Oxford dictionary defines “narcissism” as “excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one's physical appearance.” The origin of the term comes from ancient mythology. While the concept of excessive self-love had been around for centuries (the Greek term “hubris”), it was the poet Ovid’s Metamorphasis that gave rise to the story of Narcissus. 

In Ovid’s telling, the great beauty Narcissus refused the love of the nymph Echo. This angered the gods, and he was cursed by them, falling in love with his own reflection in a pond and eventually dying staring at himself. 

Over the past several millennia, the Narcissus myth has been a popular topic for paintings, sculptures, literature like The Picture of Dorian Gray, music (both classical and contemporary), and even pop culture (hello, Narcissa Malfoy). And in a true sign of our modern times, narcissism has been made into countless memes that, while funny and relatable, oversimplify what it means to be a narcissist.

Narcissism as a Personality Trait

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many noted neurologists and psychoanalysts began to recognize the role narcissism played in the human psyche. While Sigmund Freud saw narcissism as a normal part of the human psyche, his friend and fellow psychoanalyst Ernest Jones focused on extreme narcissism as a personality disorder coining the phrase “God-complex.”

Emily D. Campion, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa and advisor to Student Select, provides the following insight when it comes to understanding the scope of narcissism. 

When thinking about narcissism, it is important to remember that there is the clinical disorder and then there is the trait ("subclinical"). To complicate things a bit, the definition is generally the same for the disorder and the trait: “a preoccupation with grandiose fantasies of self-importance, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy” (DSM-IV; APA, 2000, p. 717)1. In these contexts—hiring or admissions—we are only interested in the trait.

Understanding Healthy Levels of Narcissism

Many current experts agree that a bit of narcissism as a personality trait is completely normal.

In his paper Dear Survivors of Narcissistic Abuse: Own Your Healthy Narcissism, clinical psychologist Michael Kinsey, Ph.D. defends the need to “reappropriate the term narcissism.” He states, “We’re not all narcissistic in the same way, or to the same degree, but we do all have narcissistic tendencies. Not only is self-absorption universal, it’s also a vital aspect of health.” Kinsey also lists key aspects of Healthy Narcissism including:

A paper by Robert Jenkins, LCSW also suggests that “Narcissism is a range of behavior that is present in all humans meaning we are all narcissistic to a certain degree. Thus narcissism can range from being deficient all the way to pathological…” 

For perspective when it comes to narcissistic traits in schools and the workplace, Dr. Campion provided these perspectives:

While narcissism generally evokes thoughts of toxic leaders, destructive behaviors, manipulation, exploitation, and the like2,3, there is sufficient research to suggest that narcissism is not always negative all the time. Instead, those high on narcissism measures tend to emerge as leaders, and interestingly, those with moderate levels of narcissism are likely to have higher levels of leader effectiveness compared to low or high narcissism4.
Those with trait narcissistic tendencies often make good first impressions7. They are viewed as charming, confident, and authoritative. However, over time, these perceptions change as narcissists try to engender admiration from others but succumb to exploitative and apathetic characteristics of this personality trait. This means that relationship maintenance is a difficult task, and often falls on other people to manage. This has obvious implications for the workplace and classroom where these workers and students may require the help of a supervisor or professor to ensure cohesion within the unit and act as a mediator to conflict, which are typical tasks of those in supervisory or teaching roles. In these instances, it is useful for those in leadership positions to help bring out the positive elements of narcissism (whether perceived or real)—leadership potential, boldness, agency and self-sufficiency, and competitiveness5,8,9.

In Summary

As a personality trait, it is likely we all have elements of narcissism in us. It’s important to understand to what degree it exists and how impacts our lives and decisions. 

Dr. Campion offers the below perspective for college admissions professionals and potential employers:

The reality is organizations will hire individuals who are moderate or high on narcissism scales, and college admissions officers will do the same. So, the question becomes: How do we leverage the positive elements of this trait and manage the negative? 
Under the surface, narcissists struggle to balance their need for approval with their self-serving tendencies as these can be at odds5,6. Knowing this, supervisors and professors should keep this in mind as they provide performance feedback by highlighting opportunities for improvement while not losing sight of the tasks they are doing well to ensure they still experience approval. 
Let's be clear here: I am not suggesting enabling narcissistic tendencies, but understanding the individual differences of your employees or students can help you manage them better. 
Similar advice can be given regarding those with other maladaptive traits such as neuroticism. And remember, while traits are considered to be more or less stable over a lifetime, individuals can learn to manage the less desirable features of personality in ways that improve their ability to contribute to their team without sacrificing who they are.


1APA (American Psychiatric Association) (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (revised 4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

2Resick, C. J., Whitman, D. S., Weingarden, S. M., & Hiller, N. J. (2009). The bright-side and the dark-side of CEO personality: Examining core self-evaluations, narcissism, transformational leadership, and strategic influence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(6), 1365–1381. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0016238

3Nevicka, B., Ten Velden, F. S., De Hoogh, A. H., & Van Vianen, A. E. (2011). Reality at odds with perceptions: Narcissistic leaders and group performance. Psychological Science, 22(10), 1259-1264. https://doi.org/10.1177/09567976114172 

4Grijalva, E., Harms, P. D., Newman, D. A., Gaddis, B. H., & Fraley, R. C. (2015). Narcissism and leadership: A meta‐analytic review of linear and nonlinear relationships. Personnel Psychology, 68(1), 1-47. https://doi.org/10.1111/peps.12072

5Cai, H. & Luo, Y. L. L. (2018). Distinguishing between adaptive and maladaptive narcissism. In A. D. Hermann, A. B., Brunell, & J. D. Foster (Eds.). Handbook of Trait Narcissism: Key Advances, Research Methods, and Controversies (pp. 97 - 104). Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing AG.

6Weiss, B., & Miller, J. D. (2018). Distinguishing between grandiose narcissism, vulnerable narcissism, and narcissistic personality disorder. In A. D. Hermann, A. B., Brunell, & J. D. Foster (Eds.). Handbook of Trait Narcissism: Key Advances, Research Methods, and Controversies (pp. 3 - 14). Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing AG.

7Back, M. D., Schmukle, S. C., & Egloff, B. (2010). Why are narcissists so charming at first sight? Decoding the narcissism–popularity link at zero acquaintance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(1), 132–145. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0016338

8Back, M. D. (2018). The narcissistic admiration and rivalry concept. In A. D. Hermann, A. B., Brunell, & J. D. Foster (Eds.). Handbook of Trait Narcissism: Key Advances, Research Methods, and Controversies (pp. 57 - 68). Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing AG.

9Krizan, Z. (2018). The narcissism spectrum model: A spectrum perspective on narcissistic personality. In A. D. Hermann, A. B., Brunell, & J. D. Foster (Eds.). Handbook of Trait Narcissism: Key Advances, Research Methods, and Controversies (pp. 15 - 26). Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing AG.

Grijalva, E., Newman, D. A., Tay, L., Donnellan, M. B., Harms, P. D., Robins, R. W., & Yan, T. (2015). Gender differences in narcissism: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 141(2), 261–310. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0038231

Grijalva, E., & Newman, D. A. (2015). Narcissism and counterproductive work behavior (CWB): Meta‐analysis and consideration of collectivist culture, Big Five personality, and narcissism's facet structure. Applied Psychology, 64(1), 93-126. https://doi.org/10.1111/apps.12025

O'Boyle, E. H., Forsyth, D. R., Banks, G. C., & McDaniel, M. A. (2012). A meta-analysis of the dark triad and work behavior: A social exchange perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(3), 557-579. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0025679

While narcissism gets an understandably bad rap, some aspects can be beneficial to successful people (in moderation, of course).


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