Narcissists Might Be Distressed By Their Own Reflections

Gazing at yourself admiringly in the mirror is the classic behavior of a narcissist — or so most of us think. When researchers put a group of narcissists in an fMRI machine to take a look at their brains while they viewed pictures of their own faces, something surprising happened. The scans revealed that narcissists don't feel admiration when gazing at themselves. Instead, they feel something akin to distress.

Hey Everyone! Come See How Good I Look

The word "narcissist" comes from the ancient Greek myth about Narcissus, a handsome hunter who rejects the love of the nymph Echo. As punishment, the gods curse him to fall in love with his mirror image. Narcissus catches his reflection in a pool of water, and becomes entranced. At this point, however, the myths differ. In Ovid's classic version, Narcissus realizes that his love for his reflection can never be reciprocated, and he commits suicide. In a version by the Greek traveler Pausanias, a leaf falls into the water and distorts the reflection, which causes Narcissus to be shocked by his own ugliness and leads to his demise.

Researchers at the University of Graz in Austria used these two versions of the myth to illustrate science's dueling theories about narcissism. On the one hand, you have social-cognitive theory running parallel with Ovid's tale: narcissists think they're better than everyone else. On the other hand, you have psychodynamic theories championing Pausanias's take: narcissists just act that way because they have fragile self-esteem and feel emotionally unstable. Which is it? To find out, the team screened 600 people for narcissistic personality traits and chose a handful from each end of the spectrum (21 with high narcissism, 22 with low) to put in an fMRI machine. Then, they showed the participants pictures of themselves, a close friend, and a stranger as the researchers scanned their brains.

Men Are From Mars

The team published their findings in July 2017 in the journal Scientific Reports. The first thing they had to do was separate the male data from the female data. As the authors write, "previous research indicated that female and male narcissists differ at psychological and also neurophysiological levels." This research did too: while the male narcissists in the study had average self-esteem, the self-esteem of the female narcissists was about three points higher than that of the average population.

But when the narcissistic men saw pictures of their own faces, there was greater activity in the dorsal and ventral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). That part of the brain generally lights up when anyone sees their own face, but these regions in particular are special. The dorsal ACC, the researchers say, is associated with conflict, surprise, and negative feelings, whereas the ventral ACC is involved in processing negative information about yourself.

Why the difference between men and women? The researchers think gender roles are to blame. Men are expected to be independent and strong in the face of adversity, whereas women are encouraged to seek social support. In that way, threats to the ego of a male narcissist might take a bigger toll than that of a female narcissist, who can turn to her friends to mend her ego. More research on female narcissists is needed, of course, but in general, the signs point to everything your mother told you: narcissists just act like they're better than you because they feel threatened.

Are You A Narcissist?

Written by Ashley Hamer September 16, 2017

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