Thursday, December 21, 2006

Violence from Self-Love

“Self-love forever creeps out, like a snake, to sting anything which happens to stumble upon it.” – George Byron

Violence from Self-Love: Narcissism and Aggression in the Face of Ego Threat
Ashley Girgis
Trinity University

Study Introduction

Most would agree that an encounter with a narcissistic person is not a pleasant one. Self-obsessed, conceited, and often offensive, narcissists constantly seek to revel in others’ admiration, even if that admiration must be extracted and construed to fit the narcissist’s own self-perceptions. Despite simply being difficult to interact with and oftentimes obnoxious, however, there seems to be an even darker side to the narcissistic story. Among other characteristics, it is a common observation that narcissists seem to be overly reactive when their grandiose views are not confirmed or threatened by others, and they often become overtly aggressive and offensive.

As more evidence accumulates validating the link between narcissism and aggression, it is becoming increasingly clear that highly narcissistic individuals tend to react more aversely to threatening information or feedback from others when compared with the average person, responding with aggressive behavior as a means of reasserting their inflated views of themselves. In this sense, ego threat can be conceptualized as any encounter, feedback, or information perceived as a threat or challenge to one’s worth, competence, or character. Additionally, aggression can be defined as any attempt to hurt another person, whether it is through verbal or physical derogation. Although this link between narcissism and aggression is evident, the underlying mechanisms that govern this reactive process remain vague.

Considerable debate has arisen over narcissists’ motivation to aggress against others, and there seem to be two equally feasible potential mechanisms. The first of these is the self-reparation mechanism, which supposes that narcissists internalize the ego threat and their high selfesteem has actually been damaged by the ego threat, motivating an attempt at restoring that damaged self-esteem to pre-threat levels. This mechanism is supported by evidence suggesting that narcissists’ self-esteem is very unstable and susceptible to damage by ego threat; because of this, aggression might be an attempt to return the narcissist to the position of superiority that he or she craves.

The second possibility is what has been termed the ego-promotion mechanism, which predicts that the observed aggression is not a result of narcissists’ insecurity, but simply a manifestation of their aggravation at others’ failure to recognize and confirm their perceived superiority. This mechanism is supported by the exhibitionism and exploitativeness that often characterize narcissists. In other words, it is unclear whether narcissists’ reactions are rooted in an attempt at repairing their damaged self-esteem, or if they aggress with the intention of just taking out their frustration and proving to others that they are, in fact better.

Because of this important distinction, it is important to investigate whether narcissists become aggressive to restore their perceptions of superiority in their own eyes (i.e., with the intent of self-reparation) or to promote these perceptions in the eyes of others in the public domain, an area which has been suggested in the literature but never actually studied.

For example, a private ego threat might be encountered in a situation where a person finds out he or she did poorly on a test, but no one else is aware of it. In contrast, a public ego threat might be exemplified in a situation where the same person finds out he or she performed poorly in front of others because the teacher reads the grades out loud in class. The current study attempted to address the ideas in question by teasing apart and isolating the specific interpersonal triggers that cause narcissists to respond aggressively in response to an ego threat. If the self-reparation hypothesis is true, narcissists would be expected to aggress more when threatened privately; in contrast, if the ego-promotion hypothesis is valid, they would be expected to aggress more when threatened publicly.

By examining the differences between public and private ego threats and whether it is the personal feeling of inferiority or the perception that others think one is inferior (particularly when that perception is illfounded), the present experiment attempted to provide further insight into the link between narcissism and aggression.

Study Conclusions

The findings of the current study, although in part quite surprising, paint an interesting picture of the aggressive narcissist. Contrary to most reports concerning the link between narcissism and aggression, the evidence here portrays people who are not only reactive to challenges and ego threats, but also those who overtly attempt to hurt others around them simply because they can. In this description of narcissistic aggression, aggression is not just an attempt to reassert one’s superiority and dominance over others, it is also a less complex manifestation of a desire to exploit others and, more importantly, sadistically derive pleasure from this exertion of power.

Although we are not any closer to isolating the underlying mechanisms behind this response and whether aggression has a self-repairing or ego-promoting effect on narcissists, this idea that enjoyment of the aggressive act actively mediates narcissists’ response provides new information as to what might be going on in the minds of these people. The fact that these mechanisms remain unknown warrants further study and closer examination, and a deeper understanding of this discrepancy would lend valuable insight into the conceptualization of the narcissism-aggression link and would contribute to the development of more effective interventions for combating over aggression in a variety of situations. Although it is unclear from this research exactly what motivates narcissists to act aggressively, the indication that they particularly enjoy the act of hurting others is alarming, and it carries strong implications for both the comprehension of narcissism and the understanding of how to deal with these narcissists. Furthermore, it is clear from these findings that narcissists not only love building themselves up, but they also love tearing other people down; in other words, it is yet another example of how maladaptive self-love can indeed be a very dangerous thing.

Ashley Girgis
(follow link to read complete study)