Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Narcissism: a genetic trait

NPA theory of personality types
based on Mendelian genetics

Caricatures of the NPA character types

© 2004 A.M. Benis, Sc.D., M.D.


We analyze genetically-determined character traits underlying personality. In our model, individuals have innate personality traits that are readily identifiable, leading to the formulation of discrete personality types. A personality type becomes a "personality disorder" if the individual is maladjusted and comes to the attention of the mental health professional. One key trait that we identify as being determined by genetics is "narcissism". Narcissism is not so much the basis of the "narcissistic personality disorder" of psychiatry as it is a natural, heritable character trait. In fact, narcissism has certain parallels with a second personality trait that we identify: aggression.

NPA personality theory

The NPA theory of personality was developed by the author on the basis of concepts presented over fifty years ago by psychiatrist Karen Horney. The theory posits three major behavioral traits underlying personality: narcissism (N), perfectionism (P) and aggression (A), leading to the formulation of discrete character types. Each trait is based on a major pleiotropic gene (a gene determining several related characteristics) that follows the rules of Mendelian genetics. The mode of transmission of the traits was deduced from archetypal family pedigrees. The traits N and A were found to be high frequency recessive, with P being dominant.

The theory proposes that the natural character traits A and N are indispensable to human development, being related to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, respectively. Our interpretation of the three traits is as follows:

Aggression (A)

The trait of aggression is observed to be the most labile of the three. The stereotypic acts associated with this trait involve body posturing, gestures and eye contact of intimidation and deference, with individuals having this trait continually competing with each other on a scale of dominance and submission. The trait corresponds to a striving for power over one's environment, hence is one component of competitiveness or ambition. In a pejorative connotation the trait may reveal itself in the context of sadism or sadomasochism. The facial complexion is non-sanguine, i.e., tending toward sallowness or pallor in individuals of light skin color. The hallmark of the trait is a mass discharge of the sympathetic nervous system: the "flight or fight" response or the aggressive-vindictive rage. During the expression of this rage, the facial complexion of pallor is accentuated.

Narcissism (N)

The trait of narcissism is noted to be less labile than that of aggression. The innate stereotypic acts associated with the trait include flaunting body posturing, expansive arm gestures, bowing, colorful self-adornment, and a natural attraction to the limelight of personal recognition. Individuals of the pure N type are competitive but non-aggressive in their strivings for recognition. The trait corresponds to a striving for glory in one's environment, hence is the second main component of human ambition. In a pejorative connotation the unbridled trait of narcissism may reveal itself in the context of conceit, exhibitionism, vanity and messianism. An associated innate facial expression is the radiant gingival smile (broadly exposing gums and teeth). The facial complexion tends toward blood red or ruddy in individuals of light skin color. Hallmarks of the trait include blushing, flushing, and a mass discharge of the parasympathetic nervous system: the narcissistic rage of defense and withdrawal. During the expression of this rage the normally sanguine complexion becomes even more florid.

Perfectionism (P)

The trait of perfectionism is not a basic drive of ambition and is not associated with a rage reaction. Rather it is a mediator of the unbridled drives of aggression and/or narcissism. The stereotypic acts associated with the trait of perfectionism are obsessiveness, compulsiveness, repetition, and the maintenance of neatness, order and symmetry. A clue to the nature of the trait lies in the compulsive, repetitive mannerisms of autistic children and some adult schizophrenic individuals. The behavioral pattern is often ritualistic and the speech characterized by echolalia. We posit that certain autistic and schizophrenic individuals are those in whom the two components of ambition, i.e., aggression and narcissism, have been suppressed by genetic or environmental factors, either congenitally, in childhood, or after maturity, thus reducing the individual to a primitive state of perfectionism.

Note that we distinguish between two distinct non-perfectionistic character types having unbridled ambition: the N type and the A type. The two should not be confused. The N type is a sanguine, sociable, smiling individual. The A type is a pallid, unsmiling individual who "plays the game" of dominance and submission and is vulnerable to sadomasochistic interactions. If we say that Kaiser Wilhelm II, John F. Kennedy and Liberace were narcissistic N types, we make neither social commentary nor moral judgment. We simply record the genetic facts of life.

Important Note & Disclaimer:
The material herein is presented for purposes of information only. The diagnosis and treatment of behavioral disorders should not be attempted without the personal involvement of a licensed health care professional.