Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Reflection in the Pond

By Wray Herbert

One of the most fascinating areas of human psychology is that gray zone where normality bumps up against pathology. We all know melancholy, even if we’re not all clinically depressed. We’re all bothered by fears, but few of us suffer through diagnosable paranoia.

And so it is with narcissism. At its pathological extreme, narcissism is a debilitating personality disorder, characterized by grandiose ego and total lack of personal intimacy. Closer to home, we have all dated a narcissist. Maybe even recently.

If you’re still harboring resentments against the narcissist in your life, then you would probably also embrace the prevailing theory about narcissists: that is, that underneath all that bravado and insensitivity narcissists loath themselves for their own inadequacies. Believing this offers a quiet, harmless kind of revenge.

Well, sorry. As satisfying as that theory is (and believe me, I’m right there with you), apparently it’s not entirely valid. When psychologists test narcissists, to tap into their hidden thoughts about themselves, those thoughts don’t come up uniformly negative. Indeed, they appear to have a mix of unconscious feelings, some negative but some as inflated as the face they show the world.

Does that mean we have to abandon our sense of superiority over the narcissists in our lives? Maybe not. Psychologist W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia suspected that narcissists might indeed be insecure—but only in certain ways. That is, they might love themselves when it comes to traits like intelligence and status and dominance—power traits. But that doesn’t mean they don’t harbor doubts deep down inside for failing to be moral, kind and compassionate human beings.

Campbell and his colleagues decided to test this idea. They had a group of confirmed narcissists take a word test that tapped into their automatic, uncensored views of themselves. But they modified the standard test so that sometimes it used mostly words that resonated a sense of cooperation, belonging and generosity on the one hand, or suffering and evil on the other—community values, in other words, but both positive and negative values. At other times they modified the test so that it emphasized values like assertiveness and energy on the one hand, or quiet and inhibition on the other.

The results were clear. As reported in the March issue of Psychological Science, the narcissists’ grandiosity—the obnoxious, self-absorbed person they project to the world—was mirrored in their unconscious self-assessments, but only when it came to things like achievement and dominance. Both internally and externally, they were puffed up, full of themselves—masters of their universe in their minds. But when it came to community values like helping and affection, there was no meaningful link, one way or the other. They didn’t hate themselves for failing to connect; it’s more like the vocabulary of connectedness didn’t exist for them.

So narcissists may not be secretly full of self-loathing. But their sense of self is cock-eyed and out of balance. Psychologists of course appropriated the concept of narcissism from the Greek myths. Narcissus was a young man of such commanding beauty that every mortal fell immediately and passionately in love with him, but the youth had no heart. He had no love to return because he loved himself so much, so much that he talked incessantly about his high-powered job and his stock portfolio and . . . no, wait, that wasn’t a myth.

Essays by Wray Herbert can be found at: