Narcissism has been a hot topic in the last few years, and it's been the subject of some overblown freakouts of the kids-today-are-such-assholes variety. That said, there's mounting evidence that actually being a narcissist is pretty bad for you — and the people around you. Let's take a look at some of the interesting ways self-centered people can fuck things up.
While the religious right would have you believe that simply being godly makes you a good person, that's not actually true. A recent study surveyed 385 undergrads who identified themselves as either skeptical, nominally religious (ie. not showing up at church all that often), or devout. The study authors asked them to evaluate the ethical status of situations like "an underpaid executive padded his expense account by about $3,000 a year." Nominally and devoutly religious folks turned out to be more ethically strict than their skeptical counterparts — unless they had high levels of narcissism. Says study author Chris Pullig, "Both the nominal and devout groups show degrees of poor ethical judgment equal to that of the skeptics when accompanied by higher degrees of narcissism, a finding that suggests a dramatic transformation for both nominals and the devouts when ethical judgment is clouded by narcissistic tendencies." So basically, being a narcissist brought religious folks right down to the level of the godless. Previous studies have found no difference in moral judgment between religious and non-religious people, so it's interesting that this study did find a discrepancy. Regardless of what you think about religion and morality, though, it's interesting that narcissism appears to cancel out love-thy-neighbor values.
Earlier this year, a study found that narcissistic men have a more active stress response, which could lead to heart problems over time. Study author Sara Konrath speculated, "Given societal definitions of masculinity that overlap with narcissism - for example, the belief that men should be arrogant and dominant - men who endorse stereotypically male sex roles and who are also high in narcissism may feel especially stressed."
Basically, being an asshole all the time really takes it out of you.
If they're straight guys, that is. A 2010 study found that straight male narcissists reserve the worst of their dickishness for straight women, who are "gatekeepers in men's quest for sexual pleasure, patriarchal power and status." The study authors wrote, "although narcissists may want to maintain feelings of superiority and power over all people, narcissistic heterosexual men are particularly invested in subordinating heterosexual women." Awesome.
This one isn't that surprising: narcissistic college students are more likely than others to say cheating on tests is acceptable. Also, the most cheat-happy narcissists are the most exhibitionist — that is, the show-offs who want everyone to know how great they are. Says lead study author Amy Brunell, "Narcissists really want to be admired by others, and you look good in college if you're getting good grades. They also tend to feel less guilt, so they don't mind cheating their way to the top."
Last year, a study found that people assigned to work in groups rated the most narcissistic people the best leaders. But that was the opposite of the truth — actually, groups headed by narcissists made the worst decisions. Said study author Barbora Nevicka, "The narcissistic leaders had a very negative effect on their performance. They inhibited the communication because of self-centeredness and authoritarianism."
The only good news here: narcissism may not be as prevalent as some people claim. Even though narcissism-doomsayers, led by psychologist Jean Twenge, say our country is going to the self-absorbed, mirror-gazing, other-people-ignoring dogs, other research has found that young people may not be any more narcissistic than they've always been. A 2008 study looked at 25,000 undergrads from 1996-2007, and compared their data with similar surveys from the seventies and eighties. Here's what they found: "Today's youth seem to be no more narcissistic and self-aggrandizing than previous generations. We were unable to find evidence that either narcissism or the closely related construct of self-enhancement has increased over the past three decades." So narcissists may be awful in all sorts of ways, but at least they're probably not multiplying.
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