Narcissism and aggression have a close connection, study reveals

COLUMBUS, Ohio — In a society increasingly focused on image, are we seeing an uptick in narcissistic traits? If so, a recent study finds we will inevitably see a rise in aggression and violence. Researchers from The Ohio State University say their meta-analysis links all forms of aggression to narcissism. This held true worldwide, across cultures, ages, and genders.

The term “narcissism” pops up casually in conversations when referring to demanding, self-centered people. However, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is an official psychiatric diagnosis.

If you have personally spent much time around a suspected narcissist, you may see that nothing you say or do will satisfy their insatiable appetite for approval, attention, or power. Just as the Narcissus of Greek mythology became obsessed by his own reflection in a pool of water, the narcissist in front of you sees only their own reflection when they look into your eyes. It’s always about them.

Research indicates that if you insult a true narcissist, even unknowingly, they won’t walk away quietly. If they do, they’ll already be plotting their revenge. They just can’t handle rejection.

“The link we found between narcissism and aggression was significant–it was not trivial in size,” says lead study author Sophie Kjærvik, a graduate student in communication, in a university release. “The findings have important real-world implications.”

All forms of aggression increase among narcissists

Researchers reached their conclusions by analyzing data from 437 separate studies that included 123,043 participants from different countries. The team found that all forms of aggression measured in the studies involved narcissism. This included physical, verbal, direct or indirect bullying, as well as violence toward innocent targets.

“Individuals who are high in narcissism are not particularly picky when it comes to how they attack others,” Kjærvik adds.

Researchers say the classic symptoms of narcissism involve an egomaniacal sense of entitlement. Though narcissists may have high self-esteem (grandiose narcissism) or low self-esteem (vulnerable narcissism), any suspected pushback leads to combativeness. The results also link narcissism to both online cyberbullying and offline bullying.

“That’s a highly important finding now that we live in an online world,” Kjærvik explains.

Study co-author Brad Bushman, a professor of communication at OSU, warns that people with higher levels of narcissism are more likely to lash out in anger. They are also more likely to be “cold, deliberate and proactive” in planning a response.

The study also points to a direct correlation between the degree of narcissism and the likelihood of aggression, whether provoked or not. Even so, the risk for aggression is much higher when any sort of provocation occurs — when the narcissist feels ignored, insulted, or in some way slighted.

Study authors were surprised to find that narcissism is so closely linked to violence, which is less common and harder to predict than milder forms of aggression. For this study, violence was considered to be aggression meant to cause physical harm, resulting in injury or death.

Is this a bigger problem in certain countries?

Researchers say the results of this study corroborate other research that considers narcissism to be a risk factor for mass shootings and other extremely violent acts. What concerns scientists most is the prospect that narcissism doesn’t have to be at pathological levels to lead to violence. Even normal garden-variety narcissism can lead to combative behavior.

Study authors considered the possibility that narcissism and aggression might be expected in liberty-loving countries like the United States, where personal rights are elevated as a societal value. Their analysis, however, proved otherwise. These same traits also coexist on a continuum in collectivist countries.

The findings were also similar whether research participants were college students or represented a mixed-age population.

So what about those of us who have to deal with narcissists?

“It might be tempting to think these results apply only to people who are ‘narcissists,’ but that would be wrong,” Bushman cautions.

“For one, you can’t separate people into those who are narcissists and those who are not,” the researcher adds. “Nearly everyone has some degree of narcissism, even though only a minority have levels high enough to be called pathological.”

Study authors say these findings are a reminder to all of us that elevated levels of narcissism, even before it reaches pathological levels, leads to increased aggression.

“All of us are prone to being more aggressive when we are more narcissistic,” Bushman warns.

One key finding from the study is the way people with high levels of narcissism react when they feel threatened. With their thin skins, they are going to lash out any time they feel disrespected or ignored.

“Our results suggest provocation is a key moderator of the link between narcissism and aggression,” Bushman continues.

In “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” extreme narcissism in the form of vanity leads to darkness and murder. Basil the artist feels a mysterious dread when he first encounters Dorian, the subject of his painting. Let that be a message to all of us: Whether we feel the rage brewing inside ourselves or emanating from someone else, awareness is key.

“It is a pretty straightforward message: Narcissism is a significant risk factor for aggressive and violent behavior across the board,” Bushman concludes.

The study appears in the journal Psychological Bulletin.

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