Thrill of being a ‘hero’: Narcissists love serving as COVID-19 essential workers

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The coronavirus pandemic has turned many people on the front lines into everyday heroes. While many professionals branded as “essential workers” are happy to do their job and get home safe, a study finds some are relishing in being thought of as a “hero” during COVID-19. Researchers from The Ohio State University say narcissists who still have to travel to work are using the crisis to inflate their feeling of self-worth.

“The word ‘hero’ is a trigger for narcissists,” Amy Brunell, associate professor of psychology at OSU, says in a university release. “Having their work elevated to hero status provides them with an opportunity to shine in front of others and feel even better about themselves.”

The study finds these workers are sharing more about their work on social media, in person, and elsewhere since health officials declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020. Aside from health care professionals and other first responders, the “essential worker” classification also includes those working in restaurants and grocery or retail stores.

‘I will usually show off if I get the chance’

Brunell and study co-author Stephanie Freis of Presbyterian College examined 312 people across two surveys, one in the United States and one worldwide. All of the participants listed themselves as essential employees, with most saying they are grocery store workers. Both surveys measured each person’s levels of narcissism as well as how much information they share about their job.

The results reveal two specific types of narcissists, communal and agentic, are thriving during the pandemic and are more likely to share their work experiences online with the world.

Communal narcissists are people who think they’re better at helping others. This group is more likely to agree with a statement like, “I will be known for the good deeds I will have done.”

Researchers say agentic narcissists are the more textbook definition of narcissism. They are more likely to say, “I will usually show off if I get the chance.”

‘Hero’ worship

Brunell says it’s easy to understand why people with higher levels of narcissism are embracing their new-found status in society. “They think they are the best at being helpful and caring for others. The pandemic gave them a chance to stand out,” the researcher explains.

While agentic narcissists don’t enjoy sharing their spotlight, receiving the label of “hero” is making up for it, regardless of their job titles. “That’s why they likely shared about their work. Their ‘hero’ status gave them a way to feel admired and distinct from others,” Brunell says.

The results show that narcissistic participants who share their work experiences on social media also feel better about themselves in general. Brunell and Freis find these people are more likely to say, “Right now, I greatly enrich others’ lives,” or “Right now, I feel like I am a special person.”

Not every narcissist shines during a pandemic

The team notes that vulnerable narcissists are not feeling any better about themselves during COVID-19. These people tend to be egotistical and think they don’t get the attention they deserve. They’re more likely to say, “I feel that I have enough on my hands without worrying about other peoples’ troubles.”

“Perhaps being an essential worker made vulnerable narcissists feel more exposed to others’ judgments or anxious about their own well-being,” Brunell suggests.

Overall however, the team says their findings reveal how some people are able to cope and even elevate themselves while many others deal with mental health issues during COVID.

“It is a way for them to feel even more self-important because they are seen as essential to society,” Brunell concludes.

The study appears in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.