Having a conversation with people high in narcissism can be a true test of your social adroitness. With their steady stream of highly self-referenced observations, they challenge you to maintain attention on what else is going on around you, much less get a word in edgewise. Perhaps your coworker refuses to stop talking while at her desk, and also manages to twist every sentence of yours around until it applies only to her. It’s even dawned on you to sneak a set of earplugs into your cubicle but you’re not sure if you’d get away with it. Not only that, you actually do have to keep your ears open to be able to do your job. Or imagine that you’re traveling with a highly narcissistic companion throughout the beautiful countryside on a sunny day. You’d like to be able to enjoy the scenery and have at least a few moments of peace and quiet, but his endless babbling just doesn’t stop. Even if he’s not talking about himself specifically, the fact that he keeps talking ensures that he grabs the center of attention.
You might expect that people high in narcissism would be motivated to keep the spotlight on themselves, but also that they might recognize, if only slightly, that they occasionally have to give other people their turn to talk. Having some modicum of social graces would work to their advantage, you might argue, to ensure that they’re liked. They can’t monopolize every conversation. Or can they? A new study by University of Potsdam (Germany)’s Ramzi Fatfouta & Michaela Schröder-Abé (2018) asked the question of whether people high in narcissism are “agentic to the core?” In other words, does the outer self-esteem and self-assurance penetrate to their innermost selves? The “mask” model of narcissism, as they note, suggests that the grandiosity they project is a cover for their inner self-doubts and feelings of weakness.
Fatfouta and Schröder-Abé’s study was conducted within the tradition of personality research that regards narcissism as a trait rather than as a categorical disorder which you have or you don’t. They also note that they were interested in the “grandiose” but not the “vulnerable” form of narcissism, or the tendency to present a particularly favorable self-assessment to the outside world. With this background in mind, they tested the idea that people high in narcissism would feel, on the inside, that they lack a sense of agency even though a secure sense of self-confidence would be part of the image they like to project. The paper that sparked the research by the Potsdam authors, published by University of Georgia’s W. Keith Campbell and colleagues (2007), made the case that narcissists lack an inner sense of agency and do feel inferior to the core, but the sample for that study was relatively small (117). The German authors decided to test this proposition on a larger, more representative, online sample (650 individuals with an average age of 24) using what they regarded as better measures of implicit self-esteem with regard to agency.
To measure implicit self-esteem, the research team used a variation of a standard experimental approach that taps people’s unconscious associations to adjectives describing themselves. Participants saw words such as “active” and “passive” on a computer screen, and were instructed to respond as quickly as possible to the words “active” and “me,” and “passive” and “not-me.” In the comparison condition, they responded to the words “active” and “not-me,” and “passive and me.” People with high inner self-esteem struggle to pair the words they reject as not true of them with “me,” or those they see as true of them with “not-me.” To contrast implicit with explicit self-esteem, participants simply rated how strongly active and passive terms applied to them. and they also filled out a general self-esteem self-report measure.
In this replication of the Georgia study, the German authors found no outward-inward discrepancy in agency for people high in narcissism. Those high in narcissism stated that they saw themselves as agentic, but they did not score low on their implicit sense of agency. Concluding that narcissists don’t seem to dislike themselves, “deep down inside,” (p. 81), Fatfouta and Schröder-Abé propose instead that people high in the need to see themselves as important and above everyone else have no particular inner need to see themselves as in charge. Even as they project this strongly agentic image to others, they remain neutral at best in seeing agency as important to their inner sense of self.
The Fatfouta and Schröder-Abé suggests, then, that the people you know who seem narcissistically self-entitled and grandiose enjoy being seen as in control, if only for the impact their strong need to take charge has on others. Their core self-concept doesn’t rely on being in control or not, though. When they take over center stage in a group, they’re not trying to cover up their feelings of inadequacy, but instead seem to do so out of the sheer pleasure it provides them while others bow to their will.
It would appear, then, that you don’t have to walk on eggshells when you’re dealing with a conversation-grabber out of fear of creating an outburst of narcissistic rage. Fulfillment in relationships depends on a healthy degree of give-and-take. If the person you’re with continually grabs the conversational reins, you can rely on the Fatfouta and Schröder-Abé study’s findings to go ahead and make the monologue a dialogue.