Narcissism linked to aggression in review of 437 studies

May 30, 2021

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Narcissism linked to aggression in review of 437 studies

Narcissism is something we should all know something about. We’ve spent the last four years suffering the whims of a narcissistic US President. Almost every authoritarian, or would-be authoritarian leader is a narcissist to some extent. DT is just an extreme case.

One of the things we didn’t know was the connection between narcissism and aggression—though in hindsight it should’ve been obvious (think Putin, Hitler, Mussolini, Assad).

Now researchers have compiled a comprehensive analysis of 437 studies from around the world that provides the best evidence to date that narcissism is indeed an important risk factor for both aggression and violence.

The link between narcissism and aggression was found for all dimensions of narcissism and for a variety of types of aggression. Results were similar regardless of gender, age or country of residence.

And, to have an impact, narcissism doesn’t have to be at levels so high as to be pathological. Findings showed that even when narcissism was within what is considered a normal range, higher levels were linked to aggression.

What the researchers say: “It is a pretty straightforward message: Narcissism is a significant risk factor for aggressive and violent behavior across the board,” said the lead author. “The link we found between narcissism and aggression was significant—it was not trivial in size,” she said. “The findings have important real-world implications.”

The researchers combined and analyzed data from many studies to provide a comprehensive view of this research area. In this meta-analysis, they examined data from 437 independent studies with a total of 123,043 participants.

Narcissism is characterized by an overblown sense of self-importance, the researchers said. The key component of narcissism is entitlement. Narcissism also has two peripheral components: grandiose (those with high self-esteem) and vulnerable (those with low self-esteem). The study found all of these components were linked to aggression.

Narcissism was related to all forms of aggression measured in the studies the researchers analyzed, including physical, verbal, bullying, direct or indirect, and displaced onto innocent targets.

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

Findings showed that narcissism was linked to online cyberbullying, as well as bullying offline. “That’s a highly important finding now that we live in an online world,” they said.

People higher in narcissism were not only more likely to lash out in anger, but were also more likely to be “cold, deliberate and proactive” in their aggression, said the lead author.

People high in narcissism were more likely than others to be aggressive whether they were provoked or not, the study found. But the risk for aggression was significantly higher when they felt provoked, such as being ignored or insulted.

The researchers were somewhat surprised to find that the link between narcissism and violence was nearly as strong as its link with less serious forms of aggression. Violence is rarer and is generally more difficult to predict than lesser forms of aggression. In this study, violence was defined as aggression intended to cause physical harm such as injury or death.

But the results are consistent with research suggesting that narcissism might be a risk factor for extremely violent acts such as mass shootings—or the holocaust.

One argument could be that the narcissism-aggression link would be more likely to occur in individualistic countries, like the United States, where people emphasize their personal rights. But the analysis found that narcissism and aggression were related even in more collectivist countries.

It might also be tempting to think these results apply only to people who are “narcissists,” but that would be wrong, the researchers found. For one, you can’t separate people into those who are narcissists and those who are not. Nearly everyone has some degree of narcissism, even though only a minority have levels high enough to be called pathological.

Findings in this study suggest that higher levels of narcissism are related to more aggression even before it reaches pathological levels.

“All of us are prone to being more aggressive when we are more narcissistic,” the lead author explained.

One thing that clearly stood out in the analysis, they said, was how people high in narcissism respond when they feel threatened. “Our results suggest provocation is a key moderator of the link between narcissism and aggression,” she said. “Those who are high in narcissism have thin skins, and they will lash out if they feel ignored or disrespected.”

So, what? Because Alicia and I have been asked to do a number of talks on the subject, I have been doing a great deal of reading of the literature regarding bullying and this study adds to what we know in that area. It would seem, from this study, that the genetic predisposition to bullying and that for a high degree of narcissism are similar.

Not long ago, a study (reported in TR) showed that we are all on the psychopathy continuum, just as this study postulates, we are all narcissists to some extent. Both psychopathy and narcissism lead to aggression of all kinds and I suspect that these and bullying all share the same genetic basis.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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