During the past decades, there has been a boost in psychological research on narcissism and public attention to it. Some have argued that narcissism increases in western societies and labeled it a “narcissism epidemic” (Twenge, Konrath, Foster, Campbell, & Bushman, 2008), while others have argued against that (Trzesniewski, Donnellan, & Robins, 2008; Wetzel et al., 2017). Whether or not narcissism itself increases, interest and awareness for the phenomenon have definitely grown. Researchers have thoroughly investigated and debated the structure, expression, antecedents, and individual as well as social consequences of narcissism (Pincus & Lukowitsky, 2010; Miller et al., 2016; Grapsas, Brummelman, Back, & Denissen, 2020). Despite the intense research, one aspect has received surprisingly little attention, namely how laypeople perceive narcissism, and how prevalent different implicit theories on narcissism are. The lay perception of narcissism seems of particular importance given that the phenomenon is frequently portrayed in a rather one-sided and negative fashion in public discourse, and implicit theories might shape the way we perceive and thus deal with narcissistic individuals (Levy, Chiu, & Hong, 2006; Haslam, 2017; Furnham, 1988). Here, we address this question by investigating lay perceptions of grandiose and vulnerable narcissistic behaviors, their developmental antecedents, and the likability of grandiose and vulnerable narcissistic traits. Finally, we also relate those to perceivers’ own narcissism levels.
In order to orient within our social environment, we implicitly develop or adapt theories that provide “common-sense” explanations for complex and/or ambiguous behaviors, commonly referred to as implicit theories or lay theories (Plaks, Levy, & Dweck, 2009; Furnham, 1988; Levy et al., 2006). In this context, implicit means that the explanatory models (“theories”) need not necessarily be consciously represented, and are derived from everyday experience rather than systematic observation. Implicit or lay theories are thus not commonly formalized, and do not necessarily refer to latent constructs such as narcissism, but rather operate at the levels of observable behavior: “lay theories are […] commonly called implicit theories […] due to the recognition that these beliefs often operate at an automatic rather than conscious level – people have assumptions, largely unexamined, about the world around them which guide their judgements, but which have rarely been articulated in careful detail or bolstered with rational argument” (Wilson & English, 2017, p. 17).
Theoretically, for every particular behavior, an infinite variety of interpretations can be found. In order to reduce that complexity and thereby feelings of uncertainty, lay theories – just like scientific theories – are simplifications or working models that help us understand and predict other peoples’ intentions and behavior, and adjust ours accordingly (Levy et al., 2006). As Levy and colleagues (2006) summarized, lay theories provide us with a feeling of control and predictability, but – unlike scientific theories – are unlikely to depict accurate and dependable representations of our social world. Since lay theories are usually of implicit rather than explicit nature, we are frequently unaware of the significant influence these theories can have on our perception, judgements, and social behavior (Furnham, 1988; Levy et al., 2006). Thus, lay theories – or implicit theories – on narcissism may have a significant influence on judgements and behaviors towards narcissistic people as well.
Expression of Narcissism
According to social-cognitive models of narcissism, the overarching goal of narcissistic functioning is to maintain an inflated self by means of characteristic intra- and interpersonal self-regulatory strategies (McWilliams & Lependorf, 1990; Morf & Rhodewalt, 2001; Back, 2018). The core of different forms of narcissism can be characterized by entitlement and self-importance (Krizan & Herlache, 2017) in terms of a preoccupation with own interests and concerns as well as the feeling of being entitled to special privileges (Ackerman, Hands, Donnellan, Hopwood, &Witt, 2017). Beyond this common core, grandiose and vulnerable narcissism can be discerned as two dimensions or phenotypes, which is evident across a wide range of psychological literature (Cain, Pincus, & Ansell, 2008; Pincus & Lukowitsky, 2010; Wink, 1991). While grandiose narcissism is characterized by social dominance, excessive self-confidence, and subjective well-being, vulnerable narcissism is defined by withdrawal, shame, and hypersensitivity to rejection or criticism (Czarna, Zajenkowski, & Dufner, 2018; Miller et al., 2016; Russ, Shedler, Bradley, & Westen, 2008; Pincus & Lukowitsky, 2010; Ronningstam, 2005; Krizan & Herlache, 2017).
The trifurcated model of narcissism (Miller et al., 2016; Weiss, Campbell, Lynam, & Miller, 2019) posits that variation in grandiose and vulnerable narcissism can be explained by a three-factor solution, which is based on the Five Factor Model of personality (FFM; McCrae & Costa, 2003). According to this model, grandiose and vulnerable narcissism are both associated with low agreeableness – or interpersonal antagonism – which constitutes the core of both phenotypes. Grandiose narcissism is additionally associated with extraversion (Miller et al., 2013; Kaufman, Weiss, Miller, & Campbell, 2018), while vulnerable narcissism is mainly associated with neuroticism (Kaufman et al., 2018; Miller et al., 2018b) and – depending on the particular inventory – introversion (Jauk, Weigle, Lehmann, Benedek, & Neubauer, 2017).
Another level of complexity can be added to the taxonomy of different aspects of narcissism by considering overt and covert expressions of grandiose and vulnerable narcissism (Pincus & Lukowitsky, 2010). Here, overt refers to experience and behavior shared with others, whereas covert refers to non-shared private experiences such as feelings, motives, and needs. According to Pincus and Lukowitsky (2010), “clinical experience with narcissistic patients indicates they virtually always exhibit both covert and overt grandiosity and covert and overt vulnerability” (p. 430). Clinical theory thus suggests that behavior might be congruent in some cases or states, but incongruent in others. Grandiose behavior, following this view, could be indicative of an underlying grandiose state (congruent), but could also mask underlying feelings of vulnerability, as overtly displayed vulnerability could mask underlying feelings of grandiosity (incongruent).
According to Miller, Lynam, Siedor, Crowe, and Campbell (2018a), laypeople perceive grandiose traits as most prototypic of narcissism. Beyond that, however, belief in narcissistic insecurity (BNI; i.e., attributing grandiose behavior to underlying vulnerability) is also prominent among laypeople (Stanton, Watson, & Clark, 2017). Here, we ask the question how prevalent congruent and incongruent lay theories on both grandiose and vulnerable narcissism are. To address this question, we systematically varied overt and covert expressions of grandiose and vulnerable narcissism in descriptions of narcissistic behavior. This allowed us to assess views about overt grandiosity and covert vulnerability as implicit theories on grandiose narcissism and overt vulnerability and covert grandiosity as implicit theories on vulnerable narcissism (see Fig. 1). As the detection of covert feelings and motives is commonly considered to require appropriate training (cf. Pincus and Lukowitsky, 2010), we hypothesize that in laypeople, implicit theories assuming congruency between displayed behavior and underlying motives (e.g., grandiose behavior as an expression of a grandiose state) will be more prevalent than implicit theories assuming incongruency (for instance: grandiose behavior as an expression of vulnerability).
Developmental Antecedents of Narcissism
To investigate developmental aspects within implicit theories on grandiose and vulnerable narcissism, we assessed endorsement of the two most popular social-developmental theories of narcissism. These conceive parenting styles as particularly significant for the development of narcissism and can be briefly summarized as parental overvaluation (Millon, 1981) and parental coldness (Kernberg, 1975; Kohut, 1977). Parental overvaluation describes a parenting style that is characterized by excessive unwarranted praise and admiration. According to Millon (1981), children that are exposed to such noncontingent praise do not acquire the motivation and skills to work for these rewards in future situations, but rather develop a narcissistically entitled attitude. Parental coldness, on the contrary, circumscribes a cold, indifferent, and rejecting parenting style. Here, the development of narcissism is seen as a compensatory reaction to feeling invalidated and unloved (Kernberg, 1975; Kohut, 1977). Empirical research shows that parental overvaluation is indeed systematically related to the development of grandiose narcissism (Brummelman et al., 2015), and parental coldness is related to vulnerable narcissism (Otway & Vignoles, 2006). One of these studies also points to cross-associations in the way that both parenting styles are associated with both form of narcissism (Otway & Vignoles, 2006).
Wright and Furnham (2014) found that laypeople indeed deem dysfunctional parenting, such as excessive praise, lack of approval, or physical/mental abuse, to cause narcissism. Here, we aim to extend these findings by differentiating between grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. We hypothesize that laypeople associate grandiose narcissism primarily with parental overvaluation and vulnerable narcissism with parental coldness, as these associations are arguably most intuitive.
Lay Theories and Likability of Narcissistic Traits
Lay theories on personality impact the way we perceive and judge others (Furnham, 1988; Levy et al., 2006). Aiming to go beyond cognitive models of others’ experience and behavior, we were also interested in the affective qualities associated with lay theories of narcissism. To our knowledge, these have to date not directly been investigated. We hypothesize that endorsing vulnerability as driving force of narcissistic behavior will be accompanied by a more positive evaluation than believing in underlying grandiosity. This could result from a more “sympathetic view of narcissism, as narcissistic behaviors may be considered to be more understandable if they are viewed as resulting from deep-rooted insecurity.” (Stanton, Watson, & Clark, 2017; p. 80). Similarly, endorsing parental coldness as a developmental antecedent of narcissism, rather than parental overvaluation, may lead to a more positive evaluation of narcissistic personality as well.
Potentially Moderating Factors
Knowledge of Narcissism
Prior knowledge of narcissism may influence the way we perceive narcissistic individuals. Wright and Furnham (2014) found that the prior knowledge about mental illness in general is positively associated with a belief in narcissistic fragility. To further understand whether fragility is attributed to grandiose or vulnerable aspects, however, a separate assessment of the two forms would be needed. Though research on prior knowledge of narcissism as a moderating factor in lay theories is limited, we tentatively hypothesize that individuals with higher prior knowledge will endorse implicit theories assuming incongruency between observable behavior and underlying motives (for instance: grandiose behavior as an expression of vulnerability) more frequently. We further investigate whether prior knowledge is also associated with likability of narcissistic personality.
The endorsement of different lay theories might not only be influenced by the degree of prior knowledge, but also by rater personality. There is evidence that individuals higher on grandiose narcissism show stronger belief in narcissistic insecurity (Stanton et al., 2017). Furthermore, Wright and Furnham’s (2014) findings suggest that raters’ narcissism influences their beliefs about causes of narcissistic personality. Specifically, individuals higher on narcissism endorsed early negative events as a cause of narcissism more frequently. We hypothesized that Stanton et al. (2017) as well as Wright and Furnham’s (2014) results would replicate here.
Moreover, we investigated effects of rater personality on likability of narcissism. Prior studies found that individuals higher on grandiose narcissism show higher tolerance for narcissistic traits in others (Adams, Hart, & Burton, 2015; Hart and Adams, 2014), which is why we expect higher likeability ratings of grandiose traits for individuals scoring higher on grandiose narcissism. We further examined whether endorsement of covert vulnerability underlying grandiose behavior plays a mediating role in the relationship between rater grandiose narcissism and likability of grandiose traits. To date, there is no research investigating the likeability of vulnerable narcissistic traits. We expected similar effects here.
Hypotheses and Research Questions
Taken together, we hypothesized that (1) implicit theories assuming congruency between displayed behavior (including cognitions) and underlying motives are more prevalent than those assuming incongruency. Regarding developmental antecedents, (2) raters associate grandiose narcissism primarily with parental overvaluation, and vulnerable narcissism with parental coldness. We further assumed that (3) beliefs in underlying vulnerability (overt and covert vulnerability) as well as parental coldness lead to a more favorable evaluation of narcissistic personality traits than belies in underlying grandiosity or parental overvaluation. (4) We investigated the effects of prior knowledge of narcissism on lay theories and likability. We tentatively hypothesized that higher knowledge would be accompanied by relatively stronger endorsement of lay theories assuming incongruency between observable behavior and underlying motives. Further, we hypothesized that (5) raters’ own grandiose narcissism is accompanied by stronger endorsement of covert vulnerability and parental coldness, and (6) might also be associated with higher likeability ratings of others’ narcissism.