The Online Narcissist

We've all dealt with narcissists at some time or another but we usually have the option of walking away if they get too annoying.  Usually.  

Still, the rise of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. has provided greater greater opportunities to stay in contact with people around the world.  Unfortunately, narcissists have quickly discovered how useful social media can be in sharing words and images with countless people worldwide.  And all with the click of a mouse.

To explain some of the latest research looking at how narcissists interact with social media, I should probably begin with some background.   Narcissism is usually defined as "extreme selfishness, the pursuit of gratification from self or others, and an inflated admiration for one's own qualities."   First introduced by Sigmund Freud in his 1914 essay on narcissism, it has since become a favourite topic for researchers and therapists.  It has also been included in various editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (usually under the term narcissistic personality disorder) as well as being regarded as part of the Dark Triad of personality traits along with psychopathy and machiavellianism.

While there are different ways of classifying narcissists,  two categories of narcissism which have become an important part of research are:

  • Grandiose narcissism - usually characterized by extreme confidence in their own superiority and are prone to going into a vindictive rage against anyone who dares to criticize them.  They have no sense of shame and have often grown up with the knowledge that they are superior to everyone else. As adults, they may have multiple affairs and often pride themselves on how admired they are by the people around them.  They can also be very aggressive in establishing dominance over other people.
  • Vulnerable narcissism - people high in vulnerable narcissism tend to be more emotionally sensitive (often to the point of being neurotic).  They are distressed whenever they don't get the treatment they feel they deserve and often have problem with fear of rejection or being abandoned.  In a real sense, vulnerable narcissists are over-compensating for poor self-esteem or a history of neglect that can go back to early childhood.  They can often shift from feeling superior to feeling inferior depending on how their lives happen to be going at any particular time.

For reasons that are still unclear, narcissism seems to be on the increase in modern society.   A recent book by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell makes a compelling case that the United States, among other countries, is experiencing a narcissism epidemic.  Along with reality television shows such as the Real Housewives franchise and My Super Sweet Sixteen, we are seeing a proliferation of media stars whose only claim to fame rests in the indulgent lifestyles that they lead.  

Then there is the role that social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can play in allowing people to broadcast information about themselves to a worldwide audience, not to mention allowing them to .  Though people can use social media for a wide variety of reasons, recent research does suggest that narcissists are spending more time online than ever though it still isn't clear exactly why.  How they prefer to use social media seems to depend on what kind of needs are being fulfilled.   For example, while everyone enjoys posting selfies, narcissists seem to prefer taking it to extremes, often to the point of posting highly inappropriate selfies to show off their physique or physical attractiveness.  Narcissists also prefer posting under their own name t ensure that they get full credit for their posts (unless they need to attack people who have offended them, then anonymous posting on Twitter or 4chan comes in handy.)  

To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post.


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