Narcissists are people who feed off the energy of others. They draw from people around them to boost their self-esteem. As a result, they are extraordinarily self-centered. If you have a narcissist for a boss, it can be very difficult. Narcissists are reluctant to share credit with others.

One question about narcissists is whether they are also prone to aggressive and violent reactions toward others when their self-esteem is threatened. This issue was explored in a paper by Zlatan Krizan and Omesh Johar in the May 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The researchers point out that there are actually two subtypes of narcissism:

  • One is grandiose narcissism, which is characterized by people having a high opinion of themselves. Grandiose narcissists believe that other people are interested in them, and that they should be listened to by others. One of the most popularpersonality tests used to identify narcissists, the Narcissistic PersonalityInventory, measures grandiose narcissism.
  • The second subtype is vulnerable narcissism, in which people are self-centered, but also defensive and resentful of others.

This new set of studies suggests that vulnerable narcissism leads to aggressive and violent reactions to other people, while grandiose narcissism does not.

In one study, participants were given several personality inventories, including one designed to test for grandiose narcissism and one designed to test for vulnerable narcissism. Participants filled out scales that measured their level of physical and verbal aggression, as well as anger and hostility toward others. The researchers also measured individuals’ tendency to experience shame. Vulnerable narcissists were much more prone than grandiose narcissists to experience shame; to find their self-esteem influenced by the beliefs of others; and to experience anger and rage toward others. Grandiose narcissists were more prone than vulnerable narcissists to feel entitled, and to try to exploit others.

A second study looked at aggression in the laboratory. Participants were measured on scales of grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. Participants had been told that the study was focused on food preferences. They were told that they had been paired with a partner sitting in another room. First, that unseen partner was going to select a food for them to taste, and then they were going to select a food for the partner to taste.

The first phase of the study was designed to provoke a reaction in the participants. They were told that their partner selected a bitter drink for them to try. They were told that the partner could give them a mildly bitter drink or a harshly bitter drink, and could select how much of it the person had to try. One group of participants was given three ounces of the harshly bitter drink. This was expected to make the participant feel like their partner did not like them. A second group of participants was given three ounces of the mildly bitter drink. This condition was a control. All participants were asked to drink what they were given, and all did so. The participants given the more bitter drink felt it was vile. Participants rated how annoyed they were at the other person as well as their anger toward that person and their trust of that person.

In the second phase of the study, participants selected a spicy sauce for a second person to drink. They could select amounts from two bottles, one of which was a very hot pepper sauce, while the other was mild. Participants got a small taste of the sauces so that they would know how unpleasant the hotter sauce was. The idea was that the more aggressive the participant felt toward their partner, the more hot sauce they would want that participant to drink.

Participants who had  been given the bitter drink were more annoyed at their partner than those given the mild drink. As a result, people who were given the bitter drink were more likely to give hot sauce to the other person than those who were given the mild drink. The people high in vulnerable narcissism who received the bitter drink were most likely to give hot sauce to the other person. The vulnerable narcissists given the bitter drink were also most angry at, and least trusting of, the other person. Grandiose narcissism, however, didnot predict aggression toward the other person or ratings of anger or trust.

These studies suggest that there are two distinct subtypes of narcissists:

  • Those whose narcissism reflects a feeling of self-importance tend to exploit other people, but they are not inclined to act aggressively or violently toward others.
  • Those whose narcissism reflects feelings of defensiveness and resentment feel shame when their self-esteem is threatened, and tend to react to those threats with anger and aggression.



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