Narcissists can be arrogant, self-involved, and demanding, qualities that may ultimately encourage those around them to stay away. Yet research has found that many people like these individuals when they first meet them. It’s only once they become better acquainted that these positive first impressions start to sour.
There are different theories about what accounts for the initial attractiveness of narcissists—specifically grandiose narcissists, who exhibit a subtype of narcissism marked by feelings of superiority, extroversion, and an inflated sense of one’s own achievement. Now, a series of studiespublished in the Journal of Personalityindicates that perceptions of high self-esteem—a socially valuable trait—may account for narcissists’ strong starts. Across four different experiments, when viewing photos of targets who had previously completed narcissism and self-esteem scales, participants rated those who scored highest on narcissism most likeable and highest in self-esteem—even more so than non-narcissisticpeople who exhibited equivalent levels of self-esteem. In one of the studies, after heterosexual women viewed male targets’ Tinder profiles, they expressed greater interest in meeting potential partners who were more narcissistic. As in the other studies, that effect was mediated by estimates of the targets’ self-esteem.
“We know [from past research] that people like those who have higher self-esteem,” says lead author Miranda Giacomin, a psychologist who teaches at MacEwan University in Canada. “[Narcissists] are often extroverted, and they can be charismatic or confident. It’s possible that when someone sees all those positive attributes, they attribute it to self-esteem—and that’s why they have a positive impression.”
Despite accurate perceptions that narcissistic targets were self-absorbed, study participants still viewed grandiose narcissists as having high self-esteem and liked them more as a result. (Vulnerable narcissism, a separate subtype of narcissism marked by introversion and heightened feelings of victimization, was not examined in this study.) When targets’ narcissism was explicitly pointed out (with a “high narcissism” label), however, participants were less likely to say they liked them—indicating that narcissism in itself is not viewed as a socially desirable trait, Giacomin says. “If you met someone in person, and [beforehand], you were told they were a narcissist, you’re probably not going to have a positive impression.”
Even when participants weren’t explicitly told a target was narcissistic, she notes, they accurately perceived them as less helpful and more egotistical—suggesting to the researchers that they were still picking up narcissism through other cues. Another recent study co-authored by Giacomin concluded that narcissists’ eyebrows may give others a clue of their temperament; other visual cues, like clothing choices and makeup use, have also been found to be associated with narcissism in past research.
Since participants usually overestimated the self-esteem of narcissistic targets, it may be that certain narcissistic traits masquerade as self-esteem on first meeting, notes W. Keith Campbell, a psychologist at the University of Georgia who wasn’t involved in the current study. Narcissism “disguising” itself as self-esteem, he says, may be part of the reason why narcissists are able to manipulate others, especially because narcissism is a widely disliked but often socially advantageous trait.
Campbell, who has conducted several studies on the relationship between grandiose narcissism and self-esteem—including one challenging the idea that narcissists “hate themselves deep down”—notes that while the vast majority of grandiose narcissists could be said to have high self-esteem, the reverse isn’t necessarily true. The two concepts are often confused, but aren’t interchangeable, Giacomin adds. “Narcissists think they’re on a different level than others: superior,” she says. “Whereas people who have high self-esteem, they think things like, ‘I’m a worthy person’—but they still think other people are worthy as well.”
Mitja Back, a professor at the University of Münster who has conducted several widely cited studies on narcissism and first impressions, cautions that there may be additional unknown factors influencing the perceptions of narcissists’ likeability. The authors of the new paper “don’t look at whatever cue causes the particular impressions” of a person’s narcissism and self-esteem, Back says. “That needs to be there as a link between the degree of narcissism—which is not a directly observable self-concept—and others’ impressions.” For studies that rely on photographs, like this one, that cue would most likely be some sort of facial feature, he says; for real-world interactions, it’s possible it would present as a behavior.
To fully unpack the causes of narcissists’ first impressions, Campbell says, social scientists may need to develop better tools. “Real-life social interactions are so fast and so complicated,” he says. “That dynamic is very hard to capture [in research].” Still, he adds, “I think the authors did a good job teasing these issues apart. Right now, what they found makes sense.”