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Study: Narcissistic Traits Can Lead to Aggression and Violence

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Key Takeaways

  • Recent research shows a consistent link between narcissistic traits, aggression, and violence.
  • Many types of aggression (like physical, verbal, or bullying) and violence were linked to narcissism across the board.
  • Therapy and parenting can all help reduce the risk of narcissistic traits and behaviors.

Is it possible to be too self-centered? Are there consequences of unchecked bragging? According to a new study from The Ohio State University, the answer is yes. Researchers say narcissism can lead to aggression and violence.

The researchers analyzed over 430 studies from around the world and found that narcissism is an important risk factor for both aggression and violence. They identified the link for all degrees of narcissism, from just a few traits to full-blown narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), regardless of gender, age, or country of residence.

"It's disturbing to know that there is such a consistent link between being high in the trait of narcissism because it doesn't have to be at pathological levels, and being high in aggression," Sophie Kjærvik, MA, a doctoral student at Ohio State and study author, tells Verywell.

Anywhere between 1% to 17% of the United States population may have NPD. But this study’s results apply even to those who don't develop the disorder. Nearly everyone has some degree of narcissism, Kjærvik adds, which makes its links to aggression and violence important to study.

The study was published in the American Psychological Association (APA) Psychological Bulletin in late May.

Narcissism Led to Aggression 

Although the term "narcissism" is often used loosely, the clinical meaning of the word is more complicated. There are two major types of narcissism.

The first is grandiose narcissism, which is characterized by perceived superiority, dominance, and aggression. This type is not as sensitive as the second type, called vulnerable narcissism. This second form of narcissism is characterized by constant comparison of the self to others and feeling offended and/or anxious when people don't treat them as if they're special. The more severe NPD is, the more severe the aggression is.

For this review, researchers analyzed 437 independent studies including 123,043 participants. They found that many types of aggression (like physical, verbal, or bullying) and violence were linked to narcissism across the board. Researchers found no difference between types of narcissism, and the link was still significant across varying levels of narcissistic traits.

The link was also significant for both males and females of all ages, for students and non-students, and for people from different countries that reflect different cultures. Bottom line, "narcissistic people will always be more likely to aggress against others," Kjærvik says. People with narcissistic traits were more likely to aggress when provoked, such as when they were ignored or insulted.

"They're entitled, they feel superior, they think they're worth more than others," Kjærvik explains. "But at the same time, if you have shame there, or threaten this insulated ego that they have, they tend to get more aggressive because they're trying to protect that ego. And when people are shaming them, their way of protecting this picture of themselves as this majestic superior person is to lash out in anger."

What Are the Risk Factors for NPD?

Many factors are thought to predispose the individual to develop narcissistic traits. Some include:

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Aggression
  • Reduced tolerance to distress
  • Dysfunctional affect regulation

However, childhood experiences are thought to be influential as well.

Researchers from the University of Wollongong in Australia, Charlotte van Schie, PhD, and Nicholas Day, PhD, told Verywell via email about two different childhood experiences that place someone at risk for developing the two major types of narcissism.

"We found that people who perceived to have been excessively pampered by their parents report more narcissistic traits," they say. "When caregivers are more overprotective and [overly praise], they may foster grandiose self-ideals without the ability to do a reality check." This type of caregiving early in life is related to grandiose narcissism.

At the same time, childhood trauma may be a risk factor for developing personality disorder, van Schie and Day note. Childhood neglect or abuse could be related to vulnerable narcissism.

"However, not everyone that developed personality disorder has experienced trauma nor does everyone that experiences trauma develop a personality disorder," van Schie and Day say.

How Narcissism Is Treated

Treatment for narcissism and NPD is still in its infancy. It can also be difficult to study, since an individual high in narcissism may be less likely to seek help.

Still, when people with narcissistic traits do seek help, van Shie and Day say, they are likely to do it for other issues, such as a break-up or difficulties in the workplace. A psychotherapist who suspects narcissism, or who has officially diagnosed it, can employ certain evidence-based therapeutic treatments.

"What works for personality disorder in general [includes] supporting the person to strengthen their sense of self and increase their understanding of others," van Schie and Day say. "The therapeutic relationship is very important to be able to carefully explore the difficulties in understanding inner states and seeing other people’s perspective."

There's also research indicating that self-compassion in response to shameful experiences may be helpful in treatment for narcissism. "Part of effective treatment is helping these patients to appreciate a realistic and 'good enough' sense of themselves, that is neither perfect nor completely bad," van Schie and Day add.

What This Means For You

If you are experiencing aggression or violence from someone in your life, you can get help at the National Domestic Violence Hotline. You can call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text START to the same number.

Recognizing the Signs of NPD

Regardless of your experiences with narcissistic traits in yourself or others, the researchers add that it's important to understand it at a deeper level, as well as recognize the signs.

"Even though people high in narcissism traits may present as very confident, they may not actually have a good sense of who they are and may struggle to have good relationships," van Schie and Day say. "Feelings of shame may be an important mediator in this link between narcissism and aggression."

Some symptoms of high narcissism or NPD to watch out for include:

  • Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  • Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
  • Requires excessive admiration.
  • Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectation of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).
  • Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).
  • Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  • Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
  • Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors and attitudes.

If you find yourself experiencing aggression from a narcissistic person, it’s important to distance yourself from that person and look for support from others.

And when it comes to preventing narcissism, Kjærvik adds, it may be best to work with children. "I think a very important part is to teach your children about empathy and to not over-praise. Still praise effort, but not results," she says. "If we teach our kids when they are very young about empathy, then maybe that could minimize [risk]."

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