Motivation and emotion/Book/2010/Narcissism2

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Narcissism and motivation
Epiphany-bookmarks.svg This page is part of the Motivation and emotion textbook. See also: Guidelines.


The term narcissism is based on the myth of Narcissus, a story which placed romantic love of self in a battle against romantic love of another[1]. Narcissisus eventually fell in love with his own reflection[2].

In Greek mythology Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water

The term narcissism was first used in psychology by Havelock Ellis in 1898. It was Sigmund Freud, however, who brought about the much larger interest in narcissism with his piece On Narcissism: An Introduction. Freud claimed that people require a self that they can identify with and direct their love towards[3]. This ideal self is created by the individual using social input, such as the expectations of parents, and continues to adapt throughout the individual’s life; the person is then motivated to strive towards this ideal, as a failure to do so shall lead to feelings of guilt and social anxiety.

Narcissism became better known publicly in the 1970s, when many articles and books were published on the subject[3]. Psychologists and analysts also started to report higher levels of narcissistic symptoms amongst patients, which eventually led to the addition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder to the 1980 Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders. Many who published works in this time claimed the rise in narcissism could be attributed to the more tolerant, affluent, material and consumer-orientated society.

Narcissism has positive and negative symptoms, most of the positive symptoms benefit the narcissistic individual. Narcissists are extraverted, confident, perform well whilst under pressure and have high self-esteem amongst others; on the negative side they are impulsive, romantically fickle, aggressive a need to warp reality to create a more self-enhancing one, a need to pursue positive social feedback whilst ridiculing or become aggressive to those who provide negative feedback, long term deficits can occur when a narcissists’ fantasy of success inhibits real success, and narcissists will eventually suffer large interpersonal costs whilst chasing high standing and a sense of worth [4] [5]. Though it has been noted by some that positive mental illusions can lead to strengthened mental health[6].

Narcissism and Motivation[edit]

As this chapter is based on the relationship between narcissism and motivation, it is important to look at how narcissists are motivated. Narcissists have been found to have high levels of approach motivation, whilst having low levels of avoidance motivation. This simply means that narcissists are highly motivated to seek rewards, whilst they are less motivated to avoid unwanted outcomes. Many theorists have covered the approach-avoidance relationship of motivation, for further reading look to Eysenck, Gray and Davidson.

Many reasons are suggested that narcissists are more likely motivated towards positive goals, and less likely to avoid negative consequences. It has been suggested that parenting has a large influence on narcissism. It has been predicted that “overindulgent, overvaluing and overprotective parenting” can lead to an individual developing narcissistic traits [4]. There has been a steady rise in narcissism amongst college students in America over the past twenty-five years.[factual?] This has been attributed to a trend of perpetual praise, where children and students are praised without harsh punishment for failure; thus the usual outcome of behaviour has become praise rather than punishment; this leads to an expectation that the praise will continue. Though theoretical, this explains the trends in motivation, especially in narcissists, as people become more likely to seek out rewards and less likely to fear negative consequences.

Though there is much theoretical stipulation on the relationship between narcissism and approach-avoidance motivation, there have also been empirical studies which can be used to link the two. It has been found that many of the traits common to narcissism are also shared with high levels of approach motivation, low levels of avoidance motivation, or both combined[4]. It has been found that narcissists behave more aggressively than others, a trait which has been empirically linked with high approach and low avoidance motivation; also narcissism is linked with high levels of impulsivity, another trait shared with high approach and low avoidance motivation. These connections have now been empiriclly tested, with the results concluding that there is a connection between narcissism and these types of motivation.

Narcissism and Relationships[edit]

Relationships with others is a highly important part of human life. Humans are social creatures, and our ability to interact with others is an important part of our lives.


It has been found that narcissists can have a negative effect on the ability of others and the environment around them[5]. It has been found that in a shared environment narcissists consume more shared resources than others. This leads to narcissists being more productive in the short-term; however in the long-term narcissistic individuals are actually much worse performers when compared with non-narcissists.[factual?] This short-term success also came at the cost of long-term resources and the success of others. Though the narcissists would originally take more resources than non-narcissists, both groups increased their usage at the same rate. This suggests that if the original behaviour was restrained in some way, there may be no significant difference between the two groups, so that extra consumption of resources could be curbed.


Individuals who work in a team alongside narcissists actually perform worse than others[5]. This has large implications for the motivation behind narcissists’ behaviour. Commonly an individual that outperforms those around them, and has high success shall receive rewards in the workplace; this means that narcissists, who quite commonly achieve short-term successes at the cost of others benefit from their destructive behaviour. This would also imply that if employers are selecting their teams of employees based on short-term success it could lead to a group of all narcissists, who would in the long-term be much less successful than others.


It has been suggested that narcissism is a side effect of an evolutionary role[7]. Much of the behaviour related to what has been termed narcissism in humans can also be found in alpha-male primates. It is noted that primates attempting to gain the alpha position are striving for power, success and control. Upon reaching this power, the primate shall demand the admiration of the males and females of the group, and shows a sense that he has the right to the best resources available to the group.

Serotonin studies show that the males who reach the alpha position actually feel incredibly good whilst the wealth of sex, admiration, etc lasts; however, the alpha-male is also suffering from the constant stress of maintaining his position and protecting his group. Thus it may be that the pathological label of narcissism is part of an evolutionary strategy that is still in use by our less developed primate relatives, and that people who are labelled as narcissists are trying to fulfil their role in society.

As was mentioned earlier, narcissism has been linked with higher levels of aggression. Though it was originally believed that low-self esteem led to aggression[8] it has since been found that high yet unstable levels of self-esteem lead to aggression, both of which are associated with narcissism[4]. This relationship is relative to high levels of hostility. In narcissists this high level of hostility can turn into aggressive behaviour, physical or otherwise, when they are insulted. The aggression is very focused, as narcissists shall not behave aggressively towards an individual who is present but did not insult them. Though narcissists have the potential to be more aggressive than others, narcissistic individuals have average levels of aggression without any provocation. It has been found that incarcerated violent offenders have high levels of narcissism. The highest traits of narcissism present were those of superiority and self-entitlement. This suggests that the vanity aspects of narcissism are less involved with aggression than narcissists' assumptions that they are better than others.


An important topic in relation to narcissism is that of romantic relationships. It has been found that narcissists often suffer from poor relationship functioning[9]; they are less committed to their romantic partners, perform infidelity more often than non-narcissists, are less satisfied with their relationships and play games with their partners. It has been found that this last trait is particularly important when studying narcissism; narcissists enjoy leaving romantic partners unsure of their commitment[1]. Also whilst narcissists are in a relationship, see alternative partners as more appealing than non-narcissists do; meaning narcissists are less likely to maintain a romantic relationship, as they perceive other options for partners as more attractive than their current one. This may stem from the fact that narcissists rate themselves more highly in positive traits than their partners[1]. It has been found that narcissists do not simply view alternative partners as more attractive, they actually actively seek alternative partners whilst in a relationship. This leads to the narcissist having increased feelings of power and autonomy, as they have power over the current relationship and feel that they have other potential relationships available.

It has been found that narcissists perceive romantic relationships as a way to further themselves, even at the cost of their partners; narcissists seek partners that reward them personally, either through a higher social status or feelings of power[9]. These needs can be fulfilled directly or indirectly[1]. A romantic partner can provide admiration directly to a narcissist, or the partner themselves being attractive and popular can lead to boosts in self-esteem via association. To narcissists an ideal partner admires them greatly, is attractiveand successful. This stems from narcissists caring more about satisfying their own needs rather than worrying about others’, combined with their sensation seeking behaviour and their relatively low interest in intimacy or caring[9]. This leads to narcissists not wanting to maintain particularly long-term romantic relationships.

Where are these narcissists?[edit]

Having read this far on the topic of narcissism and the features of narcissists, it is possible you are contemplating where these narcissists are.

Celebrities are more likely to be narcissists than the average populace[2]. It has been found that reality television personalities have the highest level of narcissism, followed by actors, comedians, and musicians; musicians’ narcissism levels are significantly lower than other celebrities. Comedians score higher on the traits of authority, exhibitionism, superiority, entitlement and exploitativeness than any of the other celebrity groups. The amount of time that a celebrity has spent in the industry has no effect on levels of narcissism, suggesting that narcissists are more likely to become celebrities rather than vice versa.[factual?] In the population males are significantly more narcissistic than females; the opposite is true in the case of celebrities.[factual?] Female celebrities score higher than males on superiority, exhibitionism and vanity, suggesting that the emphasis on physical appearance in the industry plays a large role.[factual?] Narcissistic individuals appear more attractive initially than others; this may lead to the casting of more narcissistic individuals in reality television as they are selected by talent agents.

Incarcerated violent felons have higher levels of narcissism than an average member of society[10]. Though they have average levels of self-esteem, it has been found that these felons score significantly higher than the norm on measures of narcissism. These individuals were found to score especially high in the areas of self-entitlement and beliefs of superiority.

It is not true that all narcissists are celebrities or criminals. In fact there has been research into narcissism in common users of social networking sites[11]. This study found that untrained individuals could pick out narcissists by viewing their Facebook profiles. This was done through a variety of features, such as focus of photos and the information provided by the user.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Campbell, K., Brunell, A. & Finkel, E. Narcissism, interpersonal self-regulation and romantic relationships. Found online:
  2. 2.0 2.1 Young, S. & Pinsky, D. 2006. Narcissism and celebrity. Journal of Research in Personality.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Tyler, I. 2007. From “the me decade” to “the me millennium”: The cultural history of narcissism. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 10, 343-363.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Foster, J. & Trimm, R. 2008. On being eager and uninhibited: Narcissism and approach-avoidance motivation. Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1004-1017
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Campbell, K., Bush, C., Brunell, A. & Shelton, J. 2005. Understanding the social costs of narcissism: The case of the tragedy of the commons. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1358-1368.
  6. Paulhus, D. 1998. Interpersonal and Intrapsychic Adaptiveness of Trait Self-Enhancement: A Mixed Blessing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1197-1208.
  7. Karterud, S. 2010. On narcissism, evolution and group dynamics: A tribute to Malcolm Pines. Group Analysis, 43, 301-310.
  8. Bushman, B.& Baumeister, R. 1998. Threatened egotism, narcissism, self-esteem, and direct and displaced aggression: Does self-love or self-hate lead to violence? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 219-229.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Foster, J., Shrira, I. & Campbell, K. 2006. Theoretical models of narcissism, sexuality, and relationship commitment. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 23, 367-386.
  10. Baumeister, R. Bushman, B. & Campbell, K. 2000. Self-esteem, narcissism, and aggression: Does violence result from low self-esteem or threatened egotism? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9, 26-29.
  11. Buffardi, L. & Campbell, K. 2008. Narcissism and Social Networking Web Sites. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1303-1314.

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