Are You Narcissistic?

Think about your own behavior and personality in light of the following questions. If it helps, use a 1-7 scale, with 1 being “Definitely not characteristic of me at all” and 7 being “yup, that’s me alright!”

  • I tend to want others to admire me.
  • I tend to want others to pay attention to me.
  • I tend to expect special favors from others.
  • I tend to seek prestige or status.

Much attention has been given to the concept of narcissism in the popular media. In fact, a quick Google search that I just performed (on 1/16/2019) turned up more than 300,000 entries for “Psychology Today” and “narcissism!” Narcissism is a big topic of interest these days.

Narcissism is Not a Categorical Variable

As a researcher who often studies narcissism, I thought it would be useful to provide some insights regarding the psychometrics of narcissism as it is often measured in the behavioral sciences. One of the main things that I think people might find useful is this: Narcissism is not conceptualized as a categorical variable by researchers who study it. A categorical variable is one in which different values are different in kind. So for instance, if you were studying kinds of animals found in a pet store, you’d have cats, dogs, and guinea pigs in their own categories.

But narcissism is not like that. Researchers who study narcissism don’t tend to see people as either “narcissistic” or “not narcissistic.” As is the case with so many personality variables, we see narcissism as a matter of degree. In fact, we tend to see narcissism as being, roughly, “normally distributed,” which is a fancy way of saying that we expect most people to score near the middle (average) of the distribution and we expect relatively few people to score at the extremes on either end..

“I tend to want others to admire me.”

“I tend to seek prestige or status.”

“I tend to expect special favors from others.”

“I want others to pay attention to me.”

As you can see from these figures, people score across the range of 1-7 for each of these items. It is hardly the case that people are only scoring as “1” (very uncharacteristic of me) or as “7” (very characteristic of me). In fact, you can see that for each of these figures, the most common scores are near the midpoint (or average). If the world were divided into the “narcissists” and the “non-narcissists,” we would not see such patterns of statistical variability.

This said, when we think about traits in statistical terms, we often think about the degree to which a particular score is beyond a standard deviationfrom the mean (or the average). The standard deviation is, roughly, the typical amount that scores in the sample deviate from the mean (see Geher & Hall, 2014). Given what we know about standard deviations, only about 16% of scores in such a distribution are higher than a score that is one standard deviation above the mean. So once a score starts to get into that region of the distribution, we start to see it as as something of an extreme score.

In the current data set, the mean for the total narcissism score is 15.10 and the standard deviation is 5.095. Thus the score that is one standard deviation above the mean is exactly 20.195. In short, then, any total score that is above 20.195 might be said to be characteristic of someone who is “notably high in narcissism.” Perhaps we can think, then, of “a narcissist” as someone who scores about 21 or higher on this scale (measured as we’ve measured it in the study described above).

Bottom Line

Much has been made of narcissism in the scholarly and popular psychological literature, and for good reason. This trait, which seems to often overlap with a manipulative and psychopathic approach to dealing with others, is predictive of all kinds of social and emotional outcomes.

This said, as someone who studies this trait carefully in the lab, I suggest that people take caution in thinking about narcissism as a categorical variable. It’s not. As most researchers in the field will agree, narcissism is typically measured as a continuous variable—people vary from one another on this trait by a matter of degree.

How narcissistic are you? Not really very high at all? About average? Wicked high? Whatever your score, remember that most personality traits are continuous and not categorical in nature. Further, there is a good bit of evidence suggesting that personality is somewhat malleable across the lifespan (see Damian et al., 2018). By Glenn Geher Ph.D.  |  PsychologyToday

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