How good are you at reflective thinking? If you’re a narcissist, your answer is probably something on the order of “stupendous, just astounding.” However, statistically speaking, if you are a narcissist, the truth is very different. Such are the results of a new study helmed by Shane Littrell, a cognitive psychology PhD student at the University of Waterloo, and co-authored by professors Jonathan Fuselsang and Evan Risko.
The research is part of a series of studies looking at the relationship between impulsiveness, narcissism, and cognitive reflection. It’s some of the first scholarship to examine the ways that personality affects one’s ability to self-reflect.
Littrell distinguishes between two contrasting groups of narcissists. Grandiose narcissists feel entitled, see themselves as better than others, and score high in self-esteem. If you’ve ever had an obnoxious boss who loves to hear himself talk and sees himself as superior to “the rabble,” you might have been dealing with a grandiose narcissist. Vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, are filled with insecurity and plagued by low self-esteem. Your brittle, defensive aunt who was unable to accept criticism could have been a vulnerable narcissist.
The study rounded up 100 U.S. participants, who were evaluated based on their performance on the Cognitive Reflection Test, their own reported degree of personal reflection, metacognitive insight, their score on the Need for Cognition scale (developed in the eighties, it measures “the tendency for an individual to engage in and enjoy thinking”), and intuitive thinking. Later on, researchers repeated the assessments, adding a portion examining the impact of overconfidence on one’s thinking.
“We found that grandiose and vulnerable narcissism are negatively associated with certain types of important reflective thinking processes,” said Fugelsang. Grandiose narcissists were notably more likely to overestimate their own quality of thinking. The researchers also found that when vulnerable narcissists do attempt self-reflection, they are more likely to find it confusing, frustrating, and fruitless.
The term “narcissist” comes from the Ancient Greek legend of Narcissus, a vain, self-absorbed youth who cruelly spurned love. His divine punishment was to be cursed to fall in love with his own reflected image in the surface of a pond. Perhaps a little self-examination could have made him stop to evaluate his situation better, and realize why that face in the water looked so familiar. Instead, as the story goes, he wasted away, never taking his eyes off the image of his own face.
“In light of recent events over the past few years, the impact of narcissism (and other more negative personality attributes) has seen an increased interest from the media and the public at large,” said Littrell. “So, we felt this study might help answer interesting questions related to that larger public conversation.”