Purdue Psychological Sciences researcher: Threshold of personality traits dictate narcissism

Donald Lynam

For the last few years, Don Lynam, distinguished professor of psychological sciences, has researched the personality traits that commonly cause narcissism.Tim Brouk

Written by: Tim Brouk, tbrouk@purdue.edu

Not all personality traits of a narcissist are bad. For instance, narcissists are extroverts, and extroverts are generally outgoing and likable people.

In the lab of Purdue University Psychological Sciences Distinguished Professor Don Lynam, it’s the toxic threshold of personality traits that separate that likable and outgoing extrovert from a self-absorbed narcissist. Much of Lynam’s recent research explores personality traits and behaviors that most dictate how narcissistic a person is and what levels of these traits take that individual to the level of becoming a narcissist.

“When we study it, we break it down into its component pieces and talk about what elements people are elevated on,” said Lynam, whose recent work was published in the Journal of Personality.

Lynam gave an example. If Bob has more narcissistic traits than someone else, it doesn’t necessarily make Bob narcissistic, he just has more narcissistic tendencies. It becomes a question: Does Bob reach some threshold in which he has enough of the characteristics or traits to label him a narcissist?

According to Lynam, if someone wants to see a grandiose narcissist in action, they only needs to turn on a reality TV show. In just 22 minutes, most of the people on screen display the narcissism bouquet of extroversion, antagonism and neuroticism. And the thresholds of these traits are often higher than Kim Kardashian’s number of followers on Instagram (364 million).

Research also revealed there are now two distinct narcissists out there — the traditional narcissist with their “pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and lack of empathy,” according to the American Psychiatric Association, and vulnerable narcissists, who are in need of praise, hypersensitive to criticism and empathetic only when needed to build self-importance. These traits tend to surface in early adulthood.

Lynam’s latest work looks at narcissism and aggression. Using the trifurcated model of narcissism, which views interpersonal antagonism, neuroticism and agentic extroversion as the main traits, Lynam’s lab breaks down what piece or pieces of this unsavory puzzle would account for aggression.

What does narcissism look like in 2023?

The same way it always has. The lay public has a pretty good idea of what narcissism is. You’ve got folks who are selfish, self-absorbed, egotistical, grandiose. They need admiration, could be aggressive, sort of socially dominant, really lack empathy and are callous. They tend not to care much about other people; they care a lot about themselves.

Does the general public then have good accuracy in identifying narcissists in their lives?

Not always when it comes to terms that are negative. Psychopath’s another one. “He’s such a psychopath.” Well, probably not, right? We probably don’t like the person, and he probably has some characteristics, but he probably doesn’t have the full set of traits.  The same is true for narcissism. People don’t think about the thresholds or the full picture. “They’re a psychopath.” They probably don’t meet the criteria — thank God, right?

A lot of what my lab tries to do is to promote that you are better off breaking these big diagnoses down into their component parts. We talk about molecules (like narcissism and psychopathy) and basic elements (like personality traits). Why are people narcissistic? Because they possess certain traits in the extreme. When we see these traits together, we label it narcissism, but my lab doesn’t view narcissism as a thing in itself.

How do we know if we’re a narcissist?

A person probably gets some feedback from the people around them. Narcissists are very popular initially — they’re fun; they’re kind of dominant; they’re glib and socially adept. But across time, people see that these folks are really just about themselves, so people’s liking tends to diminish, which is interesting. Now, they, the narcissists, don’t often care. This is the hard part, right?

Can narcissists be helped?

With vulnerable narcissists, the grandiosity is a bit of a costume put on to buffer themselves and pump themselves up a bit. Those folks worry about being labeled narcissistic. They’re vulnerable; they don’t like it. Those are the folks who end up in treatment a lot of the time because they’re so unhappy. But the grandiose narcissist doesn’t often go to treatment voluntarily. They go because a spouse or partner or the legal system sends them there, but a lot of times, they don’t often show up because they don’t have that kind of unhappiness and the kind of negative self-regard deep down. They really do think they’re great and the troubles they’re having are due to other people. They often can recognize traits but blame their behavior on others and often won’t admit that they’re a narcissist. Or that doesn’t bother them.

In my view, narcissism really is just a constellation or collection of personality traits from a broader set of traits that can be used to describe anyone. Fortunately, most of us are not especially high in the ones that capture narcissism.