The Irresistible Charm of Narcissism
By Michael Dufner (University of Leipzig)
The ancient Greek myth describes Narcissus as a handsome young man who was so fond of himself, he even fell in love with his own reflection. Yet, according to the myth, Narcissus amazed not only himself, but also “legions of lusty men and bevies of girls” (Ovid, 2004). This classical notion of narcissistic appeal was picked up by psychoanalytic and social psychological theory. Also in today’s movies and television shows one can find plenty of examples for narcissistic individuals who are highly attractive. In fact, there are guidebooks (e.g., Campbell, 2005) and web-pages (e.g., http://www.xojane.com/sex/narcissists-should-come-with-warning-labels) especially created to give advice to women who feel attracted to a narcissist. Yet, is it really true that there is an irresistible charm to narcissism?
Narcissism is a personality trait characterized by an unrealistically positive self-view, a strong self-focus, a sense of entitlement to special treatment, and a lack of regard for others. Unlike narcissistic personality disorder, the personality trait narcissism is not pathological and can be found to a greater or lesser extent in everyday people. We conducted three studies to test whether persons high in narcissism are indeed appealing to members of the opposite sex (Dufner, Rauthmann, Czarna, & Denissen, 2013).
In a first study, we presented heterosexual participants a narcissism questionnaire that had ostensibly been filled out by an opposite-sex person. In one condition, the answers in the questionnaire were highly narcissistic. The bogus person had agreed with statements, such as “If I ruled the world, it would be a much better place”. In a second condition, the answers in the questionnaire were more modest. Our findings showed that if participants had seen the questionnaire version with the highly narcissistic answers, they rated the fictitious person as sexier than if they had seen the questionnaire entailing the modest responses. Hence, even though participants knew nothing else about the other person except that he or she is narcissistic, they nevertheless felt attracted.
In a second study, we assessed participants’ narcissism level with a questionnaire and then asked their close friends about their dating success in real life. Specifically, the friends judged the extent to which members of the opposite sex felt attracted to the target person. The results were again very clear: The more narcissistic participants were, the more attractive to opposite-sex persons they were deemed by their friends.
In a final field study, we tested how successful narcissists are in approaching potential dating partners on the street. Sixty-one heterosexual men volunteered to approach 25 women each in a downtown area of a large German city. The men asked the women for contact information, such as a telephone number or an e-mail address, and their task was to gather contact information from as many women as possible. The findings showed that narcissistic received far more pieces of contact information than more modest men and were also rated as more appealing by the approached women.
Using a statistical technique called mediational analysis, we were able to reveal two likely reasons for narcissists’ dating success. The first reason is physical attractiveness. Narcissists put much effort in choosing fashionable clothes and make-up, and typically have fancy haircuts. Thereby they manage to increase their physical attractiveness, and physical attractiveness is—of course—appealing to dating partners. The second reason is social boldness. Narcissists show little signs of inhibition and shyness when they interact with opposite-sex persons, and this self-confident appearance makes a positive impression on their interaction partners.
In all then, our findings indicate that there is a truth behind the ancient Greek myth. At least in the short-run, many people can’t resist, but feel attracted to narcissists. One practical implication of our research is that care should be taken if a dating partner seems too fond of him- or herself. Even though narcissists are appealing at first sight, they make terrible romantic partners in the long run (Campbell & Foster, 2002).
Michael Dufner is a lecturer at the University of Leipzig, Germany. His research interest focuses on motivated self-perception, costs and benefits of illusory self-perception, and individual differences in motive dispositions.
Campbell, W. K. (2005). When you love a man who loves himself: How to deal with a one-way relationship. Chicago, IL: Sourcebooks Casablanca.
Campbell, W. K., & Foster, C. A. (2002). Narcissism and commitment in romantic relationships: An investment model analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 484-495.
Dufner, M., Rauthmann, J. F., Czarna, A. Z., & Denissen, J. J. A. (2013). Are narcissists sexy? Zeroing in on the link between narcissism and short-term mate appeal. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 870-882.
Ovid. (2004). Metamorphoses (D. Raeburn, Trans.). London, England: Penguin Classics (Original work published ca. 8 b.c.e.).
Image Credit: Based on the painting Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse (1849–1917). This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.In other jurisdictions, re-use of this content may be restricted.