Narcissism and Romance

Narcissism is a hot topic, what with Trump being president and millennials being called “Generation Me”. The main problem people seem to have with the alledged narcissims of millennials is that it is bad in the workplace, based on the amount of books that have a title along the lines of “How to manage my millennial”. But maybe we should not just worry about the work ethic of all these millennials, maybe millennials (me included) should be worried about their long term relationships. In the introduction of Wurst et al. ‘s paper it is mentioned that there is a consistent finding that people high on narcissism tend to do well on the romance front in the short term, but bad in the long term (note: They are talking about the trait narcissism, not the psychopathological disorder). The main question that the authors of “Narcissism and Romantic Relationships” try to address is; Why is there a difference in success in the beginning and the later stages of a relationship for people with a high score on the trait grandiose narcissism?  

Until now, researchers looked at narcissism as if it were a bad show, it seems like a really cool concept when you watch the first season, but after a while the show keeps on rehashing the same plotlines  and you are not sure if you want to continue or if you are just wasting your time. In this case narcissism is one thing that seems positive in the beginning of a relationship, but turns out to be not so good in the long term. According to a different view, narcissism consists of two dimensions that work together; ‘Admiration’ and ‘Rivalry’. Admiration is the search for self-enhancement by getting admiration from others, which results in charismatic and assertive self-promoting behavior. Rivalry on the other hand is the protection from a negative self view by pushing others down, being distrustful, insensitive and hostile. So this series that we are watching on Netflix has a writer with an amazing pitch for the plot, but a director that keeps on putting in rude references to others shows. In six sub-studies the researchers wanted to see whether the latter theory is true, by investigating whether, and which one component had a higher influence in the short term or long term stages of a relationship.

Specifically the first three studies were focussed on the short term relationships. And when I say short term, I really mean short term. Participants in the study either watched a short introductory video (study 1) or listened to a short introduction in person (study 2). Study 3 was then focussed on relating a high score on Admiration with mind-sets and characteristics that are linked to success in short term romantic relationships, such as believing you are attractive as a romantic interest, being more open for casual sex, and being assertive in approaching others from the opposite gender. This means that the remaining four studies were focussed on the long term and the Rivalry component. There they looked at how narcissism scores influenced how people see their partner (study 4), and including both parties in the relationship (study 5). Then relating Rivalry to indicators for relationship success (study 6), and to do that for both partners (study 7). Indicators for long term romantic success studied here are: Relationship satisfaction and quality, how often conflicts or misdeeds occur and how people react to these misdeeds.

So, what did they find. Well that scoring high on Admiration is related to short term success. Thus people that score high on admiration are perceived to be more (Physically) attractive by others, by themselves and by their friends. Others also perceived them to be more likable. They themselves also indicated to be more likely to approach the other gender and find casual sex more appealing. How high the person scored on Rivalry was unrelated to these outcomes. On the other hand in the studies related to long term relationships the Rivalry score was much more important. People scoring high on Rivalry tended to think less of their partner, mainly because they perceived their partners to be high on negative characteristics. An important note here is that the researchers controlled for the fact that people high on Rivalry might see all people in an unfavorable way, but the extent to which you don’t like people in general did not affect the relationship between Rivalry and the way you view your partner. This suggests that there is something relationship specific going on. The partners of the participants with a high Rivalry score also thought less of them, but in their case this was due to a lower score on the positive characteristics. Second a high Rivalry score was related to being less committed to the relationship, more conflicts and being less forgiving if the partner does something wrong or when there is one of these conflicts, and partners agreed.

The first question that I had when reading this article was to what point in the relationship Admiration plays a larger role than Rivalry. Or in other words, how does this all play out over time. In this study we are mostly talking about first impression, but what happens at a first date, or the second. Other questions pop up too. Like for example: What is it about Rivalry that makes you think especially unfavourable off your partner? Do these effects span across all kinds of relationships, for example friendships and professional relationships, or is there something specific about romance? The second things I noticed was that their set-up for the short term relationship studies reminded me of online dating, and the popular dating app Tinder. It would be super interesting to see how their findings work outside a laboratory. It is not impossible to imagine that in this case the search for Admiration might help increase your chances in the online dating world. This means that being a little more narcissistic might be an adaptive strategy in a world where quick impression are incredibly important. Which, in turn, might be related to the view that youngsters these days are becoming more narcissistic. But, the generational gap is probably something for another post! By the way, me having these questions does not mean that I think this research is incomplete or not good. Actually I think that articles that elicit new questions are the best kind of articles, as that is way more inspiring. I think that the results found by Wurst et al. seem to make sense, intuitively. People high on narcissism are really good in presenting themselves as amazing people, but a comparative and unforgiving nature will not be good for a relationship in the long term. But what makes it so important that the researchers split narcissism in the two components is that it can explain why two people that have the same score on grandiose narcissism overall can have different outcomes in their romantic relationships, depending on how they score on the different subscales.


If you want to read the full article, it can be found on google scholar using this reference:

Wurst, S. N., Gerlach, T. M., Dufner, M., Rauthmann, J. F., Grosz, M. P., Küfner, A. C., … & Back, M. D. (2016). Narcissism and Romantic Relationships: The Differential Impact of Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112(2), 280-306

Or this link.

If you (or your university) don’t have access to this article, but you still really want to read it you can always e-mail the authors to request a copy!


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