Don’t Poke the Bear
Of all the unappealing characteristics of narcissism, one of the most unsettling may be its link with aggression and violence.
In a new study, Brad J. Bushman and I conducted a comprehensive review of research on the narcissism-aggression link and gained a fuller picture of the factors that may lead people who are high in narcissism to attack others.
In short, nearly any small provocation—or nothing at all—can lead people under the influence of narcissism to lash out.
The word Narcissism comes from the Greek mythology figure Narcissus, who fell in love with his self-reflection in still water and exclaimed “I burn with love for—me!” Narcissism’s traits include:
- A sense of entitlement (the core of narcissism)
- Grandiose self-views (i.e., inflated ego)
- A sense of superiority
- Abusive authority and control over others
- Excessive need for admiration
- Intolerance of criticism
- A selfish orientation
- A lack of empathy for other people
Our review included 437 studies involving more than 123,000 participants. We found that narcissism is related to a 21% increase in aggression and an 18% increase in violence. We were surprised to find that the link between narcissism and violence was nearly as strong as the link between narcissism and less serious forms of aggression. But our results are consistent with research suggesting that narcissism can be a risk factor for violent acts such as mass shootings.
We found that provocation is a key variable in the link between narcissism and aggression. When individuals high in narcissism feel threatened or provoked in some way, they are especially likely to act aggressively to protect their fragile egos. But provocation was not necessary to elevate aggressiveness—as our findings showed a link between narcissism and aggression even under conditions with no provocation.
All Types of Narcissism
Narcissism is not a dichotomy, so it is inaccurate to call people narcissists or not. Rather, everyone has some level of narcissism, but some people have higher levels than others. The higher the level of narcissism, the higher the level of aggression. Importantly, it doesn’t take pathological levels of narcissism (e.g., Narcissistic Personality Disorder) to produce aggressive behavior. Higher levels of narcissistic traits were linked to more aggression even before it gets to pathological levels.
Another way to view narcissism, in addition to the individual qualities we listed, is in terms of its major components: entitlement (the core of narcissism), grandiose narcissism, and vulnerable narcissism. Individuals high in grandiose narcissism tend to have high self-esteem and are more attention seeking and self-assured, whereas those high in vulnerable narcissism tend to have low levels of self-esteem and are more defensive and anxious. We found that whether people have high or low self-esteem does not matter. Higher levels of all types of narcissism were linked to higher levels of aggression.
All Types of Aggression
People with high levels of narcissism showed elevated levels of all types of aggression, including physical aggression such as hitting someone, verbal aggression such as calling others nasty names, indirect aggression such spreading gossip, bullying others online (cyberbullying) or offline, and even displaced aggression against innocent bystanders. Narcissism was related to impulsive, hot-headed aggressive acts, as well as deliberate, cold-blooded aggressive acts.
Western and Eastern Countries, All Ages, and Both Genders Too
Our findings showed that the link between narcissism and aggression was of similar size in individualistic countries—like the United States, where people emphasize freedom of choice and attaining personal goals—and in collectivistic countries—like China, where people emphasize unity and conformity to the goals of society.
The link between higher levels of narcissism and aggression was also similar for males and females of all ages, for college student samples, and more general community samples.
So Watch Out!
People high in narcissism believe they are special people who deserve special treatment. They have thin skins and fragile egos which lead them to lash out aggressively, sometimes even violently, when they don’t get the special treatment that they believe they are entitled to.
Because people high in narcissism are hypersensitive, they are especially likely to act aggressively when they are provoked, insulted, humiliated, criticized, or otherwise threatened by others. But they don’t need to be provoked to attack others. The best defense may be to limit your exposure to people who tend toward narcissism.
For Further Reading
Bushman, B. J. (2018). Narcissism, fame-seeking, and mass shootings. American Behavioral Scientist, 62(2), 229-241. DOI: 10.1177/0002764217739660
Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Nelemans, S. A., Orobio de Castro, B., Overbeek, G., & Bushman, B. J. (2015). Origins of narcissism in children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 112(12), 3659-3662. doi:10.1073/pnas.1420870112
Kjærvik, S. L., & Bushman, B. J. (2021). The link between narcissism and aggression: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000323
Sophie L. Kjærvik is a PhD Student in Communication at The Ohio State University. She studies narcissism, aggression, and the use of social media. The review discussed here was an extension of her master’s degree, which she received from the University of Oslo, in Norway.
Brad J. Bushman is a Professor of Communication and Rinehart Chair of Mass Communication at The Ohio State University. For over 30 years he has studied the causes, consequences, and solutions to the problem of human aggression and violence. He was a member of President Obama’s committee on gun violence, and he has testified before the U.S. Congress about youth violence.