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We propose a dynamic self-regulatory processing model of narcissism and review supporting evidence. The model casts narcissism in terms of motivated self-construction, in that the narcissist's self is shaped by the dynamic interaction of cognitive and affective intrapersonal processes and interpersonal self-regulatory strategies that are played out in the social arena. A grandiose yet vulnerable self-concept appears to underlie the chronic goal of obtaining continuous external self-affirmation. Because narcissists are insensitive to others' concerns and social constraints and view others as inferior, their self-regulatory efforts often are counterproductive and ultimately prevent the positive feedback that they seek--thus undermining the self they are trying to create and maintain. We draw connections between this model and other processing models in personality and employ these models to further elucidate the construct of narcissism.
Reconceptualizing narcissism as a self-regulatory processing system promises to resolve many of its apparent paradoxes, because by understanding how narcissistic cognition, affect, and motivation interrelate, their internal subjective logic and coherence come into focus.
If you ask people whether they have ever met a narcissist, most tell you about a friend, boss, or lover who was completely self-centered. They describe a person full of paradoxes: Self-aggrandizing and self-absorbed, yet easily threatened and overly sensitive to feedback from others. The friend, boss, or lover was emotionally labile and prone to extremes of euphoria, despair, and rage. They were often charming and socially facile while simultaneously insensitive to others' feelings, wishes, and needs. Some might report that they were initially attracted to such individuals only to grow weary of their constant demands for admiration and attention.
Narcissists fascinate many of us, because they appear to possess such an incongruous set of characteristics and perhaps because they seem like adult versions of infantile characteristics most people leave behind early in the course of development. Likewise, the topic of narcissism has commanded a long-standing fascination in the psychoanalytic and clinical literatures and is enjoying a recent resurgence of interest from personality and social psychologists. We suggest that a significant part of the continuing scholarly interest in narcissism stems from the fact that the syndrome is highly complex, difficult to define and measure, and linked to a number of somewhat conflicting theoretical perspectives.
In this article, we illustrate the utility of an approach that focuses on narcissism more as personality process than as static individual difference. We describe a program of research that has begun to validate a model of narcissism that casts the syndrome in terms of a distinctive dynamic system of social, cognitive, and affective self-regulatory processes. The model assumes that these self-regulatory processes are in the service of motivated self-construction directed at building or maintaining desired selves and meeting self-evaluative needs. We argue that underlying narcissistic self-regulation is a grandiose, yet vulnerable self-concept. This fragility drives narcissists to seek continuous external self-affirmation. Furthermore, much of this self-construction effort takes place in the social arena. Yet, because narcissists are characteristically insensitive to others' concerns and social constraints, and often take an adversarial view of others, their self-construction attempts often misfire. Thus, although narcissistic strategic efforts generally help maintain self-esteem and affect short term, they negatively influence their interpersonal relationships and in the long run ironically undermine the self they are trying to build. The result is a chronic state of self-under-construction, which they relentlessly pursue through various social-cognitive-affective self-regulatory mechanisms in not always optimal ways. Our work has concentrated on illuminating the dynamics of these self-regulatory attempts while concurrently refining our self-regulatory process model of narcissism.
In our view, an appealing feature of this research is that it illustrates the viability of integrating within a unitary framework both dispositional (trait) and processing (social-cognitive-affective) approaches to personality that historically have been thought to be competing and mutually preemptive. The model connects narcissists' mental representations of self and their social worlds, through the strategic intra-and interpersonal self-regulatory behaviors and processes aimed at constructing and maintaining the narcissistic self. In this way, it addresses both stable characteristics of narcissistic individuals, as well as the psychological dynamics and processes that interact with the situation and underlie these characteristics. At the process level, narcissists are quick to perceive (or even impose) self-esteem implications in situations that leave room for it and then engage in characteristic social-cognitive-affective dynamic self-regulatory strategies to maintain self-worth. These underlying processes are reflected at the trait level, in terms of regular patterns of self-aggrandizing arrogant behavior, hostility, entitlement, and lack of empathy toward others. Thus, these trait-like differences in overall average levels of behaviors, cognitions, and affects are understood as a result of the operations of dynamic underlying self-regulatory processes. There is relative stability in the personality system because all processes are organized around central self-goals, yet also distinctiveness due to different situational features activating slightly different (albeit interconnected) aspects of the system. This integration of traits with process helps unravel the mystery of why narcissism is expressed through such a paradoxical set of traits.
In the first part of the article, we present our self-regulatory processing model of narcissism and the research we have undertaken to validate the model, as well as relevant research by others. In this context, we also discuss some of the recurrent problems and remaining unresolved issues. In the latter part of the article, we examine some broader implications of this model, its relation to other social processing models of personality, and some of the open issues. We conclude with a discussion regarding the utility of a model that can study dispositions and processes concurrently and within the same conceptual framework, thus integrating varying levels of analysis in the study of personality.
The Paradoxical Lives of Narcissists
The same goal of a constant need for self-affirmation is also apparent in various clinical writings, which in addition provide some suggestions for its origin. In one way or another, they all in essence describe narcissists as individuals whose self-needs in childhood were not met due to deficiencies in early parental empathy or neglect, and who thus seek to fulfill these needs in their adult relationships. For example, Kernberg (1975) ascribed the disorder to a rejecting mother and the child's subsequent feelings of abandonment. Kohut (1971,1972) pointed to inconsistent and capricious reinforcement, highly dependent on the mother's mood; and Millon (1981) blamed constant over-valuation that is not based on any objective reality. Thus, although the clinical theorists disagree about the exact etiology, they all see the origins of the fragile but grandiose self as a response to unempathetic and inconsistent early childhood interactions. Moreover, they suggest that narcissists attempt to fill the void left in childhood in their adult relationships. It seems that there may be two aspects to filling this void, both of which contribute to narcissists' quest of a grandiose self. The first is perhaps more affective and involves seeking reassurance to allay a gnawing concern of inadequacy. The second may be a more cognitive concern directed at completing self-definitional needs. Incorporating both of these components, our focus is on the repeated self-regulatory thoughts, feelings, and behaviors aimed at obtaining validation for the grandiose self.
A Process Model of Narcissism
Thus, at the theoretical level, our approach shares much in common with other social-cognitive dynamic processing models (e.g., Cantor & Kihlstrom, 1987, 1989; Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Higgins, 1987; Mischel & Shoda, 1995; Schlenker, 1985; Swann, 1985). These models all have at their core the notion that people are active in structuring their social environments to bring them in line with their goals, rather than just passively reacting to these situations. In this vein, our approach shares a focus on what individuals do--behaviorally, cognitively, or affectively to bring particular situations and tasks (that they confront, select, or create) in line with these goals. Furthermore, although some models tend to place more emphasis on social and others on intrapersonal processes, all embrace an explicit attempt to understand the interplay of the cognitive, affective, social units and their (joint) mediation of an individual's behavior. Within a particular person or personality type, these units are thought to be organized into relatively stable configurations. Dynamic self-regulation, then, is understood in terms of this system of person units interacting with situational demands and affordances in the pursuit of goals.
In our model, we employ a somewhat more specified definition of self-regulation that focuses specifically on instances when the individual is regulating contents of the self that define that individual's identity (rather than global self-evaluation or various attempts at self-control). In this sense, it shares close resemblance to Schlenker's work on self-identification, which delineates the processes and means through which individuals fix and express their identities for themselves or others through social interaction (Schlenker, 1985; Schlenker & Wiegold, 1992). Importantly, self-identifications are not simply faithful expressions or retrievals of the self-concept but rather are constructed at the time they occur in a dynamic transaction between the individual and the social context. Our use of self-regulation encompasses these strategic interpersonal attempts of individuals to bring about their desired identities. These interpersonal processes occur at the level of actual social behavior, in which narcissists strategically interact with their social worlds to construct and regulate their desired selves. For the narcissist, social interactions are the settings for the enactment of social manipulations and self-presentations designed to engineer positive feedback or blunt negative feedback about the self.
The self-knowledge component both drives and is a result of these self-regulatory processes. It represents a summary statement of the narcissist's current view of self and its social context. This includes both the cognitive self, as well as a valence statement. The cognitive self entails mental representation of the actual self (self-ascribed traits and competencies), reflected appraisals, as well as possible future selves, ideals, and goals. The valence aspect reflects one's general sense of value but also captures momentary state self-esteem. As previously discussed, the content of the narcissistic self tends to be overly grandiose, yet simultaneously vulnerable and fragile. It appears they are unable to convince themselves of their presumed grandiosity, hence the fragility, reflected in transient fluctuations in (state) self-esteem in response to external happenings. Thus, narcissists' self-esteem is high or low depending on preceding events, but these oscillations are deviations from their average self-esteem, an average that is high relative to others. Equally or more important than content in trying to address the nature of narcissistic vulnerability, though, may be the structural organization of self-knowledge. We will discuss some research we have conducted examining the suggestion that narcissists may possess self-concepts that are simplistically structured (Emmons, 1987; Kernberg, 1980).
The social relationships component reflects the larger social context within which these self-regulatory processes are played out. These relationships are affected by narcissists' strategic maneuverings aimed at shoring up the self and, in turn, have an effect on narcissists' own behaviors, their self-evaluations, and their self-knowledge. As already implied, narcissists likely prefer relationships with people who offer the potential for enhancing the narcissists' self-esteem and sustaining their inflated self-image but likely have trouble maintaining relationships as soon as the other becomes a real (i.e., imperfect, even flawed) person to them (W. K. Campbell, 1999).
In short, this model depicts the narcissistic self as shaped by the interplay of dynamic self-processes and the larger social system within which it functions. As we will show, the coherent narcissistic dynamic is a chronic goal orientation aimed at getting continuous self-affirmation, while being relatively insensitive to social constraints, especially when the self is threatened. This dynamic is in part the result of narcissists' underlying self-conceptions (grandiose, yet fragile) and their view of others (inferior), which both in turn are maintained via various social-cognitive-affective self-regulatory mechanisms. We now turn to the research we have conducted in an effort to provide support for this model. In line with Cronbach and Meehl (1955), we took as a starting point what we believe to be the key characteristic of the narcissistic dynamic, namely the goal of constantly receiving online self-affirmation of the grandiose self-images, and proceeded to uncover the conditions under which it occurs. Building an interconnected system of such functional relations contributes to the validation of our self-regulatory process model of narcissism in form of a nomological net.
Reflection Exercise #5