The classic Greek mythical figure, Narcissus, is known for having fallen in love with himself. He wasn’t the only one, though. Everyone who knew him, including the Nymph Echo, became similarly smitten. We associate the personality trait, and disorder, of narcissism as involving excessive self-love but rarely consider the fact that they may exert a magnetic pull on others as well. This magnetic pull only lasts so long, however, because the superficiality of the truly narcissistic individual causes the relationship to wear thin. At that point, they are forced to find a new partner who, again, may only stick around for so long.
Because their long-term prospects in relationships tend not to be very good, narcissists become the masters of the good first impression. They know how to manipulate their own self-presentation so that they seem desirable and attractive. It’s possible that, like Narcissus, their disordered personality traits stem from their high intrinsic levels of physical attractiveness. However, it’s also possible that because of their narcissistic tendencies, they spend a great deal of time, money, and effort on making themselves look as attractive as they possibly can.
Narcissists may also be appealing, at least in the short term, because they are so “socially bold.” They exude that air of self-confidence and assurance which others find so attractive. People who are convinced of their own greatness often, at least at first, convince us.
Humboldt University social psychologist Michael Dufner and colleagues from Berlin, Cracow, and the Netherlands wanted to divine the mysteries underlying the short-term appeal of the narcissist. They considered the above possibilities, namely the attractiveness and social boldness features of the narcissist, in designing a series of experiments to find out just how appealing narcissists are as mates. First, they asked a group of undergraduates to provide ratings of how much a highly narcissistic person would appeal to them as either a sexual partner or friend. The people described as highest in narcissism were, as the researchers expected, the most appealing as a sexual partner, but not as a friend.
Having established that narcissists are seen as more desirable sexual partners than friends, Dufner and his colleagues next transferred their approach to people who knew each other in real life. Participants chose a good friend who, in turn, rated them on their appeal as a sexual partner, appeal as a friend, physical attractiveness, and social boldness. The participants themselves rated their own levels of narcissism and self-esteem. Once again, the people high in narcissism were seen, by those who knew them well, as having greater appeal as a sexual partner than as a friend. Statistical analyses allowed the researchers to test the role of social boldness and attractiveness, finding that both contributed to the greater perceived sexual desirability of the narcissists. Gender played no role in this relationship, meaning that the results were similar for men and women.
Next, it was time for Dufner and fellow researchers to take the study out of the lab and into the streets, which they did quite literally. In this field study, participants were given the task of picking up a stranger in the streets of Berlin. They reasoned that because it’s (still) the men who tend to initiate sexual matings, the pick-up artists would be male participants. If narcissists are better at securing a sexual partner due to their greater attractiveness and social boldness, they should perform better in this real-life task.
For this phase of the study, then, a group of 61 male heterosexuals were paid 35 euros to approach 25 women they would “genuinely like to know” and ask for their personal contact information. The researchers obtained narcissism scores using two types of measures. One, the Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Questionnaire (NARC), investigates the extent to which an individual engages in both self-promotion (“I am great”) and other-derogation (“I want my rivals to fail”). They believed that the admiration, but not the rivalry, scale would relate to appeal as a mate. The second measure was the more commonly used Dirty Dozen Narcissism which doesn’t differentiate between these two types of narcissistic tendencies.
If you’re following along, you can see that the researchers had a nearly perfect way to assess mate appeal—namely, the number of women who gave out their contact information. The women also rated the man’s appeal by stating whether they liked the man, being chatted up by him, and felt attracted to him. The man’s physical attractiveness was rated, additionally, by a team of undergraduates who saw a pre-recorded video in which he introduced himself to the camera. The students rated the attractiveness of his face and upper body. Finally, research assistants watching the street scenes rated the social boldness of each of the participants while they tried to obtain the women’s contact information.
How would narcissists perform when put to this ultimate test, and which of their personal features would influence their success, or lack thereof, when trying to secure a date? The findings showed that, as predicted, the aspect of narcissism involving admiration, not rivalry, predicted the men’s success in getting women to agree to give out their personal information. Moreover, the higher their narcissistic admiration, the more appealing the women found them to be. Once again, as in the friend study, social boldness and physical attractiveness further affected the narcissism-mate appeal link.
The “correlation does not equal causation” alarm must surely be going off in your head. It’s impossible to tell whether the charming narcissists were charming because they’re attractive or charming because they’re socially bold. Does attractiveness create a psychological environment in which narcissism flourishes or do narcissists only seem attractive because they value looking good? In terms of a theoretical explanation for the attractiveness-narcissism link, the authors discuss the possibility that short-term mating success might be good for the species, making the findings consistent with evolutionary theory. Similarly, the socially bold may be the evolutionarily more successful. These interpretations may account for short-term mating success, but not for the cohesiveness of the family unit, which would seem like an important evolutionary consideration as well.
In either case, the upshot of the study is clear. Beware the lure of the handsome (or beautiful) charmer who not only makes good eye candy but also swaggers with perhaps a bit too much self-assurance. This person may be a great first date but, over time, an inability to establish close intimate bonds will only bring you sorrow. Long-term relationship fulfillment requires the emotional substance of someone who is not just socially bold, but socially caring.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Dufner, M., Rauthmann, J.F., Czarna, A.Z., & Denissen, J.J.A. Are Narcissists Sexy? Zeroing in on the Effect of Narcissism on Short-Term Mate Appeal, Pers Soc Psychol Bull 0146167213483580, first published on April 2, 2013 as doi:10.1177/0146167213483580