Self-regard is safe for women but unhealthy in men
In the long-running feud between Madonna and Elton John, one insult stands out as particularly pointed. Writing on Facebook a few weeks ago, John's friend David Furnish accused Madonna of "narcissism".
The singer is said to have laughed off the jibe, but she can take some comfort in the knowledge that even if she is a narcissist, she is not a male one. According to new research, male narcissists suffer from higher-than-average levels of stress - more than their female counterparts.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and published in the journal PLoS ONE, involved an assessment of 106 undergraduate students using a test known as the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. The students' levels of the stress hormone cortisol were also measured.
The results showed that men who displayed the more toxic elements of narcissism - a tendency to exploit others and an exaggerated sense of entitlement - had higher levels of cortisol (even without being exposed to specific stressors) than women with the same traits. It would appear that just being a narcissist is, in itself, stressful for a man - despite the term origin in Greek mythology and the handsome youth Narkissos who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water.
Narcissism is much more than mere vanity, according to Sara Konrath, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Michigan and a co-author of the study.
"It's a little more complex," she says. "There are different aspects to narcissism. There are some aspects that are more about how people see themselves - this is more the extreme vanity type of person: the person who thinks they're really amazing and superior to others, who loves to look at their body; the egotistical person in the classic sense. The more unhealthy aspects tend to do with enjoying taking advantage of others. They feel they deserve more than others; that it's OK to exploit people to get what they want."
The researchers can only guess why the results showed that self-loving men are more prone to stress than women, but they theorise that it may be connected to society's perceptions of the different roles of men and women.
"If we were able to, we would have measured people's sense of themselves as masculine and feminine, which varies even within men," says Konrath. "I think when you set up this idea of being tough and strong and independent, and getting what you can from others, a lot of those ideas about what it means to be a narcissist are the same as what it means to be a stereotypical male. And putting those two together is not good for the body."
Women, on the other hand, are expected to have different roles and relationships; this may be what saves them from the same stress suffered by male narcissists.
"Even female narcissists might have been socialised to seek support or have better relationships than male narcissists," says Konrath.
Certainly, it seems more socially acceptable for men to display the more aggressive forms of narcissism. Justin Thomas, an assistant professor of psychology at Zayed University, cites the American rapper Kanye West as an example.
"He kind of knows he is a narcissist and celebrates the fact," he says. "Paradoxically this makes him either OK or a new super-strain of narcissist".
Intriguingly, though, despite these findings, even male narcissists will tend to rate their own stress levels as low. According to Thomas, they may simply be deluding themselves.
"The early Freudian models see narcissism as a mask shielding the individual from a deep-seated sense of low self-worth or inferiority. This is called the mask model of narcissism and I think there is a lot to it. If you ask a narcissist how great is your life, they will say 10 out of 10, but if you use more subtle measures to assess self-esteem then they don't do so well."
Thomas and his colleagues have put this mask theory to the test in a research programme called Arabia Felix, in which they asked 200 participants to determine which of a list of both positive and negative adjectives applied to them. Narcissistic participants tended to attribute more positive than negative traits to themselves but, crucially, when asked later to recall the list of adjectives, remembered more negative than positive words.
"Perhaps," says Thomas, "the narcissistic mask is a dysfunctional defence against the same feelings of low self-worth that characterise depression."
Chronic levels of stress coupled with a failure to recognise that there was a problem could lead to long-term health consequences, particularly given that a number of studies suggest that narcissism is on the rise in the West.
The UAE may not be immune to the global trend. The only study to date measuring narcissistic traits in the Emirates revealed scores comparable to western nations, but, according to Thomas, this might be less of a problem in the Arab community. "I would suspect that traditional cultural values rooted in Islamic and Bedu traditions would act as a check to narcissism in those individuals holding on to such values," he says. "Arrogance is very much frowned upon in traditional Arabic culture and the mutakabireen [the arrogant ones] are disapproved of."
The expatriate culture, on the other hand, may by its very nature lend itself to narcissistic traits, says Saliha Afridi, the clinical psychologist and director of the LightHouse Clinic in Dubai.
"It is a transient society so people have to prove themselves and establish themselves quickly," she says. "One way people do that is to associate yourself with rich, powerful and connected individuals. Second, UAE culture is also one that encourages luxury and self-indulgence. People are also far away from spaces and places that typically anchor them - whether it is their home, their family, their culture - and with the 'gold-rush' of sorts, people acquire fame and fortune quickly here and they can lose sight of family, community and social responsibility."
As for shielding our children from these trends, psychologists such as Konrath believe that although people may be born with a predisposition to narcissism, the right environment can discourage it from flourishing.
"In a family that really values caring for each other and more empathetic responses, for a child who has more narcissistic tendencies probably those won't be supported in the same way."
Afridi recommends applying some old-fashioned principles.
"Parenting needs to go back to the basics," she says. "Do unto others, compassion, responsibility, hard work, and having failure be part of life."
Narcissism aside, those values sound like the basis of excellent parenting.
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Updated: March 26, 2012 04:00 AM