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Susan Krauss Whitbourne is a professor of Psychology and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She writes the Fulfilment at Any Age blog for Psychology Today.

Grandiosity and an elevated self-focus are key components of narcissism. The way in which narcissists view themselves, however, also reflects the way they view other people. In order to see themselves as superior they, by definition, must see everyone else as beneath them. Consider a situation in which a co-worker of yours talks constantly about herself and her family, seems uninterested in your own life, and spends an inordinate amount of time preening in front of the mirror she keeps in her desk drawer. These narcissistic behaviours seem reinforced by the way she maintains her office space. Overflowing with photos showing her in flattering situations, such as the time she won an important award at work, she’s placed the awards themselves in prominent locations in her shelves so that you can’t help but notice them when you walk by her desk. An extension of her personal tendencies to turn attention toward herself, her office space is clearly intended to reinforce this view of herself as superior to others. 

The view of people high in narcissism as preoccupied with self-image doesn’t necessarily take into account this idea that such individuals seem driven to elevate their social status. According to a new study by University of Roehampton’s (U.K.) Nikhila Mahadevan and colleagues (2018), the narcissist's need for status goes beyond an ordinary need for positive regard from others. Most people, the British team argue, behave in ways consistent with “sociometer theory,” in which they are driven by a need for social inclusion. People high in narcissism, however, operate according to “hierometer theory,” or a need to navigate social hierarchies. It's status the narcissist seeks, not approval. As defined by the authors, status refers to “being respected and admired” (p. 2); inclusion refers to “being liked and admired” (p. 2). Thus, status involves a need to stand above others, while inclusion involves a need to be a part of a group. 

In distinguishing between self-esteem and narcissism, the British researchers note that both refer to a form of self-regard. Self-esteem is defined as a positive or negative attitude toward the self. People high in self-esteem feel that they have worth, but don’t need to see themselves as better than others. People high in narcissism, though, have a more grandiose set of needs that include a sense of entitlement, a tendency to exploit others, and unusual sensitivity to criticism. The authors studied narcissism as a trait that varies in everyone rather than the clinical form of narcissistic personality disorder. The highly narcissistic in their model should be acutely concerned, they predict, with social status, needing less to be liked than to be admired.

The hierometer model of narcissism, as suggested by Mahadevan and her fellow researchers, uniquely proposes that “self-regard serves a status-regulating function, tracking social status, and motivating status-optimizing behavior” (p. 4). Consider people who feel they must wear the brand labels of expensive designers. They don't care whether the items with the fancy logos are particularly beautiful or even worth the money in an objective sense. Instead, the narcissistic individuals trying to assert their status want others to notice their wealth. 

In a series of investigations, the British researchers began with two online samples of adults who completed questionnaires designed to assess the needs for inclusion and status. Questions used to measure status and inclusion asked people to rate items that began with the following prompt: “Most of the time I feel that people…”  Sample status items included “… respect my achievements,” “think highly of my abilities and talents,” “admire me,” and “consider me a success.” Sample inclusion items began with the opening prompt of “most of the time,” followed by statements such as “feel warmly toward me,” “include me in their social activities,” “see me as fitting in,” and “would be willing to be friends with me.” The researchers then correlated scores on these two scales with standard measures of narcissism and self-esteem.

As the authors predicted, scores on both the status and inclusion measures predicted ordinary (non-narcissistic) self-esteem, but narcissism was related only to scores on the status scale. Narcissism, then, appeared to operate according to the hierometer model. As these were correlational findings, Mahadevan and her collaborators then went on to test the two alternative models using an experimental design for which they recruited samples of undergraduate participants.  

In the two experimental studies that followed, participants completed questionnaires measuring status and inclusion and were given false feedback about their scores, leading them to think either that they had scored high or low on the measure associated with the experimental condition (i.e. either high/low status or high/low inclusion). In the high status condition, the participants read feedback that included such praise as “People will tend to admire you, and think highly of your abilities and talents.” In the high inclusion feedback condition, participants were told “Statistically, you are much more likely than your peers to be liked, to feel you belong, and to come across as one of the group.” The researchers provided the opposite feedback to participants assigned to one of the low conditions. Following these manipulations, participants completed measures of narcissism and self-esteem.

In these two experimental studies, the status manipulation predicted both self-esteem and narcissism, but the inclusion feedback had an effect only on self-esteem. Thus, narcissism acted as a hierometer meaning, again, that it is highly attuned to status rather than social acceptance in general. Being liked, as indicated by the inclusion measure, did nothing for the self-esteem of people high in narcissism, and when given positive inclusion feedback, people’s levels of narcissism didn’t respond. As the authors concluded, “Indeed, when it comes to narcissistic self-regard, social inclusion may be irrelevant, or even antithetical to it. As long as one receives respect and admiration, this type of self-regard may not “care” about levels of social inclusion” (p. 15).

Returning to the question of your apparently status-conscious co-worker, the British findings suggest that she’s using these symbols of success in a narcissistic manner to remind her (and those around her) of her high social standing. Further, she may not particularly care whether you like her or not, as long as you admire her for her accomplishments. If the sense of entitlement that went with her narcissistic tendencies weren’t so off-putting, you might be tempted to think “Sad!” when you go by her desk.

To sum up, the Mahadevan et al. findings show that narcissism may indeed operate on a plane independent of the need to be liked that we associate with its constant clamouring for attention. The need for inclusion is a far more socially adaptive approach that, in the long run, can prove far more important for fulfillment.

Written by Susan Krauss. Republished with permission of Psychology Today.

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