Thu, 4 Oct, 2018Over60

The 12 ways narcissists make you think they’re important

The 12 ways narcissists make you think they’re important

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.

Have you ever noticed that some people you work with or interact with socially underplay their chances of succeeding? Perhaps they go into a situation in which their abilities will be put to the test, such as a entering a contest to get the most sales in the upcoming month or putting together a meal for an important family gathering. Maybe they announce they have a first date with a match made through an online dating site. Rather than predict a positive outcome in these situations, they put on a show of looking ill-prepared or incompetent. They claim that they're doomed to fail because they lack the necessary skills, people or otherwise, to achieve a positive outcome. Yet, you also have suspected for a while that these individuals seem to be quite self-centred and love to grab the limelight. Why, then, would they go out of their way to seem ill-equipped to handle a challenge?

New research by University of North Texas psychologist Michael Barnett and colleagues (2018) suggests that people high in narcissism engage in this self-handicapping presentation strategy as a twisted way of getting you to think that they truly are terrific. Their study, which was conducted on a college student sample of 818 participants, was based on the idea that self-handicapping, or what they call “sandbagging” is just one more way that people high in narcissism manipulate the way others regard them. Although testing this concept on a college student sample might seem to limit its applicability to the broader population, it is consistent with some of the earliest theories of personality. By underplaying their strengths, according to theorists such as Alfred Adler and Karen Horney, narcissists can’t possibly fail. If they don’t win at a situation, they can show that they didn’t expect to anyhow. If they do win, then they look all that much more amazing to those who witness their glory.

The concept of sandbagging as a psychological self-presentation strategy was tested by Central Michigan University’s Brian Gibson and Minnesota State University (Mankato)’s Daniel Sachau in a 2000 study that described and validated a 12-item measure. Gibson and Sachau define sandbagging as “a self-presentational strategy involving the false claim or feigned demonstration of inability used to create artificially low expectations for the sandbagger’s performance” (p. 56). Although the origins of the term are unclear (possibly related to building dams, horse-racing, or acts of physical aggression), it’s a concept familiar in the world of “coaches and card-players.” In a press conference prior to a big game, a head coach will talk down, instead of up, the team's chances of victory. Like the coach playing mind games on the opponent, by pretending to be less competent than you are you can lull those who might oppose you into complacency.

However, as Gibson and Sachau note, sandbagging can be used in situations involving evaluation rather than competition. A student who’s actually studied hard tells a professor not to expect much out of the upcoming exam performance. By reducing expectations, the individual either looks better after succeeding at the task or has a reason to explain low performance, should that be the outcome. People can also reduce the pressure on them if they predict poor performance to others because they’ve now got nothing to lose should this occur.

Barnett et al., examining the relationship between narcissism and sandbagging, used the 12-item Sandbagging Scale developed in that 2000 study by Gibson and Sachau. The North Texas researchers note that people use this strategy primarily as a way of protecting their self-esteem, as shown in previous research establishing a relationship between low self-esteem and sandbagging. People high in narcissism, the researchers maintain, are attempting to protect a fragile self-esteem reflected in feelings of vulnerability that they may cover up with grandiosity. As they note, “the high explicit self-esteem observed in narcissists is an attempt to cover up underlying low self-esteem and vulnerability” (p. 2). Not all psychologists agree that vulnerability and grandiosity are two sides of the same narcissistic coin, but for the purpose of studying sandbagging, such an assumption seems warranted. Going back to the theories of Adler and Horney, downplaying their abilities is a tactic that narcissists use to guarantee that they can’t fail, suggesting that their self-esteem indeed has a precarious basis.

The Barnett et al. findings supported the roles of both grandiose and vulnerable narcissism in explaining scores on the sandbagging measure above and beyond the effects of self-esteem. Thus, people high in narcissism attempt to look good by predicting bad. They use sandbagging, the authors conclude, “to resolve the dissonance that stems from viewing themselves as superior yet potentially being negatively evaluated” (p. 5). This helps them manage their self-esteem by pretending that nothing’s at stake should they either succeed or fail.

Before examining the implications of these findings, let’s turn next to the Sandbagging Scale. If Barnett and his collaborators are correct, the items on this scale should provide a novel way to test people’s levels of narcissism because those high in narcissism should score high on this measure.

To test yourself, indicate your agreement with these items on a 6-point scale from disagree very much to agree very much:

  1. It’s better for people to expect less of you even if you know you can perform well.
  2. The less others expect of me, the better I like it.
  3. If I tell others my true ability, I feel added pressure to perform well.
  4. The less others expect of me the more comfortable I feel.
  5. I may understate my abilities to take some of the pressure off.
  6. When someone has high expectations of me I feel uncomfortable.
  7. I try to perform above others’ expectations.
  8. It’s important that I surpass people’s expectations for my performance.
  9. I like others to be surprised by my performance.
  10. I enjoy seeing others surprised by my abilities.
  11. I will understate my abilities in front of my opponent(s).
  12. I understate my skills, ability, or knowledge.

In looking at your responses, flip your ratings of 7 and 8, which are the opposite of sandbagging. The 12 items divide into 3 subscales: Pressure (1-6), Exceeding Expectations (7-10), and Behaviour (11 and 12). The average scores were in the higher end of the 6-point scale, with most people scoring between about 3 and 5, but the highest scores were in items 7-10, the Exceeding Expectations scale. It appears, then, that most people engage in some management of their self-esteem through sandbagging. As indicated by Barnett and his co-authors, people highest in narcissism should be particularly likely to do so.

Hearing an individual expressing false modesty about an upcoming evaluation, as the Sandbagging scale would seem to reflect, can provide you with cues that the individual is trying to protect a fragile sense of self. Rather than project an outward show of bravado, then, people high in narcissism can use the reverse strategy. The audience might be fooled by all of this down-regulation of expectations and not recognise that they are actually watching the self-preservation tactics of the narcissist.

To sum up, be on the lookout for sandbagging when you suspect that you’re witnessing false modesty. Fulfillment in life comes from being able to engage in situations involving competition or evaluation with a reasonable sense of inner self-confidence. People high in narcissism view every evaluative situation as a threat to their own fallibility and as a result, cannot experience this sense of fulfillment.  

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