Mistaking Narcissism for Self-Esteem Might Explain Why People Are Drawn to Narcissists

If I asked you to list five traits you value in your friends, narcissism probably won’t make the cut. Yet narcissists are often able to make a good impression and draw people to themselves.

A new study in the Journal of Personality provides more evidence for the surprising charisma of narcissists, and also points to a possible explanation for the paradox of likable narcissists. In particular, the study suggests that people might misperceive narcissism as the more positive trait of high self-esteem.

It makes sense that people are attracted to those with high self-esteem. Who doesn’t want to be around people who are comfortable with themselves and confident in their strengths?

The problem comes when we misread narcissism as self-esteem. Narcissism and self-esteem are fundamentally different traits. While high narcissism is characterized by selfishness and by a self-serving tendency to use other people, high self-esteem is not.

In the study, researchers tried to tease apart the way we perceive narcissism and self-esteem in others by asking participants to judge people based on photographs and transcripts of interviews. The participants were asked to rate how much they thought they’d like the people in the photographs and interviews, as well as how narcissistic they thought those people were and how high they thought their self-esteem was. The researchers then administered questionnaires to the people in the photographs and interviews to see how they actually scored on self-esteem and narcissism.

As it turned out, people rated those with high levels of narcissism as more likable. This was true even taking self-esteem into account: people rated those with high narcissism and high self-esteem as more likable than those with low narcissism and high self-esteem.

But it turned out that the effect could be explained by people’s perceptions of self-esteem. People liked narcissists better insofar as they perceived those narcissists as having higher self-esteem, but they actually liked them less to the extent that they perceived them as narcissistic. To put it another way: if people initially evaluate narcissists as more likable, it might be because they tend to overestimate narcissists’ self-esteem and underestimate their narcissism.

The study didn’t look at how participants’ perceptions of the people with narcissism would change over time if they actually got to spend time with them. It seems quite possible that with increased familiarity, they’d become less likely to mistake high narcissism as high self-esteem. In any case, these findings suggest one reason people with narcissism often make a good first impression: to the casual observer, it’s easy to mistake high narcissism for high self-esteem.