Narcissism and Self-Esteem Affect Autobiographical Memories Differently

You can only trust your memory so far. Our brains are pretty good at saving the information that lines up with the way we see the world and discarding the rest.

Based on how memory is selective, you might venture a guess about what kinds of things people who score higher on narcissistic traits would remember: things that show how these people are really smart, sexy and just all around awesome!

And according to a new study from psychologists at Wayne State University, you’d be right. To learn more about the relationship between narcissism and memory, the researchers looked at how easy it was for people to recall four different kinds of autobiographical memories: positive self-focused, negative self-focused, positive community-focused and negative community-focused memories.

In a pair of studies, the researchers showed that people who scored higher on narcissism had a better memory for positive self-focused information – specifically, information portraying them as smart, attractive and talented.

Interestingly, people who were more narcissistic also had better recall of negative community-focused memories, especially information involving being rude, annoying and dishonest. This makes sense when you consider the antisocial side of narcissism, the tendency to see the self as better than others.

Now here’s a slightly harder question: what kind of memories were the people who weren’t especially narcissistic but had high self-esteem best at recalling?

You might guess that, like the narcissists, they were better at accessing memories that put them in a good light. Actually, considering the title of this article, you probably wouldn’t guess that, but you get my point.

What characterized the people who scored higher on self-esteem was positive community-focused memories – in particular, memories of being cooperative, romantic and sympathetic. So where narcissism is antisocial, self-esteem is prosocial.

This result fits with the idea that narcissism and self-esteem are two different things. In fact, as far as autobiographical memories go, it appears self-esteem isn’t just different than narcissism but is almost the opposite!

Image: Flickr/Poldy Bloom


  1. Mikael Fant on July 29, 2019 at 4:12 pm

    Coverts would show very different results, though. They’d never pride themselves for breaking social rules, quite the opposite. I’m wondering if they’d even be able to remember any negative communal events at all , for the extreme feelings of shame these would create ….