Telling Apart Grandiose and Vulnerable Narcissism

Grandiose narcissism isn’t so hard to spot – just give a grandiose narcissist enough time, and they’ll probably make it clear that they think they’re pretty great. Vulnerable narcissism is a little more subtle. People who score high on this variant of narcissism are more withdrawn, defensive and sensitive to every slight.

Among psychologists, it’s still up for debate what exactly distinguishes grandiose and vulnerable narcissism, or whether the two are really just different variations on the same trait.

One recent study of a thousand participants suggests that introversion and extraversion could be the most salient difference. It found that grandiose narcissism was strongly correlated with extraversion and vulnerable narcissism with introversion. This led the researchers to raise the possibility that introversion and extraversion “mask the common core of grandiose and vulnerable narcissism.”

Another study showed that grandiose and vulnerable narcissists tend to differ in how sensitive they are to reward and punishment. As you might guess, grandiose narcissists are more driven by positive rewards and approach behaviors while vulnerable narcissists are more driven by negative punishments and avoidance behaviors.

These different psychological dispositions can lead to real differences in narcissists’ behaviors. For example, it turns out that people high in vulnerable narcissism are at higher risk for social networking addiction, even compared to people high in grandiose narcissism.

Still, the difference between these two types of narcissism isn’t always clear-cut. Some research suggests that people can fluctuate between the two types of narcissism, with grandiose narcissists being especially prone to having “episodes” of vulnerable narcissism.

Moreover, the distinction between vulnerable and grandiose narcissism starts to become blurrier the higher people score on narcissism. For people in the upper ten percent of grandiose narcissism, there is a substantial overlap between the two types of narcissism.

There are other ways of framing this topic that sidestep the labels of vulnerable and grandiose narcissism entirely. One study looked at different groups of “entitled individuals.” It found evidence for two distinct subgroups of highly entitled people: one that was essentially “emotionally stable” and the other that was “emotionally vulnerable.”

Whatever the relationship between vulnerable and grandiose narcissism, one thing is clear: highly entitled people have entitlement in common, but they differ in many other ways, including how that entitlement makes itself known.

Image: Flickr/Anna Gearheart