Not surprisingly, people who enjoy gazing in the mirror rather too much like to think that they are very good looking. But could they be right? Some new research now suggests that others would probably agree with them — narcissists really do seem more attractive than average.
Narcissism is a personality trait characterised by excessive self-love — a state in which a person loves himself so obsessively that there is little room for anyone else to share the love (as in the myth of Narcissus, below).
That, at least, is what it looks like on the surface.
Psychologists, however, have described narcissism as a pattern of being addicted to self-esteem. 
It is not simply vanity but a need to believe in oneself as special in some way — and to have that belief constantly reinforced. Other people’s reactions are a constant source of feedback in life. A narcissist sets out to manipulate others’ perceptions of herself in order to get the right feedback that will keep her own self-esteem high.
Verbally, for example, a narcissist will tend to overestimate or exaggerate her better qualities. And physically, a narcissist will tend to highlight the attractiveness of her physical appearance.
But do narcissists simply overestimate their physical attractiveness?
Narcissism and attractiveness
The researchers took a group of test subjects and first of all measured their degree of narcissism. This assessment is based on individual qualities like vanity and a sense of superiority. Next, the researchers got another group of people to assess the test subjects’ level of attractiveness. Finally, they compared the two to look for any patterns.
Their analysis revealed a “small yet reliable correlation” between narcissism and perceived attractiveness.
This suggests that the inflated self-esteem of narcissists is not entirely unfounded, at least on the level of surface appearance. It doesn’t mean that all narcissists are beautiful people, or that all beautiful people are narcissistic. It simply means that narcissism does tend to be associated with better-than-average attractiveness.
Chicken and egg situation?
So Holtzman and Strube go on to ask the pertinent question: Are narcissists deemed attractive because they are naturally good-looking? Or is it because, being narcissists, they put a lot of effort into grooming and beautifying themselves? Or could it be a combination of these?
The researchers don’t have an answer at this point, but hope to in about a year.
I’m putting all my money on the last option — it’s a combination — simply because the entire history of psychology research can be summarised as follows:
Q. Is this human behaviour caused by factor A or by factor B?
A. [After 30 years of heated debate and intensive research] … It’s caused by both.
So in the case of narcissism and attractiveness, I would expect that (a) natural attractiveness would lead a budding narcissist to become fixated on her physical appearance, and (b) this fixation, once in place, would lead to a habit of constant self-checking and self-grooming.
Of course, not everyone who is born physically attractive becomes vain and narcissistic. It is most likely to happen to someone who is raised in a competitive situation in which the feedback of others is all-important.
In such an environment, her day-to-day experience would be one of “winning” (getting lots of attention, receiving praise or admiration) versus “losing” (receiving scorn or criticism, or simply being ignored). She would soon learn that being seen to have a weakness or imperfection is unacceptable, whereas being perceived as attractive is a winning factor.
Needing to stand out as special in the eyes of others, she would become fixated on exploiting her natural attractiveness to her best advantage. The more she then emphasised her attractiveness, the more she would be noticed and admired, or at least not looked down upon. But she would also become locked into a feedback cycle, dependent upon her regular self-esteem “fix”.
Narcissism and arrogance
This would appear to be consistent with the development of the chief feature of arrogance in a young soul, perhaps in combination with a goal of dominance or acceptance, as these are described in the Michael teachings. In other words, a perceived need to compete distorted into a need to feel special in the eyes of others (arrogance).
Vanity, in this framework, is the negative pole of arrogance (the positive pole being pride). Arrogance in turn derives from a childish fear of showing vulnerability.
The “normal” arrogant person exaggerates positive qualities to divert attention from vulnerabilities. The narcissist has gone a step further: she actually believes in her enhanced self-image, at least superficially. And if she happens to be physically attractive, then that merely serves to “justify” her self-esteem.
- Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Narcissism as addiction to esteem. Psychological Inquiry, 12, 206-210.
- Holtzman, N. S. & Strube, M. J. (in press) Narcissism and Attractiveness. To be published in the Journal of Research in Personality. See Abstract.
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