W. Keith Campbell: The New Science of Narcissism

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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Dr. Keith Campbell. Keith is a social psychologist and professor in the Brain and Behavioral Science Program at the University of Georgia, best known for his research and writing on narcissism. He’s authored several books on the topic, including The Handbook of Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder, When You Love a Man Who Loves Himself, The Narcissism Epidemic, and a new book with Sounds True, The New Science of Narcissism: Understanding One of the Greatest Psychological Challenges of Our Time―and What You Can Do About It. I was so excited to talk to Keith, an academic researcher on narcissism, because I often think in conversations, people stay at the surface when it comes to talking about whether or not this or that person is a narcissist, without really having a nuanced and multi-layered understanding. And that’s certainly what Keith Campbell brings to the discussion of narcissism. Here’s my conversation with Keith Campbell:

Keith, you’ve been studying narcissism for almost three decades now, having written over 150 articles on the subject, and here right at the beginning of our conversation, I would love our listeners to know, how and why has the study of narcissism become the focus of your academic work?


  1. Keith Campbell: That is a hard and a bit of an old question. I started off as a social psychologist studying the self, which is how people sort of maintain a positive view of themselves, how they maintain a positive image, how they maintain their self-esteem. And when I started doing that in grad school, it turned out some people did it more than others. Meaning, if I have a couple friends, who work together in the lab, some people, if they failed, said, “You know what? It’s really my fault. My friend was really a hard worker, and I kind of screwed it up for us.” And other people would say, “You know what? my friends an idiot. It’s their fault. I deserve all the credit for this.” And it turns out people differed. And what I discovered, the people who were out there stealing credit from their friends and bragging and showing off and everything else, were narcissistic. They had these personality traits that made them, or at least predicted their behavior.

So I got interested in it for that reason. Also, I was … I still am really interested in these more spiritual pursuits of what would it be like not to have an ego or to transcend an ego or to be selfless? These more Buddhist questions, and I had no way of studying those when I was 25, but narcissism gave me a way to study the opposite, in a way. The more flamboyant crazy self. So it’s very easy to see the narcissistic self. And finally, like any scientist, you study things, and if they stay relevant, you keep studying them. And I started studying narcissism, and people didn’t really know what it was, and we had some school shootings, and people started talking about it more; and then we had social media and people started talking about narcissism a little more; and then we started taking pictures of ourselves and sharing them with all our friends, and that was about seven years ago, and people started talking about narcissism even more; and then with the political climate, people talked about it more. So it just keeps coming up.


TS: Now, your new book is called The New Science of Narcissism. What is it that’s new when it comes to the science?


WKC: Well, narcissism has been talked about for a century. I mean, Freud was talking about it and others over 100 years ago. And we had these ideas that came out of psychoanalytic thought about narcissism, like the idea that well, people who are narcissistic deep down really are kind of have low self-esteem and are scared and are like little children, so they act with all this bluster, but underneath it they’re really sad and need love. And that idea is an interesting idea, and it holds for some people, but it doesn’t really seem to hold up in the science. So for about now, last 10, 15 years, we’ve been using a lot of more sophisticated personality science—I won’t go into a bunch of details, but to try to flesh out what narcissism is. And it turns out to be a much more complicated thing than we thought. Turns out, there’s some different forms of narcissism, more grandiose forms, more vulnerable forms, and we’re able to make sense out of it now in a way I don’t think we could 10 years ago.


TS: Now, I’m coming to this conversation, truth be told, with a relatively I would say kind of pop psychology understanding of narcissism. I’m not necessarily proud of that, but I’m just saying that here at the outset, and I actually think that many of the listeners of Insights at the Edge may also have some type of surface understanding. And certainly, if they read your book, The New Science of Narcissism, they are going to have a much, much, much, much, much deeper understanding of what it actually is for someone to be a narcissist. So I want to start peeling back some of those layers of the more sophisticated aspects—that’s my word for it—of how you approach the topic. One is that you say that narcissism exists on a spectrum. So let’s start there. Can you explain the spectrum?


WKC: Yes. There’s two ways to think about that. The first is that narcissism is a personality trait, just like extroversion or being introverted or being a little weird. And people range on that trait from high to low, with most people in the middle. It’s sort of a normal distribution. And you so you can think about narcissism as a spectrum. Some people are very narcissistic, some are moderately narcissistic, some are very low in narcissism. When people are very, very high and it leads to significant problems, that can be diagnosed as a personality disorder. So narcissistic personality disorder is at the very high end of that spectrum of narcissism, and you add to that, some some impairment to it—it messes your life up, ruins your relationships, ruins your job, it can be a disorder—but the trait is something we all have some amount of.


TS: Now, interestingly, when I hear you say that, if somebody said, “Tami, you have the narcissistic personality trait. It’s not so bad. It’s not a disorder. It’s just in the …” I don’t think I would feel very good at that moment. I don’t think I’d feel like someone was complimenting me. I’d feel kind of bad and terrible. And so I don’t think we see it as neutral as a personality trait, the way we migh— if somebody said, “You’re very extroverted” or “You’re an introverted person,” that would be neutral to me.


WKC: Yes. People generally see narcissism is sort of pejorative. So if I say, “You’re narcissistic,” no one goes, “Hey, great, thanks for telling me that.” That’s usually something that’s a little negative. The truth is, narcissism has costs and benefits. That’s why people vary. And people who are narcissistic do well at some things, that it really hurts them in other ways. People who are very low in narcissism benefit in some ways and have costs. So narcissism, although it’s generally considered something somewhat pejorative, it can have benefits for people. It exists for a reason. It’s not always bad, it can be good or bad. And that’s what makes it hard. If narcissism were always bad, people would just try to get rid of it, but it has these benefits.


TS: What are some of the benefits as a trait?


WKC: So if you look at the trait of grandiose narcissism, which is this combination of being extroverted and driven and charismatic, but also a little selfish and entitled and self-centered, that combination of traits, leads people to do well in media. Doing this kind of work, being a little narcissistic helps, because I’m talking in public. It’s good for dating—people who’re narcissistic end up finding plenty of dates, more than others. It’s good for getting followers on social media. It’s good for rising in the leadership positions. People who are narcissistic get picked as leaders because they want the job and they seem confident. So it has these benefits. They’re often in the short term. So narcissism might be great for getting a marriage partner or getting a—becoming a leader, but it might mess up your marriage, it might mess up your leadership. So it has these consequences. But in the short term, narcissism can be beneficial.


TS: So is it fair to say there could be something called healthy narcissism?


WKC: People talk about healthy narcissism, I try to stay away from those terms a little bit because I think things can be good or bad depending on context. So in some contexts, narcissism can be terrible. In some contexts, it can be really beneficial. When people are talking about healthy narcissism though, they’re usually talking about narcissism that’s colored by high self-esteem and extroversion. So people who are really confident, outgoing, they think they’re winners, that is somewhat healthy in our society. It works for people.

When people—I should—go on. I was going to say that the less healthy narcissism or the more toxic narcissism, it tends to be narcissism with a lot of interpersonal consequences to it. People—sometimes they’ll say malignant narcissism when it’s really almost psychopathic. But the more toxic narcissism has these real negative interpersonal costs, and sometimes when you see these more vulnerable forms of narcissism—so people have—imagine you’re like, “I’m the best in the world, but no one can tell. And I sit around at home, fantasizing about how great my life will be when people recognize my genius.” That kind of more vulnerable narcissism is generally less healthy. People just don’t succeed when they’re living in a basement, fantasizing about success; you have to go out there and do it.


TS: Now, Keith, you introduce in the book, a trifurcated model of narcissism. And you’ve talked a little bit about the grandiose form of narcissism, and you’ve mentioned now a little bit about the vulnerable form. But then in your trifurcation model, there’s a combination of those two. And I have to say I was a little befuddled by that. It wasn’t easy for me. When you talk about the grandiose narcissist, I could picture people in my life. In fact, as I read The New Science of Narcissism, I basically went through my entire history of people who had worked with me and relationships, and myself. I saw a lot of images of people. OK. So the grandiose narcissist, I think we all have a sense of that. The vulnerable narcissist, a little harder to identify, but you just helped us, we can all think of that person down in the basement who thinks they’re a genius. I get that. But what’s this combo person?


WKC: Yes. So the trifurcation idea was, hey, instead of breaking narcissism to two ingredients, let’s try to break it into three ingredients. So at the core of narcissism, and it’s really—no matter how you talk about narcissism, you have this core of a sense of entitlement and maybe self-importance. “I think I deserve special treatment. I matter more than other people.” And that’s pretty consistent across narcissism. Somebody who’s narcissistic, they kind of feel they’re better than others and they deserve special treatment. That’s part of it.

So you take that core ingredient, and you add to that the extroversion, the drive, which sometimes we call agentic extroversion, which is that ambition piece or charisma piece. If you add that to that core of antagonism, those two things together, you end up with something that looks like Iron Man. It’s that grandiose narcissism, it’s that leader narcissism. “I’m kind of a jerk, but I’m extroverted and driven and people kind of like me.”

If you take that same core, that same core of antagonism, but marry that with something we call neuroticism—anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, insecurity, or vulnerability—what you wind up with is somebody who is—thinks they deserve special treatment, thinks they’re really better than people, but it’s also sort of insecure and easily wounded by criticism. Those pieces make vulnerable narcissism. The reason you have trouble thinking about vulnerable narcissists in your life, it’s because you’re not a psychologist, you’re not a therapist or a clinician. The people who see vulnerable narcissists are in therapy. They have somebody come in and they say, “I’m really sad. And guess what, I’m probably the best person in the world, and I shouldn’t be sad.” And the therapist scratches the head and goes, “Oh my goodness, this is vulnerable narcissism.” They might call it covert narcissism or hidden narcissism. It’s hard to see.

Grandiose narcissism you can see. And again, they share this core, this is the trifurcation piece—they share one piece which is this, we can call it callousness, antagonism, entitlement, all these sort of shared core of callousness—but they have these other pieces, these other ingredients that make their narcissism appear different.


TS: And now, Keith, if I understand you correctly, it’s also possible for someone to be a combination.


WKC: Absolutely. Yes. And that’s something that’s hard for people to see. Because they say—I say I might say these things don’t go together, but what that means is, yes, sometimes you get people who’re grandiose and vulnerable. Sometimes you get people who are both. I hate bringing in President Trump, because we’ve been talking too much, but you see a character—like he is somebody who comes across as very grandiose but also is wounded and reactive. So there’s some vulnerability there. I’m trying to think of other good examples. So there’s that Joe Pesci movie where he went crazy as a kid, that was a long time ago [Laughs]. A good example of grandiosity within vulnerability—it’s somebody who thinks they’re great, but they’re easily wounded by criticism.


TS: OK, I think I’m getting the flavor of it.


WKC: Yes. You go, how could … “You’re such a legend, you’re CEO of this company, you’re president, you’re a politician, you’re a great pastor, and people say you look fat and you got all angry and upset and ruin their life. What is wrong with you?” Well, I’m grandiose and a little vulnerable.


TS: OK. Now we’re going to keep going here, in our deepening our understanding of narcissism through your work, your research. You bring up the five main personality traits, which evidently is an important part of academic psychology and the understanding of personality. And quite honestly, this is brand new for me, these five personality traits, but it seems like such an important cartography to understand and it gives us a different appreciation of what narcissism is. And so go ahead and introduce us to this theory of the Big Five and take us through it slowly.


WKC: Yes. OK. This is a big topic, but I’m happy to go there. So when personality psychologists—this is 120 years ago—started to try to understand people, they said, we need to understand people’s traits. Where do we find those traits? How do we talk about traits? Somebody very smart said, “Well let’s look in a thesaurus. Let’s look in the dictionary. Let’s look at the language and see what traits is, because if I have a way of describing somebody’s behavior, I must have a word for it, if it’s a real important word.” So if somebody being strange is something that we run into all the time, we probably need a word for “strange.” And if somebody is arrogant all the time, that’s an important trait, we need to come up with a word for that.

So we came up with thousands of traits, and you know, poets who can use these traits very well, and get the nuance. Psychologists though, we like to clump things together, so we took those thousands of traits and started clumping together and said, “Well, if somebody is weird and strange and odd and unusual, that’s kind of the same thing, let’s put those together. And somebody that’s nice and kind and caring and warm are kind of the same thing. Let’s put those together, and let’s just start clumping stuff up and see how it hangs up.” And there’s different statistics you can use for this, but what you end up with is about five traits, five big traits. We call these the Big Five because they’re so broad, they capture a whole lot of our personality traits. So if you—most traits in the English language I can put into one of these five traits.

So what are these Big Five? Well, the easiest way to remember them is they spell OCEAN or CANOE is what we always tell our students so remember ocean or canoe. But the Big Five traits, let’s say I start with OCEAN. The first is Openness to experience, which is this combination of being interested in new things, new experiences, strange—art, but also philosophy and ideas. So it’s this people who are really into ideas or aesthetics or interesting experiences are high in openness to experience. People who are low in that, that are kind of not that interested in weird things, we’d say are low in openness. So this openness is something you see with artists or creatives, some academics, interesting and strange people.

The next is C, that’s Conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is this big trait we use to capture something like work ethic and dutifulness. So people who are conscientious are good workers, they tend to be orderly and neat. The word “grit” you’ve heard maybe in psychology, people talk about grittiness. That’s an aspect of conscientiousness. Drive and ambition can be an aspect of conscientiousness, depending. Conscientiousness is about being a good worker.

E, Extroversion. Extroversion is trait most of us are aware of, but in psychology we have a broader definition of extroversion than most people, and a broader definition of introversion. But extroversion is a combination of really sociability, being outgoing and liking people, but also it also includes drive. So ambition, trying to be a leader, is really a piece of extroversion in personality theory. So extroversion is very important for narcissism because it feeds into that grandiose narcissism, because of the drive piece.

After—let’s see where we are—E. A is Agreeableness. Agreeableness is the big trait that captures a combination of being kind, or compassionate, or caring for others. It includes being warm. It includes being agreeable in the classic sense of, “Look, I just want to get along with people. So I’m an agreeable person, I just go with the flow.” And it captures basically liking people. So agreeableness is a trait that is negatively associated with narcissism; so when we find people narcissistic, they’re generally what we call low in agreeableness, or high in callousness or traits like that.

And finally, N is neuroticism, and neuroticism is this big trait category that includes anxiety, depression, and irritability. So a lot of the clinical disorders we treat—depression is a big one, anxiety is a big one—those fall into the trait of neuroticism.

So what you have, you have these five big traits, I think of them as ingredients that can make up all the smaller personalities, and then you can combine them in different ways to get more complex personalities. So if I take somebody who’s sort of low in agreeableness, somebody is a little bit selfish, somebody cares about themselves, and I add to that a dash of drive and extroversion and energy, what I have is somebody who’s really social and doesn’t care about other people too much, and they become a great politician or a great leader, a great romantic—terrible marriage partner, maybe, but they work pretty well.

If I take that same antagonism and I mix it with neuroticism, I have somebody who’s sort of mean and selfish but also insecure and a little depressed, and they’re not going to function very well because they’re not out there mixing it up, and they’re going to end up being more vulnerable and that’s where you get the vulnerable narcissism.


TS: OK, Keith, let’s just take a moment here. When I hear you describe these five personality traits, I think to myself, the ideal human, some mythic creature, would be high in openness, high in conscientiousness, high in extroversion, high in agreeableness, and low in neuroticism.


WKC: Yes. Yes.


TS: Do humans like that exist? Let’s start there.


WKC: Yes. Well, there’s two—first, to answer your question, you have just discovered what psychologists, personality psychologists called the “positive manifold of the big one.” So it’s a bunch of crazy language, but basically, what you find are these traits tend to correlate a little bit and if you put them all together, you get a trait called the big one. A single personality trait, which is generally positive, a combination of all those things. So those things do tend to go together that way, but what you find are that people have problems at both ends of personality traits. So I might want to be more open or more extroverted if I’m in the middle, but if I go to my class of 250 kids and say, “How many of you wish you were less extroverted?” I’ll get a handful of kids say, “I’m too extroverted. It causes me problems being as extroverted as I am.” Say, “Any of you too open?” “Yes, I’m too open it causes me problems.”

So there are problems at both ends of personality. In our country, we tend to like, though, exactly what you said, which are people who are extroverted, conscientious, and agreeable and open. But you can have problems in both ends.


TS: That’s very interesting. So it’s possible to be—like when I think of being too open, what would that be like?


WKC: Well, imagine somebody who had a career and instead of just working on one topic, they switched it around every year or two because they got bored so fast, like “I’m going to go do this, and I’m going to become a scuba diver, and I’m going to learn to—I think I’m going to into computer coding now and then become a nurse.” And so it can be—if you’re very open, you get very distracted because the world is a giant, interesting buffet table, and you want to eat everything and you can’t do anything very well.


TS: Right. OK, that’s very interesting. I think I’m getting the hang of the fact that you actually ideally would want some kind of balance.


WKC: Yes.


TS: Like would you be at around seven or something with the four positive qualities, and then maybe down to like a negative two or three on neuroticism?


WKC: Yes, I think balance is important, very important. I joke with my friend Josh Miller, who’s a clinical personality guy, about this a lot, and we say if it weren’t for neuroticism, we’d probably be dead. Meaning that being neurotic, being careful about what you do, being worried you’re going to get in trouble, that protects you from doing really stupid things. And you know, risks—anyway, you can get in trouble at both ends. You try to find a middle ground, but really successful people are often out of balance. Because you’re pushing so much into openness, or you’re pushing so much into extroversion, or conscientiousness—people that just grind, people who’re really conscientious will just grind, grind, grind, and they’re very successful, but I don’t envy them. So there’s—often people who are out of balance do very well.


TS: OK, Keith, now the quality of these Big Five that it sounds like people who are very narcissistic have, whether they’re grandiose narcissists or vulnerable narcissists, the quality that they have in common is this low agreeableness, very low agreeableness.


WKC: Yes.


TS: And I wonder if you just wanted to focus on that quality, how do you improve your agreeableness?


WKC: Well, there, that’s a great question. And it’s actually an important issue because we’ve surveyed a lot of—our graduate student, Chelsea, I don’t want to take credit for students—has surveyed a lot of people who’re narcissistic and found this is an issue for people. People have this antagonism and they want to change it. So how do you do it? Well, there are different exercises for different things. None of these are gold-standard science, I hate to say it, but they’re everything from perspective taking, to trying to bring up—I mean, I call it communal activation, but trying to bring up communal or caring traits in yourself. There are meditations that are designed for this. So lovingkindness meditations are really designed to open up the heart in some way. Anger management is a way to control the more aggressive impulses. So we have lots of little tweaks or therapies for becoming a nicer or better person, but there’s no great, “Hey, do this training in a week, Keith, and you’ll be a good dude.” I mean, it’s . . . I wish it were out there.


TS: Right. How malleable in general are these personality traits? How much do they change throughout our life?


WKC: Yes, they . . . so historically, people thought personality was set pretty young. So Freud thought it was set at age 6, William James, the great American psychologist, thought at maybe 18 or 30, [inaudible], but it turns out personality changes your whole life. So we have enough data now that we know personality shifts throughout the life course. There’s sort of general patterns: when people are young, they tend to be a little more selfish, a little more introverted, because they don’t have to be out as much, a little less conscientious. When people get older, maybe you have a family, you have to get up in the morning go to work, you become a little more conscientious, a little harder working. When people get older, their neuroticism tends to drop in interesting ways. See people in their 70s and 80s who have very low neuroticism, but they can also sometimes, the openness drops.

So it does seem to change over the life course, and it often depends on what you’re up to. So when I had kids and they were young and I had to work all of a sudden, I wasn’t sleeping till two in the afternoon anymore. I just couldn’t do it. I wish I could. I just can’t do it. So you become more conscientious just because life sort of constrains you.


TS: Would you say there’s some, like, percentage or some way to put a number on how much you can change a trait?


WKC: I’m not going to do that because it’s very hard. It’s just hard to know. If you want me to put a number though, heck, I will. So for something like neuroticism, which is a trait we try to change a lot because that’s . . . in clinical mental health, you don’t want to be depressed or anxious. It changes the half to a full standard deviation with therapy. So that that’s not—I don’t know how to explain that to people in real easy terms, but that’s a reasonable change; it would be like going from an IQ of 100 to 115. So you can change it with therapy, but there’s a whole bunch of range. Some people will change a lot, some won’t change at all, depending on the therapy, depending on what you’re doing to people.


TS: OK. Now, because I’m particularly interested in lowering disagreeableness, becoming more agreeable—and really, actually, I’m interested in this myself, for myself, believe it or not, I want to be more agreeable. I think I’ve made progress. So you said “communal activation.” What is that?


WKC: Yes, that’s this …So we got interested in this in marriage, because you end up married and people—to be a better married partner, it’s often better to be a warmer more loving person to your spouse.


TS: Makes sense.


WKC: I mean, it makes sense, but you marry somebody who’s got a job and they’re hot, [Laughs] and then you’re like, “Wait, hey, let’s—where’s the niceness going to come from?” And it has to come from somewhere. And so we looked at ways that happens where people’s—they say, “Well, gee, my partner will bring out these loving traits in me, these warm traits, these caring traits,” but we don’t know how to do it. We know it happens to people, they report it happening in certain relationships, but I don’t really know how to do it as an intervention. I mean, some people are working on it, but I just I don’t know. We just have the basic research.




WKC: But personally, for me, I think like my own struggles with it, I work a lot on my entitlement, that sense of entitlement. I’ll go to the airport and the plane doesn’t fly, and I think, “Why are you doing this to me Delta, what did I do to you?” And then I remember Delta doesn’t care about me. The weather doesn’t care about me. Nobody really cares about me except maybe my kids and my dog. And so that’s the way I just sort of process it over and over. “Jeez, you’re so entitled maybe you don’t need to be that entitled, maybe the world doesn’t revolve around you, Keith.” So that’s a practice. That’s just a long term practice. Other things are more lovingkindness, meditations and things.


TS: Now, you mentioned communal activation in the context of marriage. And certainly, it seems to me that if your marriage partner pressures you in a certain way to change, that—you know, “I want you to work less and spend more time with me and the kids, less of your ambitious extroversion drive, then more agreeableness.” That that kind of pressure, I mean, they have a lot of leverage. They’re your partner. You genuinely do care about them.


WKC: Yes. And I think that the point you just made is really important is with narcissism, you can try to work on your narcissistic partner, your narcissistic self in two ways. You can say, “Yes, Keith, you should just be a little less ambitious and a little less full of yourself. No one really cares. They’re not going to remember Bob Dylan in a hundred years, they’re probably not going to remember you in five.” And you could remove that piece of the narcissism. Or what you could try to do is say, “Hey, keep that ambition Keith, pretend you’re going to be Bob Dylan, but try to be a nicer person and try to add that more … add some compassion, add some thoughtfulness, maybe try to be a good mentor. So yes, you’re kind of doing your career Keith, but maybe you can pull some people up with you and try to use some of that energy for mentoring.”

So I think you can work at it in both ways. What I often recommend—I hate to recommend, but suggest is really working on that more communal piece, that caring heart piece more because you’re going to get less pushback. Meaning if my partner—I have a partner who is a very successful academic, and If I said “Stop working, stop being so successful,” that would not go over as well. It’s like, “Hey, it’s great that you’re working, great that you’re successful, let’s spend some more time with the kids, let’s be more loving too,” and partner goes “Great. I can do both.” It’s a little less—you get a little less pushback that way.


TS: Makes sense. Keith, would you be willing to share with us your own kind of Big Five portrait, if you will?


WKC: Oh, I’m happy to share it. I am very, very high in openness, like probably off the charts, almost. And I’m very high in extroversion. So those are—so I’m kind of a weird—I’m way too extroverted, and probably too open, a little neurotic. I don’t think I’m conscientious but I probably am; being an academic, I’m just surrounded by people who are incredibly conscientious, so I look at myself as, I’m kind of chill. Probably not that chill, probably moderately conscientious. And my neuroticism is lower. I used to be very neurotic, it’s down. What am I missing there? It’s pretty good.


TS: Agreeableness;


WKC: Oh, agreeableness! That’s the one I missed on purpose. That’s a real tough one. I am actually a lot nicer than I was, I think, because I’m a little older and a little less ambitious, maybe, but that’s something I struggle with. I struggle with entitlement. I try to be nice, but it’s a work in progress, I’d say.



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TS: Now, you wrote a book called When You Love a Man Who Loves Himself. And often when I hear people wanting to talk about narcissism, what they’re talking about is a relationship partner. Whether it’s an ex, maybe it’s their spouse currently and they’re wondering if they should stay in the relationship or not, the person’s so narcissistic. So what can you tell us about the hope we might have in our relationship if we’re suspecting that “Oh my god, I think I might have married someone who, they’re a narcissist. Let’s just face it, or high on the trait. They’re high the trait.”


WKC: Yes.


TS: Maybe they don’t have narcissistic personality disorder, not all the way, all the way that far, but they’re far.


WKC: Yes. And it can be an issue that reflects, affects the relationship, even if it’s not a disorder, for sure. So what I tell people is that—if you’re selecting a partner, and you find somebody that’s got a lot of narcissism going on, and a lot of red flags, I think that might be something to avoid. But if you’re married to somebody and you’re figuring this stuff out, and there’s no abuse—I mean, you’re not protecting yourself physically, if it’s just a normal relationship, I mean, I think people have relationships with narcissistic people all the time and they make it work. They either find that the relationship isn’t as fulfilling as they want, and they kind of say, “Well, it works in this part of our life, but this part I kind of get somewhere else.” Or they go into therapy, or they try to work it out and try to make it better.

And I think that’s always something to try to do. I mean, I wouldn’t—you’re in a committed relationship, always worth—as long as you’re safe that’s—I always—people get these, there’s some horrible abuse with narcissism. But if you’re in a safe relationship, I think it’s worth giving it a shot. I think people can change. It’s just—I wish I could say, “Tami, we’ve got all this research and all these therapies and this one works and call this guy,” but we just don’t have it because there just hasn’t been the research on the therapy.


TS: How do you define narcissistic abuse? What makes it abuse?


WKC: I would say anytime you’re being physically abused, or financially abused, that happens as well. I mean, in my just doing what I do for a living, I hear such horror stories from people in relationships where there was somebody who’s narcissistic and either the person’s violent or they’ll trigger—I mean, I’ve heard—I’ve just heard a lot of stories Tami. It gets really dark and I just want to make sure people are protected. I don’t want somebody like, “Yes, this person is a controlling and is abusive and threatens me physically,” I’m like, just protect yourself. Get the hell out. You don’t need to get hurt.


TS: Have you noticed a pattern in people who seemed to attract narcissistic partners, like “This is the third girlfriend or boyfriend or whatever partner I’ve had, and they all seem to have a high narcissistic trait. What’s going on with me?”


WKC: Yes. I’ve heard people will get in relationships with narcissists over and over and think, “What am I doing wrong? Am I attracting them or am I somehow a victim or a target?” What I usually say is that people who are narcissistic are hitting on a lot of people, they’re playing a numbers game. They’re not seeking you out. They’re trying a lot of people. The people who aren’t narcissistic aren’t hitting you up on Tinder every two minutes because they’re actually decent human beings. And people who are narcissistic, when you start dating, they’re attractive. You meet people—you meet somebody who’s narcissistic, you’re like, “This person’s confident and extroverted. They seem to know what they’re doing. They’re attractive.” And these are attractive people.

I mean, just the research shows people who’re narcissistic when you first meet them, they’re sort of attractive. So you date three narcissists in a row, I wouldn’t wonder what you’re doing to attract them, I’d wonder more why you’re making those selections. And what are you looking for? Are you picking partners because of their appearance? Are you picking them because how they act in sort of these shallow, or in parties, or whatever relationships, or you’re picking somebody that’s more substantial and you’re looking for more emotional intimacy? And if you’re looking for emotional intimacy, you’re not going to find as much narcissism.


TS: OK, I noticed when I asked you the question of someone in relationship and then I said, “Well, they’re not all the way into the malignant narcissistic personality disorder,” and then I thought to myself, “Well, is there a line there?” Like this is a spectrum, narcissism is a spectrum, is there a line—this is, now the person is officially malignant narcissism, they crossed the line. Or is it not really like a line, is it more just fuzzy?


WKC: It’s more fuzzy. I mean, diagnosis is done for insurance and treatment purposes. So you need to draw a bright line in a diagnosis if you’re going to treat somebody. You just need to make a decision. “Your blood pressure is so high, we’re going to treat it. Your weight is so high we’re going to call it obese, and you’re going to have to be treated. Your narcissism is so high, we’re going to have to call it a personality disorder and treat you.” So we always make these cutoffs in medicine. A lot of times, they’re just sort of cutoffs of convenience. We just make them up because you have to make a decision to treat people, but it is very fuzzy. So I don’t—so it’s a bright line in terms of the diagnosis, meaning I don’t like this. I’m not going to go out there and point, “Hey, you have NPD.” I’m not going to go around diagnosing people with narcissism. I’m not trained to do it. But it’s an important thing to do, but it’s not a real thing. God, I hope that made sense. [Laughs]


TS: OK. It made sense. What I got from you is that it’s more a gradation than there is an actual line that you cross, it’s gradated.


WKC: In reality it’s gradated, everything is gradation. But when you make a diagnosis, you have to draw a line in there.


TS: OK. Now I’ve also heard it said that if somebody does have a narcissistic personality disorder, there’s no hope that they will change. And I’m wondering what you’d—like, there’s no hope, don’t give up on those people. It’s a small percentage of the people that have this narcissistic personality trait and there’s no reformation.


WKC: No. People change. Meaning there’s research done following people for years who have NPD and they will go from having a disorder to not having the disorder over time. So people will change, but the question people often mean is, can I change somebody? “So hey, Keith, can I change this guy and make him not be a narcissist?” And I’m thinking, “Can you change yourself very well? Are you a good changer?” “No, I can’t really change myself.” [Laughs] “You got a training in changing?” “Nope, don’t have a lot of changing training.” So why on earth do you think you can do it? I mean, I can’t get my kids out of bed half the time, but I’m going to change my life partner and make it—turn an arrogant NPD person and somebody—it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.


TS: OK, any advice, and I know you get these kinds of questions all the time, from someone who’s listening who says, “My challenge when it comes to the narcissistic personality trait is in the workplace. It’s with my manager or my boss, or maybe even a coworker. And this person is just really hard to work with. I’m not going to be able to change them, but are there some tips for working with them more effectively?”


WKC: Yes. I think a big part is protection and record-keeping. Like I said with the dating, in a way, is make sure that person can’t take advantage of you. Keep records of everything. Often with narcissistic bosses, though, they can be abusive. I mean, if it’s sexual harassment and you can find other abuse, and you can also find credit stealing. So people take your ideas and run with it and not give you credit. So you find those things with narcissistic bosses, so you find out how to protect yourself from the downside, and then you figure out how to work with the person.

So if you have a boss who’s only—whose dream is to be told he’s a legend and to get promoted, if you’re the person who tells him he’s a legend and help him get promoted, that might work for you. So people who’re narcissistic, are somewhat sometimes pretty easy to manipulate, if you’re willing just to tell them what they want to hear, and let it work for you. And it’s not the answer people want. They usually want like, “How can I have an authentic relationship with my boss?” And I’m like, you maybe just manipulate them, tell them they’re great and just try to stay out of their way.

Yes. But they can be very abusive and people—you can have horrible bosses and it’s hard, and these are the usual, “Keep records, go to HR, find other people. If he’s doing it to you or she’s doing it to you, she’s done it to other people. You’re not the only victim.” People who’re narcissistic often have a trail of victims behind them. I mean, you’ll hear this in these Me Too cases, when somebody will pop up, another 20 people will pop up. So often you’ll be in a position where you think, “I’m the only person suffering,” but there will have been others. So sometimes find those other people, it might be helpful.


TS: Now, let me try something on you, Keith. I have a working theory that previously in the business world, because our businesses were often focused on, just say, a plainly “greed and shareholder return,” here was a tolerance for narcissistic leaders and bosses that’s starting to go away. I hope this is not just Tami’s optimism or hopeful thinking here, but that there’s more of a sense of, “No actually we’re going to make our leaders accountable.” You mentioned the Me Too movement, and I wonder, do you see things moving in that direction in academia in the workplace, if there’s now more transparency, there’s more light on it? Like “No, actually, you’re not going to get away with it. I’m going to—you just did this presentation. Guess what? It’s on YouTube now, you doing . . . in that presentation, how you ridiculed somebody.” What do you think?


WKC: I think you’re right. I don’t have—I mean, obviously I’m a scientist, so I’m trying to circle my head, going, “God, is there any good papers on this I can think of?” I can’t. From my own experience running a psychology department, I know how the leadership was in the ‘60s and ‘70s versus when I did it, versus now, and it was horrific back in the day. Academics were horrific in some places, we had terrible leadership, and you can’t get away with that stuff now, which I’m grateful for. Yes, social media stops a lot of it. Yes. Sorry, I’m just thinking of a story when I was teaching and I learned that everything you do in class is now on social media too. So we’re all learning this, everybody, lets say. I skateboarded across my personality class once and ended up on—anyway, long story. I was world famous for about five minutes.


TS: Yes. Now interestingly, the cover of your book, The New Science of Narcissism, is an iPhone taking a selfie of someone, and you go into, in the book, quite some degree of depth about this whole notion of the selfie, and is social media simply a great platform for narcissists? Or does it make us more narcissistic as individuals? So I wonder if you can speak to that.


WKC: Yes, that’s such an interesting question. And I want to talk about this a little bit, because it’s been a while, but when people first started doing social media, they had to take pictures of themselves and this was Myspace, if you remember that. And so people would take pictures of themselves, but they’d have to hold their camera up or their phone up and so they’d get all these weird selfies that were kind of your picture, but in the angle where you were holding your camera. Then they developed cameras that could take a picture of the person holding the camera, you could flip the lens around and then you could share those, and that changed the world. And that simple technology trick, that you could take a good picture of yourself and share it, it changed everything. And it started with a drunk Australian who fell down the stairs or something and said, “Here’s a selfie of me.” I think that was Oxford English Dictionary had that as the first example. And then everybody was taking selfies.

What you find with narcissism is that people who are narcissistic love to take selfies and they love to share them and they feel pretty good about them because they assume that seeing a picture of me is going to make your day. People who are more neurotic, more vulnerable narcissists, they’re happy to share selfies, but they’re also very nervous doing it. It’s not as comfortable because they’re worried they’re going to get negative feedback. They’re worried people are going to criticize them. So what happened on social media is we had this huge raft of selfies. Everyone was doing selfies, and the Kardashians, and everyone had selfies, and then people started feeling bad about selfies, because people get some—you know, it’s hard. You put yourself out there and somebody doesn’t say they love you, and it’s stressful. I couldn’t take a selfie. I mean, I did a magazine cover where I had to do a selfie and I couldn’t do it. I had to do a fake selfie. It was so hard for me because I’m still neurotic. I don’t like—I hate looking at myself.

And so we started changing social media. So instead of Instagram, people had Snapchat so it would disappear faster. Or they’d have one Instagram account, then they’d have a fake Instagram account for their friends. And so there’s kind of a pushback to the selfie phenomenon. But one of the big questions in the research was, does taking selfies make you narcissistic, or does being narcissistic make you take selfies? It certainly looks like narcissism predicts selfie-taking; it’s not quite as clear if it works the other way. There’s some evidence that it’s reinforcing. Meaning, if you’re narcissistic and you take selfies and you feel awesome, you’re going to keep your narcissism up, that works for you. But if I took a bunch of anxious people and said “Start taking selfies,” I don’t know if it’s going to make them narcissistic and in fact, it might just make them feel more insecure. And I’ve never done that study. I wish I did, but I didn’t do it. So I’m sorry, that would have been quite interesting.


TS: But, one thing I want to ask you, Keith, because you’ve written 150-plus papers on narcissism, you have done a lot of studies and you’ve read a lot of studies. And in this conversation, we’ve talked about a few different studies that you’ve referenced, but are there any really important studies that you think the listeners to this conversation—like “God, if you really want to know what the research says about narcissism, here’s a couple of these research studies you really need to be aware of.”


WKC: OK, so if I were listening to this and said, “Hey, I want to check out the research,” what I would do is I would just go to Google Scholar, which is the Google site for research, and I would Google “meta-analysis and narcissism.” And meta-analysis is a fancy term for a study of studies. So once we have 20 or 30 studies done, somebody will say, “Let’s do a meta-analysis, a study of studies, and put those together.” So if you’re interested in narcissism and social media, there’s a couple big studies. It’s a couple big meta-analyses of that, they will give you a good picture. If you’re interested in narcissism and self-esteem, there’s meta-analyses of that. So we have so much research now that you can really look at this combined research and get a pretty good idea of what’s going on.


TS: OK, now, I want to go back to social media for a moment because here at Sounds True, when we look [at] do we want to publish an author, do we want to publish—we publish 50 books a year, and we look at the quality of their work and their writing and how helpful will it be to people, and we look at their platform. How big is their platform? And most people’s platforms are now defined by social media. Sometimes people will have people on their own website, but often it’s Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, maybe it’s their YouTube Channel. It’s something like that. And as I was reading The New Science of Narcissism, I was like, “Oh, this is an interesting language. Sounds True has a built-in propensity to publish narcissists.”


WKC: Absolutely. Yep.


TS: That’s what we’re doing. And then we’re furthering narcissists in the publishing world.


WKC: Yes.


TS: And I thought to myself, “This is all very disturbing to me. I’ve got to talk to Keith about it.” So I’m curious what your view is.


WKC: You are! I mean, you’re selecting for people who have fame. I mean, you’re selecting for people who have followers. So they wanted that. I mean, they did something—these are people who it’s somehow—and I’m not saying everyone, I’m just saying—OK, imagine this. Imagine you go to a bar at 11 o’clock and you see who’s checking you out on Tinder, you’re going to get a lot of narcissism in that group. Not everybody, could be a saint in there, but you can get a lot of narcissism at bars. You look at people who are trying to be famous on social media, you’re going to get a lot of narcissism. That’s just what you do. But of course you do that, because you need to have a little narcissism to sell your book. You need to have the narcissism to go out there and say, “Hey, buy my book. It’s a—this is the best book ever. Everyone else’s book wasn’t as good as my genius book.” So there’s some ego that’s in—that whole creative process has a lot of ego in it.

So I mean, look, when we look at leadership selection, recruitment tools used by industrial psychologists, they select for narcissism too. I mean, this is just—when we pick politicians, we select for narcissism. It’s just kind of a lot of the way our society works when we’re looking for fame and social status.


TS: Well, I still think there’s an opportunity here for reinvention, which is to find a way for people to have high impact in the culture without having to have high disagreeableness at the same time.


WKC: Yes. And you can have that. I mean, you do have people like that for sure. So it’s not that they don’t exist, it’s just when you start—like I said, you’re selecting in a certain way for people who are fame-seeking, you’re going to get more narcissism. Maybe though . . . when I hired people back in the day, if people were mean to my staff, I wouldn’t hire them. I mean, anybody who was rude to my assistant, to my accountant, they were gone. I wouldn’t work with somebody like that. And so that kind of no-asshole rule people sometimes call it as a way to get rid of some of the more toxic narcissism, and so I think those practices might make sense for a job like yours. People you just can’t get along with, you just get rid of them.


TS: Yes, I’m fully with you on the no-asshole. It’s a good rule.


WKC: Yes. That kind of worked for me and I managed to hire really, really smart, aggressive people who are really nice. They’re out there.


TS: Right. OK. Now, in the beginning of our conversation, when I asked you, you’ve devoted almost 30 years now to studying and writing about narcissism, why? You said that as a young person, one of your interests was actually on the more spiritual level of looking at, “What is the self? What does it mean to transcend our ego? Is that possible?” And I’m curious, in the in the context of this conversation, what do you think about transcending your personality traits?


WKC: I think it is something that—so the idea—I’ll step back. So the idea of ego as this sort of monkey mind, or this idea of who we have, or this image of myself, or whatever it is—and that’s a powerful thing. It’s an important thing, we all have an ego. And narcissism is one example. But you could be a really needy, caring person and say, “Every time I help somebody, my ego goes up. This is what gives me purpose. It’s what I do.” You could be a lovely person—it’s still ego, it’s just working for the good. So the idea of transcending that is how would you experience the world with that sort of that idea of who you are removed? How do you experience with something that’s more like pure consciousness or less tainted consciousness, or whatever you want to call it—the spiritual self, which is what William James called it.

And so there’s—I was going to say that the research we’ve done on this is with psychedelics. I mean, this is with ayahuasca as sort of, that’s the stuff we’ve done. And I wish I could tell you our narcissism results, but they don’t have those yet. So we’ve looked at it with that. But I think people looking at meditation techniques or psychedelic therapies, or breathing techniques or other near-death experiences, there are lots of ways that allow people to shake themselves up and look at themselves without their ego momentarily for a little while. The research is too new, but I think having a glimpse of yourself without that filter of the ego being so powerful, it can be a healing thing for people. But—


TS: Do you have optimism about what the results from the psychedelic research is going to show about healing narcissism?


WKC: You knowI think that the psychedelic stuff is going to work on neuroticism, primarily, meaning it’s going to work more on the suffering than the ego part. So I think it’s going to be more vulnerable, but I’m just not sure. I think that the psychedelic research is so powerful that it’s just mind-blowing. I’m just kind of an amateur. So I have some hope for a psychedelic revolution that’s going to really change how we understand ourselves in the next 5 or 10 years. But I don’t know if I’ll say optimism, because this is all a big legal disaster that’s so far above my pay grade, but if you gave a bunch of psychologists and shamans and researchers access to these medicines and let us do our work, it would be game-changing very quickly.


TS: OK. Now at the end, and this is the note I’d like to end our conversation on—at the end of The New Science of Narcissism, you write people are growing tired of the narcissistic sense of self that we’re seeing online. You’re very clear, new research is beginning to show a drop in narcissism.


WKC: Yes.


TS: I think for many people, we’re just kind of catching on. “What is narcissism? How did we get a president that so many people believe has malignant narcissism?” And you’re saying here, “Oh, actually it’s starting to drop in the culture.” So what’s the defense of that statement?


WKC: So we saw narcissism with young people get very high, and in the late 2000s—2006, 2007, 2008, but after the Great Recession, there’s a bit of a psychological reset, where a lot of the kids started saying, “There’s not as much opportunity for me, what I was promised about the world isn’t really materializing. This whole college promise isn’t working.” People became—I mean, the undergraduates, at least, which is where we have the data—became less narcissistic after that collapse. They just—the economy wasn’t as good, their fantasies weren’t as strong. So there is some pushback for narcissism, but in terms of the culture, I mean, you see narcissism everywhere. I mean, obviously you have a reality TV star as the president, but narcissism is still just—I mean, the way we run this socially mediated culture, with fame, it’s just—you can’t really get away from it.

But I’m optimistic that people are starting to see and go, “You know, people who are self-important jerks are kind of phony, it’s not as big a deal as I thought, and I just want to be happy and move to Montana.” And I hear a lot of people saying that now that weren’t saying that a year ago.


TS: Do you think that the pandemic has accelerated the demise of the holding up narcissism on a pedestal?


WKC: Absolutely. And I shouldn’t—I said that with such confidence. I’m probably totally wrong. I apologize [laughs] for being so confident. But I do think the pandemic has made people reassess what’s important to them. And that might be family for some people, it might be wanting to be in nature for people—a lot of people just feel like they just want to be out of their house, be in the world. It might be their job that’s important. It might be “Gee, my job’s falling apart, I’m going to pursue a dream.” So I think this is—I think what we’re seeing is accelerated culture. And I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but I think we’re going to see a lot of changes in a very short period of time because of this thing.


TS: Is it possible that the height of narcissistic celebration in the US of A is over, and that we’re starting—we’re on the other side of that? Because if so, that’s a great a cause for relief and celebration in my part.


WKC: I think it’s possible. I just hope we don’t fall into a sea of depression and anxiety. Because I’m worried, we kind of go from a narcissistic world to a more depressed world, and I’d love to find this—find a good, healthy balance somewhere in the middle where we can be happy and outgoing Americans and take risks, and do what we do but be nice to each other as well.


TS: Very good. I’ve been speaking with Dr. Keith Campbell. He’s the professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, and with Sounds True, he’s written a new book called The New Science of Narcissism: Understanding One of the Greatest Psychological Challenges of Our Time―and What You Can Do About It. Thank you so much. Great conversation. I learned a lot. Very clarifying. Thank you so much.


WKC: Well, thanks for having me. That was really fun.


TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast. And if you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app. And also if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.


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