Emanuel Jauk, associate professor of psychology at the University of Graz, and his research team used the Narcissistic Personality Inventory to find 21 people who scored very high in narcissistic measures and 22 people who scored very low. Each participant was shown photos of their friends, family, and themselves while their brain activity was monitored using fMRI.
The narcissistic men in the study “reported that they do enjoy themselves and they enjoy looking at images of themselves, but they do so on a conscious level,” Jauk told Seeker. “What we did was look at brain reactions that are less voluntarily controlled.… They quite clearly show that there is some kind of emotional conflict and effect going on.”
When the narcissistic men viewed themselves, their brain activity increased in the ventral and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).
“The ventral ACC is specifically involved in processing negative self-referential material, particularly when this material is self-relevant,” the authors write, adding emphasis. “This implies that visual self-recognition is a potentially threatening situation to narcissistic individuals, which are known to be overly sensitive to ego-threat.”
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Activity in the dorsal ACC has been associated with negative feelings of exclusion and low esteem, as part of a neurological “social pain network.” In a previous study, narcissists who had been socially excluded self-reported feeling no sense of exclusion, though their brain activity indicated differently. As the study’s title put it, “Narcissists’ social pain seen only in the brain.”
“This is kind of in-line with what psychodynamic and psychoanalytic theories of narcissism would predict: that there is some sort of latent, deep conflict concerning the self,” Jauk commented. The narcissistic men, he added, “said they do enjoy looking at themselves and they find themselves attractive, but their brains tell differently.”
Interestingly, the study did not find the same negative affect for narcissistic women, which Jauk and his team are currently investigating further.
“It’s quite common that male narcissism goes along more with male adaptive emotional characteristics,” he noted. “If we compare gender, it’s always narcissistic men who display emotional conflict and troubles with emotional regulation because women are generally the more emotionally competent gender, after all.”
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Jauk believes that narcissism is particularly important to study right now because it’s becoming more common.
“Longitudinal studies conducted over the past decade show that narcissism is constantly increasing,” he explained, “and it’s getting to be a more important phenomenon, not only for the individual but also for society in general.”
Though the sample size is small, the new study contributes to an emerging body of data that reveals a slightly more sympathetic side of narcissism. Previous research shows that narcissists lack empathy, are more aggressive and anti-social, and are more likely to commit a crime and go to prison. Their lack of empathy also means they are less likely to engage in activities like volunteering and supporting charities.
But Jauk hopes his findings will help people see narcissism in a different way.
“I think what we can learn from this research is that narcissistic individuals are not simply bad people in the way that they’re sometimes displayed in the media and popular culture,” Jauk said. “They do indeed struggle with themselves.”
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