Situational Narcissism?

May 30, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Chris Uggen links to an article showing that celebrities score higher on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.* I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that celebrities are narcissists. But the study is a vindication of the standard psychological view of personality and role: what’s inside a person’s head (personality) leads them to behave a certain way and to seek out roles and situations that allow for them to express their personality traits.

The sociological version reverses the order. Situations (roles) come first. Roles demand certain behaviors. If you stay in some role, you continue to do those things. But you also develop a set of ideas and feelings that are compatible with those behaviors. In other words, the situation demands the behavior, and the behavior affects what’s inside your head.

The example I often use in class is extroversion, a trait that appears on just about every personality test. “I’ll bet you that I can go into every classroom in this building,” I say, “and without giving a single personality test, I can predict which person in the room will be the most active, both verbally (talking) and physically (moving around).”

College professors aren’t generally known as an unusually extroverted bunch, but if you spend your time on teaching at least a couple of courses every term, you had better get used to doing the talking. And most of us do.

The narcissism study contradicts this sociological idea.
Our analyses fail to show any relationship between NPI scores and years of experience in the entertainment industry, suggesting that celebrities may have narcissistic tendencies prior to entering the industry.
And who are these narcissists?
Reality television personalities had the highest overall scores on the NPI, followed by comedians, actors, and musicians.
I can’t argue with the first category. Who but narcissists – from the Jersey Shore to Orange County – would want to put their lives on display to millions of strangers? Also, the producers of these shows seem to select the most obviously narcissistic applicants. (It may also be that the reality-show celebs, with their extreme narcissism and brief careers, account for the lack of relationship between NPI scores and length of time in show biz.)

Then there are the comedians. The psychological view of them is obvious. But narcissism, at least one aspect of it, comes with the job. I hadn’t thought about this, but shortly after I read Chris Uggen’s post, I happened to listen to a performance by Mike Birbiglia at The Moth. It’s mostly about his sleepwalking, but he ends with this brief observation about a career in stand-up.
To be a comedian, you have to go on stage, those first few years, and bomb. And then walk off stage and think, “That went great.” Because otherwise, you’d never get on stage the next night. You would just think, “Human beings don’t like me.”
You can go here to listen to the entire story. The above quote comes at the 14:00 mark.)

* For an online version of the NPI, go here. But be warned, you’re not going to like it. The test offers only two choices for each item, and even if both are a bad fit, you have to choose one. Here is a sample:

I can read people like a book People are sometimes hard to understand.
If I feel competent I am willing to take responsibility for making decisions I like to take responsibility for making decisions.
I just want to be reasonably happy. I want to amount to something in the eyes of the world.

UPDATE: Lisa at Sociological Images also posted about this (here), complete with the graph that compares different occupational groups. She also adds an update, based on a comment on her post, noting that the differences in many cases are statistically significant but not large.

1 comment:

Shelley said...

I suggest a whole new Narcissism Level exclusively for BP executives.