There’s a subtle “tale” that can reveal whether someone is a narcissist, experts say


In Greek mythology, Narcissus is a vain young man who falls in love with his own reflection. Clinically speaking, narcissistic personality disorder is the figurative equivalent of that famous story: a narcissist places himself on a high pedestal and engages in toxic behavior as a result. Hence, narcissists are typically chronically stubborn, entitled and envious, and/or hypersensitive to criticism.


Grandiose narcissism is associated with facial muscle activity related to anger and frustration when receiving threatening feedback.

Most people want to avoid narcissists, both in their work and personal lives; dating a narcissist, for example, means you will always be in love with a person who sees others primarily as extensions of themselves. (This can have all kinds of deleterious effects on mental health, and there’s an entire cottage industry in publishing dedicated to recovering from a narcissistic partner).

The challenge is that saying you’ll avoid narcissists is easier than actually spotting them. This is because narcissists are typically unaware or unavailable about their disposition.

Luckily for anyone eager to avoid introducing a narcissist into their life, a recent study in the scientific journal Psychophysiology has found that there is a secret “tale.” Narcissists, psychologists say, hate being criticized; and it turns out that narcissists are prone to subtly reveal their unusually acute discomfort that accompanies criticism.


Apparently it all boils down to their facial muscles.

‘The results of our study show that people with narcissistic traits show a pronounced hidden emotional reactivity to negative feedback regarding their performance,’ explained Dr. Ville J Harjunen, professor of psychology and speech therapy at the University of Helsinki, and corresponding author. of the studio in an email to Salon.

“Hidden emotional reactivity” means that while the narcissist may not intentionally show their emotions, they still reveal in unintentional and subtle ways that they are having an emotional reaction to criticism.


“By measuring the electrical activity of individuals’ facial muscles, we were able to reveal that grandiose narcissism is associated with facial muscle activity related to anger and frustration when receiving threatening feedback even though they did not report being emotionally shaken by the feedback.”

To find out, the researchers found 57 individuals between the ages of 18 and 44, determined the extent to which they had narcissistic tendencies, and then had them perform a pair of challenging cognitive tests. After they finished, the participants were hooked up to machines that monitored their biological responses while being offered some neutral, some negative feedback. Although the more narcissistic individuals reported not feeling particularly upset by negative feedback, they were much more likely than the least narcissistic participants to experience a slowed heart rate and amplified activity in terms of eye twitching and frowning. This suggests that the criticism seemed to upset them much more, and while they may not have admitted to it, it revealed itself in their physiological changes.

Furthermore, even the narcissistic participants could not deny that they felt somewhat diminished in terms of a sense of dominance and positive affect.

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“Individuals with higher levels of grandiose narcissism may be unwilling to report overt emotional reactivity to self-threatening feedback, but physiological responses ‘under their thin skin’ reveal amplified threat-related facial muscle activity that suggests a negative emotional state,” the study says. concluded the authors.

While it can be tempting to use these findings to try and “prove” that a suspected or confirmed narcissist in your life knows he’s wrong and is just being stubborn, the researchers caution with caution.

“Grandiose narcissism has been linked to admiration-seeking, manipulation, and a propensity for hostility when criticized.”

“Identifying narcissistic tendencies in people based on single encounters is very difficult or even impossible,” Harjunen wrote in Salon. “The results here are based on a controlled experiment with a sample of 57 individuals who were monitored in different situations of feedback. Narcissistic cues in a person’s expressions or ways of interacting require a lot of systematically collected data.”

At the same time, this doesn’t mean that ordinary people are hopeless when trying to identify narcissists. They just have to use proven methods.

“Grand narcissism has been linked to admiration-seeking, manipulation, and a propensity for hostility when criticized,” Harjunen noted. “These behaviors and emotional tendencies also occur in non-narcissistic individuals, but to a lesser extent. Our study shows that grandiose narcissism increases emotional reactivity to self-threatening feedback. Reactions may, however, remain hidden as these individuals appear to be very good at regulating their overt emotional reactions at least in the contexts in which they are monitored.”

Going forward, the authors hope to study “whether vigilance manifests itself even in informal interactions with friends or colleagues and whether there is a certain threshold after the hidden emotional burden turns into open hostility.”

The authors of the Psychophysiology article aren’t the only experts to distinguish between normal human resistance to criticism and the behavior of narcissists. It is the difference between situational stubbornness, in which people are passionately invested in a certain opinion to a perhaps irrationally degree, and the pathological stubbornness of those who never admit they are wrong because they wish to dominate others.

“You make the correct distinction between ‘normal human stubbornness’ and recalcitrance to an ‘excessive degree’ or at least what psychiatrists like me are concerned with, as the distinction between health and disease is important,” explained psychiatrist Dr. Bandy X. Lee in an email interview with Salon last month. “That’s because healthy personality characteristics will be life-affirming, regardless of their direction in the beautiful tapestry of human diversity and resilience.”

He added that when people refuse to admit they’ve been wrong to a degree where it’s downright maladaptive, “it can be defined as pathology.”

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