How Narcissistic Are You?

Understanding the psychometrics that underlie narcissism.

Posted Jan 16, 2019

ShotPrime Studio/Shutterstock
Source: ShotPrime Studio/Shutterstock

Think about your own behavior and personality in light of the following questions. If it helps, use a 1-7 scale, with 1 being "Definitely not characteristic of me at all" and 7 being "Yup, that's me alright!"

  • I tend to want others to admire me.
  • I tend to want others to pay attention to me.
  • I tend to expect special favors from others.
  • I tend to seek prestige or status.

These items comprise the narcissism subscale of Jonason and Webster's (2010) Dirty Dozen measure of a cluster of traits that psychologists call the "Dark Triad." In combination, the elements of the Dark Triad — comprised of narcissism (characterized as having an overly strong focus on oneself), Machiavellianism (a tendency to manipulate others for one's own gain), and psychopathy (a tendency to have little regard for the feelings of others) — represent a dark approach to one's social world, which often looks like someone advancing things for him or herself at a cost to others.

Much attention has been given to the concept of narcissism in the popular media. In fact, a quick Google search that I just performed (on 1/16/2019) turned up more than 300,000 entries for "Psychology Today" and "narcissism!" Narcissism is a big topic of interest these days.

Narcissism Is Not a Categorical Variable

As a researcher who often studies narcissism, I thought it would be useful to provide some insights regarding the psychometrics of narcissism as it is often measured in the behavioral sciences. One of the main things that I think people might find useful is this: Narcissism is not conceptualized as a categorical variable by researchers who study it. A categorical variable is one in which different values are different in kind. So for instance, if you were studying kinds of animals found in a pet store, you'd have cats, dogs, and guinea pigs in their own categories.

But narcissism is not like that. Researchers who study narcissism don't tend to see people as either "narcissistic" or "not narcissistic." As is the case with so many personality variables, we see narcissism as a matter of degree. In fact, we tend to see narcissism as being, roughly, "normally distributed," which is a fancy way of saying that we expect most people to score near the middle (average) of the distribution, and we expect relatively few people to score at the extremes on either end.

Narcissism Data From a Current Study

To put a face to this point, I thought it would be useful if I actually presented real data on narcissism from a recent study that was conducted by me and my research team — the New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology Lab.

In a recent study on the topic of predicting whether people would forgive others for transgressions (Geher, 2018), we asked more than 200 adult participants to complete the Dirty Dozen scale (Jonason & Webster, 2010), along with various measures of the tendency to forgive others on the heels of social transgressions.

Four items from the Dirty Dozen scale were designed to measure narcissism in particular. These items are the items that start this article, in fact. We used a 1-7 scale and asked all participants to rate the degree to which each of these items is characteristic of their degree of narcissism. The following figures show the frequency distributions for each of these items, demarcating which scores were most frequent along with how well the overall distributions map onto a mathematical recreation of the normal curve.

Glenn Geher
"I tend to want others to admire me."
Source: Glenn Geher
Glenn Geher
"I tend to seek prestige or status."
Source: Glenn Geher
Glenn Geher
"I tend to expect special favors from others."
Source: Glenn Geher
Glenn Geher
"I want others to pay attention to me."
Source: Glenn Geher

As you can see from these figures, people score across the range of 1-7 for each of these items. It is hardly the case that people are only scoring as "1" (very uncharacteristic of me) or as "7" (very characteristic of me). In fact, you can see that for each of these figures, the most common scores are near the midpoint (or average). If the world were divided into the "narcissists" and the "non-narcissists," we would not see such patterns of statistical variability.

What "Total Narcissism" Looks Like (Statistically Speaking)

In conducting research on behavioral traits such as narcissism, we will usually sum up the scores from individual items that are designed to measure the concept and create a "total score." This score is thought to represent the overall concept — in this case, narcissism — better than any of the individual items do. And in their original psychometric work on the Dirty Dozen (2013), Jonason and Webster make a point to demonstrate that, in fact, these four items are statistically interrelated, and they demonstrate significant validity. In other words, there is some statistical evidence suggesting that these four items, when looked at in a composite manner, actually seem to measure the trait of narcissism.

Glenn Geher
Total Narcissism Scores
Source: Glenn Geher

In examining the frequency distribution for the total scores on narcissism, we again see evidence for this trait as a continuous and not as a categorical feature of human personality. Very few people score above 25. And very few people score below 5. Most people score near the average of 15.10.

What Does an Extreme Narcissist Look Like Statistically?

At this point, you may be a little confused. People talk about "narcissists" all the time. And the data I am presenting here essentially says that people come in various shades of narcissism. That's true, actually.

This said, when we think about traits in statistical terms, we often think about the degree to which a particular score is beyond a standard deviation from the mean (or the average). The standard deviation is, roughly, the typical amount that scores in the sample deviate from the mean (see Geher & Hall, 2014). Given what we know about standard deviations, only about 16 percent of scores in such a distribution are higher than a score that is one standard deviation above the mean. So once a score starts to get into that region of the distribution, we start to see it as as something of an extreme score.

In the current data set, the mean for the total narcissism score is 15.10 and the standard deviation is 5.095. Thus, the score that is one standard deviation above the mean is exactly 20.195. In short, then, any total score that is above 20.195 might be said to be characteristic of someone who is "notably high in narcissism." Perhaps we can think, then, of "a narcissist" as someone who scores about 21 or higher on this scale (measured as we've measured it in the study described above).

Bottom Line

Much has been made of narcissism in the scholarly and popular psychological literature, and for good reason. This trait, which seems to often overlap with a manipulative and psychopathic approach to dealing with others, is predictive of all kinds of social and emotional outcomes.

This said, as someone who studies this trait carefully in the lab, I suggest that people take caution in thinking about narcissism as a categorical variable. It's not. As most researchers in the field will agree, narcissism is typically measured as a continuous variable — people vary from one another on this trait by a matter of degree.

How narcissistic are you? Not really very high at all? About average? Wicked high? Whatever your score, remember that most personality traits are continuous and not categorical in nature. Further, there is a good bit of evidence suggesting that personality is somewhat malleable across the lifespan (see Damian et al., 2018).

For a detailed summary of the Dirty Dozen, see this Psychology Today blog post by Susan Krauss Whitbourne.

References

Damian, R. I., Spengler, M., Sutu, A., & Roberts, B. W. (2018). Sixteen going on sixty-six: A longitudinal study of personality stability and change across 50 years. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000210

Geher, G. (2018). The Advent of Positive Evolutionary Psychology. SUNY New Paltz Evolutionary Studies Seminar Series. New Paltz, NY.

Geher, G., & Hall, S. (2014). Straightforward Statistics: Understanding the Tools of Research. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jonason, P.K., & Webster, G.D. (2010). The Dirty Dozen: A concise measure of the Dark Triad. Psychological Assessment, 22, 420-432.

Whitbourne, S. K. (2013). Shedding light on Psychology's Dark Triad. Psychology Today blog post.