Narcissism is a term psychologists and psychiatrists use to describe the combined presence of personality traits such as self-absorption, grandiosity, and an unrealistic sense of personal importance. Some aspects of narcissism can play a healthy role in a person’s life, while other aspects tend to produce social and interpersonal problems. In their worst form, narcissistic traits can manifest as a diagnosable mental health condition called narcissistic personality disorder. According to the results of a multi-university study published in 2012 in the journal PLOS ONE, narcissism produces significantly more negative health effects in men than it produces it women.
Most psychologists and psychiatrists agree that a limited amount of narcissism can play a positive role in a person’s everyday life, both during the developmental stages of childhood and later on during adulthood. Experts in the field sometimes refer to this positive influence as adaptive narcissism. People who engage in adaptive narcissism can receive such benefits as an increased tendency to exercise, improved academic performance, an improved rate of recovery in the aftermath of a traumatic injury, improved or broadened employment opportunities, self-sufficiency in intimate relationships and improved parenting skills.
While adaptive narcissism can be beneficial on both a personal and social level, unlimited or maladaptive narcissism can have the opposite effect. Tendencies associated with unhealthy narcissism include an inability to hear the concerns of others, lack of empathy for others, an inability or unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s actions, an inability or unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s emotional states, and an unusual sensitivity to real or perceived criticism. The authors of the study in PLOS ONE break narcissism down into five personality traits, three of which tend to produce healthy narcissism and two of which tend to produce unhealthy narcissism. The three traits associated with healthy narcissism are self-absorption/self-admiration, leadership/authority and superiority/arrogance. The three traits associated with unhealthy narcissism are entitlement and exploitativeness.
Narcissism in Men
After reviewing their results, the authors of the study concluded that men and women with high scores for healthy or adaptive narcissism don’t experience significant increases in their cortisol levels. This finding indicates that adaptive narcissism does not produce stress. However, men with high scores for unhealthy narcissism do experience significant cortisol increases, and therefore experience substantial increases in their stress levels. In line with this finding, the highest levels of cortisol elevation occur in men who have the highest level of involvement in unhealthy narcissism. Interestingly, women with high levels of unhealthy narcissism experience less than half of the cortisol elevation that occurs in their male counterparts.In the study published in PLOS ONE, researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia used a 40-question questionnaire to determine the narcissism levels in a group of 106 adult undergraduate students. They also used saliva tests to check these students’ levels of a substance called cortisol. Cortisol is the body’s most important stress hormone, and when its level in the body increases, affected individuals experience mental symptoms of stress such as fear and anxiety, as well as a variety of physical stress-related effects.
Chronic stress is associated with increased risks for such things as depression, memory problems, sleep disturbances, obesity and heart disease. The men and women who participated in the study published in PLOS ONE did not undergo any stress-increasing experiments before having their cortisol levels checked. Instead, their cortisol levels reflected the amounts of stress they experience during everyday life. The authors of the study believe that this fact indicates that men with unhealthy forms of narcissism are regularly exposed to unique risks to their mental and physical well-being.
Social stereotyping may help explain the negative impact of unhealthy narcissism in men, the authors of the study note. For example, many of the common social definitions for “manliness” coincide with the personality traits of narcissism. If any given man with generally healthy narcissistic traits tries to live out the social expectations for males, he will probably not suffer any major negative consequences. However, if a man with generally unhealthy narcissistic traits tries to live out the same set of expectations, he can reinforce his damaging narcissistic behaviors and end up dangerously boosting his stress levels. As plausible as this sounds, it’s currently just a theory. Researchers will need to make additional studies before they can truly explain why unhealthy narcissism has such a strong impact on men.
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