New research provides evidence that vulnerable and grandiose narcissists tend to have different patterns of physiological reactions when exposed to a socially stressful situation. The new findings have been published in Frontiers in Psychology.
Vulnerable and grandiose narcissism are two distinct subtypes of narcissism, each with their own set of characteristics and behaviors. Grandiose narcissism is characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance and a preoccupation with power, status, and dominance. Vulnerable narcissism, on the other hand, is characterized by a more fragile and sensitive sense of self, a tendency towards anxiety and insecurity, and a need for validation and approval from others.
Understanding the differences between these two subtypes of narcissism is important in psychology because it can help clinicians better identify and treat individuals with narcissistic personality disorder.
“Understanding the biological factors underlying personality traits is key if we want, for example, to understand the origin and evolution of personality disorders,” said study author Javier I. Borráz-León of the University of Turku and the Institute for Mind and Biology at The University of Chicago.
“In this case, the study of cortisol and emotional responses to psychosocial stress in individuals with different subtypes of narcissistic traits (i.e., vulnerable, grandiose, and mixed-type) allowed us to comprehend that there may be clear physiological and psychological boundaries between these subtypes of narcissism, which may explain some inconsistencies in previous studies regarding cortisol responses under socially stressful situations in subjects with narcissistic traits.”
For their study, the researchers recruited 56 healthy individuals from the University of Chicago campus. The participants first complete several questionnaires prior to a scheduled laboratory visit. During the visit, the participants underwent the Trier Social Stress Test, an experimentally verified stress-induction task.
The task involved participants giving a 5-minute presentation about themselves for a mock job interview in front of two judges who provided no emotional feedback. The judges wore lab coats and pretended to take notes. Participants were required to keep speaking for the entire 5 minutes and were told that the presentation was being videotaped for subsequent analysis.
After the presentation, the participants were asked to perform a difficult arithmetic calculation out loud for 5 minutes, with the judges providing feedback every time the participant made a mistake.
The participants provided saliva samples before and after the task, which were used to assess cortisol levels.
As expected, the researchers observed that cortisol levels increased significantly after the stress-inducing task. Overall, participants also reported a decrease in happiness and increases in anxiety, anger, shame, shame, and devaluation after the task.
Importantly, Borráz-León and his colleagues found evidence that different types of narcissism influenced this response. Those high in vulnerable narcissistic traits experienced a significantly greater increase in their cortisol levels compared to those high in grandiose narcissistic traits. Similarly, participants high in vulnerable narcissistic traits reported increases in anxiety, anger, shame, and devaluation, while participants high in grandiose narcissistic traits reported only an increase in devaluation.
These results held even after controlling for extraversion.
“It is always interesting to me to see that the expression of personality has a strong biological component which must be taken into account, along with socioecological factors, to properly understand the expression of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ personality traits,” Borráz-León remarked.
The researchers also found that individuals with vulnerable narcissistic traits scored higher in schizotypal traits related to social anxiety and interpersonal issues and tended to score lower in extraversion compared to those with grandiose narcissistic traits. On the other hand, individuals with grandiose narcissistic traits scored higher in psychopathic traits related to fearlessness and social influence, and tended to score higher in stress immunity compared to those with vulnerable narcissistic traits.
“Our results showed that vulnerable narcissism is more associated with strong cortisol and emotional reactivity to psychosocial stress and psychological traits linked to schizotypy, whereas grandiose narcissism is more associated with blunted cortisol and emotional responses to psychosocial stress and psychological traits linked to psychopathy. These findings provide additional validation for these two subtypes of narcissism,” Borráz-León told PsyPost.
“Our results also point to the occurrence of a third subtype of narcissism, the mixed-type, which is characterized by joint traits of both vulnerable and grandiose narcissism. This third subtype of narcissism can also be physiologically and psychologically differentiated from the other two subtypes in some traits. In general, our findings may enhance our understanding of narcissism and its multiple expressions.”
One limitation of the study, however, is the use of a sample of college students. It is unclear if the findings apply to a wider and more diverse range of people. “While our results point to clear physiological boundaries between narcissism subtypes, further confirmatory research conducted with larger and more heterogeneous samples are needed to replicate these findings,” Borráz-León said.
The study, “Cortisol reactivity to psychosocial stress in vulnerable and grandiose narcissists: An exploratory study“, was authored by Javier I. Borráz-León, Alena Spreitzer, Coltan Scrivner, Mitchell Landers, Royce Lee, and Dario Maestripieri.