New study shows narcissism plus social rejection equals aggression

February 11, 2003

A new study by researchers at San Diego State University and the University of Georgia reveals that people with narcissistic personalities who experience social rejection are more aggressive than those who are not so self-absorbed, a finding that may help explain why some teens resort to violence while others do not.

"This research is especially compelling because we're able to see behavioral patterns in children that lead to aggression and ultimately violence," said Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at SDSU who co-authored the study with UGA psychology professor W. Keith Campbell. "In our previous studies, we were able to help explain why school shootings occur by linking aggression to social rejection. Now we see that narcissism, or 'egotism,' helps explain which kids become violent after rejection and which ones do not."

"Isn't It Fun to Get the Respect That We're Going to Deserve? Narcissism, Social Rejection, and Aggression" will be published in the February issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The professors conducted four studies using undergraduate participants, most of whom were 18 or 19 years old. Participants in each study first completed the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), the standard measure of narcissism in psychology. Then the participants experienced either social rejection or social acceptance and had the opportunity to express their anger and aggression.

For example, one study asked participants to choose individuals they would like to work with and those they would like to exclude. Participants then played a computer game that allowed them to aggress against an innocent opponent by blasting him or her with a painful burst of white noise. Across all the studies, narcissists exhibited more anger and displayed more aggression after being rejected than non-narcissists did.

"When we as educators make efforts to ensure that our students maintain positive self-images, we need to be careful that we don't create an army of little narcissists," said Campbell.

The study also notes that statements attributed to the Columbine High School shooters are consistent with the feelings of narcissistic individuals. For example, on videotapes made before the shooting, Dylan Klebold said, "Directors will be fighting over this story," and Eric Harris said, "Isn't it fun to get the respect that we're going to deserve?"

"One way to prevent violence is by reducing instances of social rejection," said Twenge. "We can also prevent violence by reducing feelings of narcissism. For example, schools should carefully examine any programs that are intended to increase students' self-esteem. Many of these programs cross the line into encouraging narcissism and egoism. These programs could backfire by increasing aggression among students, because narcissistic students are more aggressive."

University of Georgia

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