Study: Narcissism linked to mental toughness

Sarah Bloodworth

Narcissism is typically associated with negative behavior such as exaggerating talents, hogging conversations and having a close relationship with any reflective surface. However, a collaborative research project led by UT postdoctoral fellow Margherita Malanchini has found a relationship between narcissism and mental toughness, a characteristic believed to make narcissists better students.

The study found no direct association between narcissism and higher achievement in school, but Malanchini said the correlation between narcissism and mental toughness may be a signifier of achievement.

Mental toughness is defined by the study as the ability of one to perform at their very best in pressured and diverse situations. 

There are different types of narcissism, but Malanchini said the study focused on subclinical narcissism, which contains similar qualities as the more severe clinical narcissism. Typical qualities of subclinical narcissism, Malanchini said, include entitlement and superiority, while clinical narcissism includes more extreme behavior, such as demanding rewards all the time.

“Previous studies indicate that narcissism is a growing trend in our society, but this does not necessarily mean that an individual who displays high narcissistic qualities has a personality disorder,” Malanchini said. “Being confident in your own abilities is one of the key signs of grandiose narcissism and is also at the core of mental toughness.”

Kostas Papageorgiou, lead author of the study from the School of Psychology at Queen’s University Belfast in the United Kingdom, said because narcissism increases mental toughness, it may lead to various positive outcomes including better grades. 

“Being mentally tough means that you perceive change as an opportunity for growth, you are committed to your long term goals and you are in control of your emotions,” Papageorgiou said. “All these characteristics can help a student perform better in school.”

Andrew Denovan, study author from Manchester Metropolitan University in the U.K., said narcissism is part of a physiological subject called the dark triad, which also includes psychopathy and Machiavellianism, or manipulation. Despite this, he added that a growing amount of research such as theirs is investigating the positive features of narcissism.

“The results are interesting because they add to a growing literature showing that, contrary to popular belief, narcissism possesses adaptive elements,” Denovan said.

Papageorgiou, who started this research in 2017, said he aims to dissolve traditional ways of thinking of personality traits as either good or bad.

“This research indicates that calling someone narcissistic is no different than calling someone any other personality trait one may think of, such as extroverted,” Papageorgiou said. “So it is important that we reconsider how we, as a society, view narcissism.”

The study is a part of project called the Multi-Cohort Investigation into Learning and Educational Success, or MILES, which Malanchini said involves research into the complex causes of differences in educational achievement. She said MILES will continue to work on projects such as this one to explore how narcissism, and other personality traits such as anxiety, affect many parts of school achievement.

“Factors including personality, motivation and well-being contribute to explaining why some children learn faster and better than others,” Malanchini said. “Intelligence is only part of the story.”