24 January 2012

Narcissism has a higher health cost for men

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Narcissistic males are more likely to experience long-term health problems than females with the same personality trait, new research suggests.
Narcissistic males health problems

Men with unhealthy narcissism that makes them exploitative and have a sense of entitlement, may have long-term health problems. Credit: iStockPhoto

SYDNEY: Narcissistic males are more likely to experience long-term health problems than females with the same personality trait, new research suggests.

A new study involving men diagnosed with narcissism – which describes an inflated sense of self-importance, over-estimations of uniqueness and a sense of grandiosity – has revealed the health risks associated with this personality trait. Although conducted in a stress-free environment, the results revealed that narcissistic men had higher levels of cortisol, a hormone indicating the activation of the body’s stress response system.

“This study examines what is going on ‘under their skin’, and finds that narcissists actually have more stress hormones floating around in their veins,” said Sarah Konrath a psychologist at the University of Michigan in the U.S. and co-author of the paper published today in PLoS ONE.

“This ultimately has implications for their long-term health – cardiovascular wellness, for example – if this physiological state of ‘high alert’ goes unrecognised or unacknowledged.”

More than one type of narcissism

Narcissism appears to be more common in males, and individuals with narcissism can become aggressive when their perceptions of themselves are challenged. Narcissistic people have also been found to prefer to date people who will increase their self-perception rather than care for them.

“Prior work has found that the personality trait of narcissism is associated with relationship problems, but seems to have virtually no negative consequences for narcissists. They might have trouble maintaining healthy, trusting relationships, but they appear to be mentally healthy, for example, they score lower in depression and anxiety, and higher in happiness and self-esteem,” said Konrath.

A handful of studies in the past have observed a link between narcissism and particularly unhealthy trait components, such as entitlement and a willingness to exploit others, and physiological changes in the body, such as cardiovascular activity or cortisol levels. However, these experiments measured the immediate level of stress or cardiovascular activity in a stressful situation. Until now, no long-term effects of narcissism on physiological health has been observed.

The stress response

In the new study, saliva samples were taken from more than 100 students to measure their baseline cortisol levels which can indicate if stress levels are altered when performing day-to-day tasks. The students also answered a questionnaire that was used to determine their level of narcissism, if any, and their score for each component trait of narcissism.

From the cortisol measurements in saliva, the researchers found that unhealthy narcissism predicted cortisol levels in males twice as much than in females. Cortisol levels also indicated that their body’s stress response system was chronically activated, and not regulated by stressful situations. This means unhealthy narcissism affects the body in daily life, which could trigger long-term health problems such as immune system suppression and poor cardiovascular performance.

Gender stereotypes may play a role

While all narcissists may experience stress as they try to maintain unrealistic views of themselves, just why the cortisol levels in narcissistic males were twice as much as that of narcissistic women is not yet clear. But the researchers suggested that gender stereotypes may be in play, because maintaining male stereotypes, such as aggression and dominance, can be stressful, whereas female gender stereotypes encourage social support and place value on relationships, which may help to lower the chronic stress response.

“We think it has something to do with the combination of having masculine gender roles and narcissistic features, which overlap substantially, and which both involve a constant vigilance to potential threat,” Konrath said.

“It would have been very interesting if they had measured masculinity and femininity, and see if it’s being a man that makes the difference or being really high in masculinity,” commented psychologist Doris McIlwain from Macquarie University, who was not involved in the study.

Konrath is now collecting data for her next study to better understand the different effects on the sexes.

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