Narcissism may improve school performance in teens

Children's Health
A new study examines the impact of narcissism on adolescents’ school performance. The findings may help us to see this personality trait in a more positive light.

Narcissism could make teenagers more self-confident, more mentally resilient, and better students.

In specialist literature, narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism form the “Dark Triad” of personality traits.

The phrase was coined almost 16 years ago by psychologists Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams, who used the term “dark” to indicate that these were antisocial, malevolent characteristics.

In fact, we do tend to associate narcissism with selfishness, entitlement, and a sometimes misguided feeling of superiority.

But are there any advantages to being narcissistic? A new, international study suggests that there might be, as teenage students who score high on the narcissism scale may actually outperform those who don’t.

Kostas Papageorgiou, a lecturer in developmental psychopathology at Queen’s University Belfast in the United Kingdom, led the research, and the findings are now published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Papageorgiou, also the director of the InteRRaCt laboratory in the School of Psychology at Queen’s University Belfast, explains his interest in “subclinical,” or normal, narcissism.

“Previous studies,” he says, “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.”

“In our research, we focused on subclinical or ‘normal’ narcissism,” Papageorgiou adds. “Subclinical narcissism includes some of the same features of [the] clinical syndrome — grandiosity, entitlement, dominance, and superiority.”

So how could such seemingly negative traits have a positive effect on school performance?

Narcissism boosts ‘mental toughness’

To find out, Papageorgiou and his colleagues recruited 340 teenage students from three different high schools in Milan, Italy. The teens were participating in the Multi-Cohort Investigation into Learning and Educational Success Study.

Two waves of participant assessment led the researchers to conclude that teens with higher levels of subclinical narcissism also tend to be more “mentally tough.” This, in turn, leads to better school performance, revealed the study.

Also, mental toughness “predicted a small percentage of the variation in school achievement.”

The findings led the authors to conclude, “Inclusion of narcissism in the [D]ark [T]riad of personality traits may need to be reconsidered.”

Papageorgiou explains the meaning of the findings, saying, “Being confident in your own abilities is one of the key signs of grandiose narcissism and is also at the core of mental toughness.”

“If a person is mentally tough,” he says, “they are likely to embrace challenges and see these as an opportunity for personal growth.”

People who score high on subclinical narcissism may be at an advantage because their heightened sense of self-worth may mean they are more motivated, assertive, and successful in certain contexts.”

Kostas Papageorgiou

He calls for a reassessment of the concept of narcissism, saying, “It is important that we reconsider how we, as a society, view narcissism.”

“We perceive emotions or personality traits as being either bad or good but psychological traits are the products of evolution; they are neither bad nor good — they are adaptive or maladaptive.”

“Perhaps we should expand conventional social morality to include and celebrate all expressions of human nature.”

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