Narcissism — a description of behaviour, an insult, a personality trait, and a personality disorder — seems to have become synonymous with social media use.
The personality trait, known for extreme self-obsession, is identified as a cluster of multiple self-centred behavioural traits. These traits — including arrogance, aggressive status seeking, a sense of entitlement, self-absorption, and vanity — have the potential to be further portrayed with social media use. Where or why else would individuals flaunt hundreds of selfies to public audiences, broadcasting their every move for the whole internet to see?
Narcissistic behaviour was recorded well before the introduction of TikTok and BeReal, so where does it come from, and does social media exacerbate these behaviours?
Scientists believe that several genes are related to narcissism, and that complex interactions between genes and the environment shape narcissistic behaviour. Expressions of narcissistic tendencies in individuals with the relevant genes may depend on environmental factors such as parenting styles and personal relationships.
Narcissism is thought to have an evolutionary purpose. It is theorized that some humans developed narcissism in response to mating pressures, to assert dominance and status. Narcissistic behaviours, like status seeking, increase survival and expedited reproduction, as scientists believe that historically, people preferred mates of higher status.
Not all narcissistic behaviour is negative, aggressive, or self-serving. Some positive traits associated with this personality trait include confident leadership, self-confidence, and overall well-being. However, those with more extreme narcissism traits and high scores on questionnaires assessing narcissism, such as the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, exacerbate these positive and negative traits and may lead to an official diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. These individuals are known to seek attention and praise, engage in an overwhelming amount of bragging, and exhibit whatever other behaviours they deem necessary to maintain high self-esteem.
Narcissistic behaviours manifest in two ways: grandiose narcissism, evidenced through aggressive and exaggerated behaviour, and vulnerable narcissism, which appears as introverted and anxious behaviour. Grandiose narcissism is closer to what most people think of when they hear about a narcissist; on the other hand, vulnerable narcissists still display the same self-importance, but by thinking they are far worse rather than far better than others. Researchers have traditionally only explored grandiose narcissism when considering social media use and narcissism.
Is social media really a catalyst for charisma and flamboyance?
Results looking at social media use and narcissism are mixed, but the general consensus is narcissism and social media use seem to be connected.
Generally, research shows that those with higher levels of grandiose narcissism spend more time on social media, including sending more tweets, having more friends or followers, and posting selfies more frequently. However, it is important to note that the nature of this relationship is unclear. It is hard to generalize personality traits and specific behaviours — like social media use — across multiple generations and types of platforms. For example, social media use among Gen Z and Gen X may be just as frequent but split across the generational gap of TikTok and Facebook.
Anonymity also plays a role. Users on platforms like Twitter or Reddit are more likely to be anonymous than those on Facebook or Instagram, and this anonymity drives differences in the use of these platforms amongst narcissistic individuals. For example, in one study, college students scoring high in the superiority facet seem to prefer the anonymity of Twitter; whereas those who scored high on exhibitionism preferred Facebook. Either way, the internet affords anonymity and a sense of removal, which give people the opportunity to exhibit narcissistic behaviours without fearing repercussions.
The relationship between narcissism and social media acts as a feedback loop. Narcissists are more likely to use social media, and prolonged social media use seems to predict grandiose narcissistic traits. Particularly, image-based platforms like Instagram or Facebook have been shown to increase narcissistic behaviour over time — especially when compared to more text-based platforms like Twitter.
Overall, if you notice an increase in selfies and narcissistic behaviour from individuals on social media, you wouldn’t be wrong. Social media does seem to be an easy and direct channel to convey narcissistic traits, and the fact that it is so easily accessible seems to result in being even more narcissistic than before. However, it is important to keep in mind that these traits have been around for as long as humans; it is just easier to notice and trigger them now, thanks to a wide range of social media platforms.