Social media narcissism is driven by uncertainty, research suggests


A new study may explain what motivates the “ self-centered nature of social media ” – and people who constantly post selfies on Instagram.

From surveys of nearly 300 people, American psychologists found that narcissistic behavior is linked to what they call “vulnerable narcissism.”

Vulnerable narcissism can manifest as self-promoting behaviors – such as constant selfies – but is due to low self-esteem and extreme sensitivity to criticism, the researchers say.

According to New York University experts, narcissism is “not self-love” driven by an inflated sense of self, but “self-hatred in disguise.”

Narcissism is “fundamentally misunderstood,” they claim.

Narcissism is driven by insecurity, not bloated self-esteem, the new study reveals.  Authors say narcissism has been 'fundamentally misunderstood'

Narcissism is driven by insecurity, not bloated self-esteem, the new study reveals. Authors say narcissism has been ‘fundamentally misunderstood’

“For a long time, it was unclear why narcissists engage in unpleasant behaviors, such as complacency, because it makes others think less of them,” said study author Professor Pascal Wallisch of New York University’s Department of Psychology.

This has become very common in the age of social media – a behavior coined “flexing”.

“Our work shows that these narcissists are not grandiose, but rather insecure, and that’s how they seem to deal with their insecurities.”

People with narcissism can suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) – a condition in which people feel bloated about their own importance, a need for excessive attention and admiration, and a marked lack of empathy for others.

The researchers say that ‘narcissism’ can be split into two subtypes: ‘grandiose’ narcissism and ‘fragile’ narcissism.

These two subtypes essentially explain the emotional and mental processes that are driving behaviors that are considered narcissistic.

The researchers say: ‘Vulnerable narcissism [is] characterized by low self-esteem, fear of attachment and extreme sensitivity to criticism.


NPD is a mental disorder in which people feel bloated about their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.

People with NPD can generally be unhappy and disappointed when they don’t receive the special favors or admiration they think they deserve.

NPD can cause problems in many areas of life such as relationships, work, school or financial affairs.

Source: Mayo Clinic

Vulnerable narcissism is associated with low self-esteem, life satisfaction and interdependent self-construction.

Grandiose narcissism … manifests itself as high self-esteem, self-aggrandizement and self-righteousness.

[It’s] associated with high self-esteem and life satisfaction and an independent self-construction.

Another related condition, psychopathy, is also characterized by a great sense of self.

A person with psychopathy exhibits ‘amoral and antisocial behavior’ and ‘a lack of ability to love or form meaningful personal relationships,’ according to one Paper from 2017

“Grandiose narcissism is in many ways like psychopathy,” says the NYU team.

The psychologists sought to refine the understanding of the relationship between these conditions by creating a “performative self-enhancement index” (FLEX) that reflects “truly narcissistic behavior.”

For the purposes of this study, FLEX can essentially be seen as an indication of how likely someone is to post a lot of selfies on social media.

For the study, researchers used data from 270 participants – 60 percent female and 40 percent male, and with an average age of 20 – who were recruited into a survey.

FLEX, as well as the two types of narcissism and psychopathy, were calculated for each participant based on their ranking of how true or false a set of statements were.

FLEX turned out to consist of four components: impression management (‘I will probably show off if I get the chance’), the need for social validation (‘It’s important to be seen at important events’), -evation (‘ I have a excellent taste ‘), and social dominance (‘ I like to know more than other people ‘).

Overall, the results showed high correlations between FLEX and narcissism, but not with psychopathy.

For example, the need for social validation (a FLEX measure) was correlated with the reported propensity for performative self-exaltation (a hallmark of vulnerable narcissism).

In contrast, measures of psychopathy, such as increased levels of self-esteem, did not really correlate with vulnerable narcissism, implying a lack of insecurity.

These findings suggest that true narcissists are insecure and can best be described by the vulnerable subtype of narcissism.

While grandiose narcissism may be better understood as a manifestation of psychopathy.

“The results suggest that narcissism is better understood as a compensatory adjustment to overcome and cover up low self-esteem,” said study author Mary Kowalchyk, formerly a graduate student at NYU and now at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Narcissists are insecure and deal with these uncertainties.

“This makes others love them less in the long run, which further exacerbates their insecurities, which in turn leads to a vicious cycle of flexible behavior.”

The study is published in the journal Personality and individual differences


Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) falls on a spectrum: you can score high, low, or somewhere in between on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.

Unlike being pregnant, you can be a little narcissistic.

There are nine official criteria, but you only need to meet five to qualify clinically as a narcissist. These are:

An exaggerated sense of self-importance. People with NPD often greatly exaggerate their achievements and talents.

A sense of entitlement. They insist on having the best of everything, expect special favors, and are outraged if anyone dares to wonder why.

A need for constant, inordinate admiration. Narcissists expect to be recognized as superior, often without any qualification to justify it. They can’t handle the criticism and get angry if they don’t get the attention they think they deserve.

Preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, genius and the perfect partner. They are often depressed or moody because they are not perfect. This can lead to problems with drugs or alcohol.

A belief that they are superior, special and unique and should only interact with equally special people. They belittle people they consider inferior.

Interpersonal exploitative behavior. They take advantage of others to get what they want.

A lack of empathy. They are unable and unwilling to acknowledge the needs and feelings of others.

Jealous of others or believing that others are jealous of them. They constantly measure themselves against others to see if they are getting on top of it.

Arrogant and haughty behavior. Narcissists come across as cocky, boastful and pretentious.

The hidden truth. Secretly, narcissists feel insecure, shameful, vulnerable and often humiliated. This could mean suicidal thoughts or behavior. It certainly means that they have relationship problems with everyone.