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Personality Research articles on personality

6Apr/1010

Narcissism, Self Actualism, and Patrick Bateman


"Because I...want...to...fit...in."

-- Patrick Batemen, American Psycho

Abstract

People are evolutionarily wired with a need for connection. This is generally accomplished via mirroring, finding people like us. Most people exist in the middle of the bell curve (are similar to one another), so finding similar people, and therefore mirroring is easy. The need for mirroring is basically narcissism, so it's apt to consider people in the middle of the bell curve Ordinary Narcissists. People that exist on a remote part of the bell curve (for whatever reason) do not have this option. Their need for mirroring, and consequently a sense of belonging and identity is not fulfilled. They feel disconnected, detached, like aliens. This tends to result in a failure to empathize with the masses they don't relate to and sometimes over empathizing with their own alienation further blunting their ability to consider other peoples feelings. There are two solutions to this alienation, Narcissism and Self Actualism. The Narcissist path enables the alien to achieve externally attractive or merely attention getting qualities which will, in theory, enable them to satisfy the basic human need for connection and identity. The cost of this path is an authentic internally developed personality. Instead of living a life which reflects what they care about, they live a life which reflects whatever culture or group they want to feel connected to cares about. Because, they are divorced from who they really are, there connections with others will never be healthy. The Self Actualist path is about coming to terms with one's differentness and any emotional pain that might involve. Sometimes, this resolves their alienation. Even if it doesn't, the Self Actualist, now comfortable with not fitting in, is able to pursue an authentic internally driven life path.

So, according to this theory, there are basically three types of people.

Ordinary Narcissists (pod people) - Similar to most people, therefore they feel comfortable with most people, and naturally adopt socially acceptable cultural norms. Doing otherwise is never a consideration because they find these cultural norms rewarding enough. Intolerant to individual differences. Can explain who they are, but not why since essentially their identity is adopted not created. They will generally go along with whatever group they are a part of, hence the common historically seen pattern of group think.

Alien Narcissists (charlatans) - Different from most people, therefore they feel uncomfortable with most people. Unwilling or unable to come to terms with the reason for their discomfort, they focus on getting special attention from whatever culture or group or romantic interest they seek to be a part of as a substitute for an authentic internal identity. Additionally, they are more prone to seek comfort/escape in hedonistic pleasure (drugs, alcohol, adrenaline seeking behavior, sexual relationships for the sake of physical pleasure alone - not real intimacy) and also for some, excessive religiosity (religious obsession is a very effective substitute for dealing with the real reasons for one's alienation). Intolerant to individual differences. Cannot explain with any clarity who they are or why they live how they do because their focus is more external than internal. Many alien narcissists will inhabit prominent positions in culture as artists, business leaders, lawyers, politicians, religious leaders. They can also achieve their desire for attention through negative means, terrorism or public crimes, for example. They view Ordinary Narcissists as pawns and fellow Alien Narcissists as ideals/role models and/or allies/competitors.

Self Actualists (individuals) - Different from most people, have resolved or come to terms with that difference, pursue an autonomous path in life. Can explain with clarity who they are and why they live how they live because most of what they do is a result of thoughtful introspection.

Introduction

Human beings are social animals.
Human beings are not all equal.
Most human differences distribute themselves in the shape of a bell curve.

You could create a separate bell curve for lots of different human differences (height, weight, wealth, beauty, intelligence, artistic skill, etc.). You could also create a meta bell curve of all human differences. On one end of the bell curve is the meta ideal, on the other end, the meta unideal. The objective meta bell curve would probably be different from the populist meta bell curve. There's probably a lot of different potential meta bell curves (the Liberal meta bell curve, the Christian Right meta bell curve, the Materialistic meta bell curve). Regardless, it's obviously unfortunate to be on the unideal end of any meta bell curve you might identify with.

But, if you are on the ideal end, maybe not so fortunate either. Why? Because human beings are evolutionary social animals. The ideal part of the bell curve is actually a very remote place socially. The majority of bell curve territory however is well populated. The middle, the average, is a nice place to be if you like having endless social options. Maybe being slightly better than average is really the ideal as you have lots of social options but are just a little bit more desirable than most.

As would be expected, the average person is generally likely to display normal behavior for whatever culture they reside in. The remote ends of all these different meta bell curves is where you find the Narcissistic population. These are people with more messed up childhoods than most people, more intelligent than most people, more attractive than most people, etc.. They do not behave in normative ways. Many of them don't care about others. Why?

One common theory, the average person cares about others because the average person relates to most people. With lots of people, they have things in common, things to talk about, mutual joys. To be insensitive to another person, would be an act of self hatred. When you don't relate to most people, it's easier to not see them as people, to not care about them. You've never felt connected to them, got enjoyment out of them. Why, from a learned behavioral perspective would you feel any affinity towards them. This relating deficit is the source of the emptiness for people on the end of the bell curve.

The average person's identity is filled by their mirrored similarity to others. The average person is no more individually whole / self sustaining than the person on the end of the bell curve who feels empty. However, the former has a vast shared group identity which enables them to feel normal, supported, and content.

The person on the end of the bell curve must fill their emptiness some other way. If they choose internal means, this results in a Self-Actualist. People like this can live happy anonymous lives and/or in some cases help to advance the world by generating new ideas / discoveries which only a person freed of dependence on external validation could discover. They don't care about acclaim or prestige or impressing others. They merely seek to find fulfillment via an internally determined path.

If they choose external means, this results in some type of Narcissist. Narcissists can do very well in life, but their identity is always dependent on external feedback. Dependent on external rewards, narcissists are inherently blunted in originality. Successful creativity requires lots of failures and a narcissist can't abide the costs of failure (people not thinking they're perfect). So the most talented and most successful narcissists will never add anything new/innovative to the world. They'll, at best, do really well in some already proven business model, or academia (competently mastering the ideas of others that are already accepted), or possibly the arts.

There are at least two major subcategories of Narcissism, Overt and Covert Narcissism are the historically common terms. Achievement (Overt) and Attention (Covert) Narcissism might be more apt descriptors though.

Achievement Narcissists as you would expect focus more on external rewards of achievement (lots of money, public acclaim, monuments in their honor). They tend to be emotionally stable which consequently makes them more able to succeed in a professional atmosphere. They are also more open about their superiority. By achieving great 'things', they will get the emptiness filling external feedback they need.

Attention Narcissists tend to be less emotionally stable, making them less able to thrive professionally. They directly focus on attention as a means of filling their emptiness. Relationships and friends and anything that would reinforce their ability to have relationships and friends is their goal. Just as a Narcissism/Self-Actualism spectrum exists, there is an Achievement Narcissism/Attention Narcissism spectrum. A Narcissist is not necessarily only one or the other, although they likely maintain a preference which puts them more on one side or the other. There preference might shift at different stages of their life. In any case, Males are more likely to be Achievement Narcissists and Females are more likely to be Attention Narcissists.

Not all narcissists are specially talented. It's being different in any substantive way that alienates someone enough that they lack appropriate connection/empathy for others. Having said that, if you were to take the objective top end of 'human stock', i.e. the most talented people on the planet, the elite, I believe they make up a spectrum that ranges from Self Actualism to Narcissism. These elites can exist anywhere on this spectrum, so they can be partly both, or more one than the other. Nonetheless, I will label and describe each end of the spectrum for the purposes of explanation.

The Elite Narcissist

Evelyn Williams: Thousands of roses and lots of chocolate truffles. Godiva, and oysters in the half-shell.
Patrick Bateman: [Bateman narrating] I'm trying to listen to the new Robert Palmer tape, but Evelyn, my supposed fiancée, keeps buzzing in my ear.
Evelyn Williams: Annie Leibovitz. We'll get Annie Leibovitz. And we'll have to get someone to videotape. Patrick, we should do it.
Patrick Bateman: Do what?
Evelyn Williams: Get married. Have a wedding.
Patrick Bateman: No, I can't take the time off work.
Evelyn Williams: Your father practically owns the company. You can do anything you like, silly.
Patrick Bateman: I don't want to talk about it.
Evelyn Williams: You hate that job anyway. I don't see why you just don't quit.
Patrick Bateman: Because I want to fit in.
-- from the film American Psycho

The externally defined elite have all their talents wired/devoted to getting rewards from external things, the game of life, money, success, fame, beautiful travel locations, beautiful things, and interestingly substance abuse (an external thing which yields temporary happiness). Regular drinking/smoking/etc will make them happy, the love/attention of a beautiful, talented, or successful person will make them happy, a nice fancy car will make them happy... they think. Because you have to, or they think you have to, be constantly attentive to external queues to get all these external rewards, they have little internal judgment development.

Whatever people, they consider impressive, value, they value. Ask them exactly why they value it, and they won't be able to give you a meaningful reason because they don't think in terms of meaning. They think in terms of getting the things that whatever culture they identify with deem prestigious. Consequently, they're attentive to that pretty mate they want, that nice car they want, that nice house they want, or any external things that can help deliver those things, but not what anything really means (i.e. the basis of the value). Because their identity is these external strivings and they don't have any developed internal judgment of meaning/ethics, they can more easily do and say horrible things.

Contrary to most writings on Narcissism, they are actually not the center of their universe. Impressive external rewards and achievements they believe will satiate their emptiness are the center of their universe. Naturally, none of this stuff in the end makes them sustainably happy but the constant pursuit of it can at very least preoccupy the externally defined elite from their internal emptiness, often for an internally shallow, empty lifetime. The fact that the average person also has no real unique identity, just collective mirroring, allows dangerous Narcissists who achieve power to actually have a major influence on their environments resulting in catastrophic consequences. Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin are just two examples of this.

The Elite Narcissist takes comfort that what they are striving for has prestige in the world, even if it really doesn't add any meaningful value to their life (or the world). It is a certain bet to respectability and acceptance. If they are important to people, loved or even feared, they feel rewarded/affirmed. They may not truly relate/connect to anyone emotionally, but if successful the Elite Narcissist will be able to play a role that enables them superficial connection with others, and the appearance of an ideal life. The Elite Narcissist would rather be successful at the cost of an internal identity, than an authentic person who is unimpressive to others, and the worst case scenario (to them) invisible. To be an alien is one thing, to be an unattractive alien is too much to bare. Happiness is about consistently feeding their appetite for external attention/reward/pleasure not about looking inside and figuring out an authentic life path. Inside is the lingering problem for Narcissists in their view (if they're even aware they have a problem, which is unlikely).

The Self-Actualist

The internally defined elite have all their talents wired/devoted to self actualism, they care about making sense of things, finding meaning, living a life that makes internal sense regardless of external norms. They typically shun and/or are oblivious to tradition and convention. Albert Einstein is noted in biographies as having a deep hatred for conformity growing up. His earned reputation for having an irreverent/independent streak kept him from getting an academic post for many years after he had finished his studies at the top of his class. Self-Actualists tend to be minimalists. They typically invest in their internally driven path not in material comforts or in anything else which doesn't further their path. Most great minds that have advanced civilization have been Self-Actualists, but that effect was not what drove them.

The Self-Actualist takes comfort that what they do is meaningful for them, even if they devote their lives to ventures which in the worst case scenario ultimately fail. They don't care whether they are impressive to others as that doesn't increase the likelihood that whatever ideas they pursue/experiment with will succeed. Happiness is about following their own path.

Interestingly, because individual paths are unique, and therefore inherently variable, Self-Actualists share little in common with each other in their positive ('this is me') personality assessment results. They however share distinct commonality on what they are not (i.e. what they score low on). In fact, on a list of 308 statistically signficant items that correlate with the Attention Narcissism personality trait, only about 8 of them are positively associated with being a Self Actualist, the rest are all negatively correlated. Even those eight have fairly small correlations.

These are the Global Personality Traits that correlate positively with Attention Narcissism (and therefore negatively with Self Actualism)

Vanity .376
Histrionic .340
Friend-Centered .291
Materialism. .280
Need to Dominate .256
Dependency .254

Everything on the list was fairly obvious to me except Friend-Centered. But for someone who needs a lot of attention to fill the void, a group of friends is necessary, maybe, essential. Also, since Narcissists all share the same basic values, it's easy to find the mirroring, Narcissist friendship requires. They are all similarly empty on the inside and image/prestige focused on the outside. They just need to find someone with the same distinct external outfit.

This possibly helps to explain how certain small subcultures can have such uniform dress styles. These are people who feel different, and as a result have a void in their need for connection and purpose. Instead of taking it upon themselves to fill that void with an authentic internally defined role (certainly not an easy task), they choose to find an external subculture that already exists in which they can 'assume' a role in.

This phenomena reminds me of a section in Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point about Mavens. Mavens are basically those people you know that are experts on certain topics (music geeks, tech geeks, etc.). Basically, Gladwell talks about a consultant who specializes in finding trends (then sells it to companies for lots of money who use the info to sell you stuff you don't need). The consultant talked about how the kind of person she generally finds most knowledgeable to glean market study research from is the person in some obscure subculture who isn't wearing the uniform. Which translates to someone who is different, but doesn't feel the need to adopt a subculture uniform. Someone like that presumably, is internally directed, a Self Actualist.

The Big Question, What makes a really talented person go the Narcissist or Self Actualist route?

This is a mystery that I am only starting to work on. Here are some initial thoughts on the subject.

Everyone says and does stupid things. Most people get feedback from others giving them a sense of what things they do are not ideal (or at least what things other people consider are not ideal). Really smart, rich, and/or really attractive people might be immune from this instructive feedback loop, either because they don't get criticized much or because they believe they are above it. The tv show 30 Rock did a very effective satire of this phenomena they labeled "the bubble effect". Mad Men's John Hamm played a handsome doctor who thought he was wonderful at all these different things because everyone - awed by his looks/charm - had never been honest with him. He was actually painfully incompetent at most everything, including medical skills.

When Liz Lemon enlightened him on the bubble he was living in he initially welcomed her to be honest with him. Pretty quickly, he couldn't handle the truth, erupting in Narcissistic Rage when she, a bad tennis player, beat him at tennis (he thought he was a pro caliber player). He eventually told her he wanted to resume living in the bubble. So, maybe people just follow whatever path is easiest for them. That's actually the thesis of Frank J. Sullaway's Born to Rebel sibling order theory, that younger siblings adopt an ideologically harder route (unconventionalism) only because easier conventional routes are already adopted by older siblings and they want to stand out in some way.

One could argue that Elite Narcissists are more likely to get positive feedback rewarding enough to build a life around. This is possible, however having recently read an Einstein biography, he was depicted as rather physically attractive and charming to others. However, his unconventional disposition frequently alienated him early on from external rewards. So maybe it comes down to what one finds rewarding. The Elite Narcissist finds the path of external rewards more rewarding (for any number of reasons), or at least rewarding enough to stick to. The Self-Actualist either couldn't have made it as a Narcissist if they wanted to or they simply found that path unrewarding.

Contrarian Thoughts

The Self-Actualist though happy in following their own individual path is not benefiting the world if their path does not generate any useful results. Response: in most instances, they would have to do enough for the world to make a living, and that is enough to satisfy their responsibility. Further, from a scientific method perspective you have vastly more failures for every one success. So, A healthy culture may require lots of Self-Actualists whose individual lives pursue unrewarding paths (from the standpoint of benefiting humanity), if it hopes to have any Self-Actualists who succeed in pursuing beneficial paths which benefit everyone.

Prestigious things reflect a society's or culture's or subculture's collective judgement of what has the greatest value. Pursuit of these prestigious things is a superior substitute to individually discerned preferences. Democracy trumps individual choice. Response: Novel ideas and discoveries are what have thus far improved civilization. The kind of skill set required to achieve novel ideas and discoveries has been historically in conflict with the infrastructure that determines what is prestigious. The historical examples of this are endless. Contemporary example: almost every great scientific breakthrough in this century has come from someone under the age of thirty, yet the majority of scientific grant money goes to scientists well over thirty. Social systems up to now have not proven effective at maximizing resources in a way the insures the most rational, scientific, and progressive orientation. The best that's been done thus far are systems that allow enough individual freedom for Self-Actualism to even be viable (for at least some of the population).

While it can be argued one needs a certain amount attention, love, and material rewards to be happy, the Elite Narcissist has a never ending unsustainable appetite because at the core they are nothing but appetite and yearning, searching futilely for external validation and fulfillment. The identity of a Narcissist is inherently tied/dependent on external values and stimuli at the cost of internal values and stimuli. Internal values and stimuli are essential to developing and having an individual sense of self. Narcissists, use external values and stimuli (awards, success, drugs, attention from friends, family, relationships) to regulate and define who they are.

Internal values and stimuli get neglected and ignored resulting in a person who doesn't really know who they are and is often dissatisfied/resentful/angry whenever external things don't make them happy (since the external is most of who they are / their foundation). The Self Actualist, on the contrary, has some meaningful evolving working plan at their core. Consequently, their happiness can potentially be achieved (but certainly not always).

Transitioning from Narcissist to Self Actualist

The longer you spend devoting your energy to the external validation treadmill, the more of your life you waste, voluntarily, because no one is forcing you to do it.

Start figuring out what you actually like to do most (that is not about impressing or getting attention). Start developing your own internal sense of valuing things. Consider your responsibility to others, the world. Don't shut out negative feelings anymore. Start experiencing, processing, and making sense of them. They are a normal part of life and have real value. There existence is not to torture you, but to serve as emotional feedback. Find a job/vocation/career which matches your newly discerned interests and enables you to obtain/afford food and rent. If not, make a plan for transitioning to that.

You may try several different paths before you find one that works for you. Ask for help if/when you really need it. If you have to do stuff you don't love in the meantime, do just enough to get by, any more is a waste. Worst case scenario, you may never find or be able to create a career which really matches your interests in which case you will have to just find the most tolerable solution to meeting your material needs (pursuing your core interests in your free time). Meeting material needs can be a challenge if you need to impress people with a fancy life in a fancy city. But if you pursue a path of internal development, your needs should be very basic and very manageable.

Self Actualism isn't about ignoring external feedback, it's about being capable of disagreeing with it, if you determine it lacking. It's about valuing truth over prestige, sensibility over popularity. You also need to be able to disagree with yourself, be comfortable with being wrong, welcome the prospect.

You can't pursue the Self Actualist path unless you accept and are fine with the possibility that externally you will be considered a failure and may actually end up a failure in the eyes of others. When you can do that, enough, you are more Self Actualist, than Narcissist. Why? Unless you think the world is never going to change/progress, a lot of what we know currently is wrong. So if you are interested in progressing, you will inevitably pursue paths which conflict with current thinking. Some of those paths will be errant (legitimately wrong), but even the one's that are not will still be seen as certain failures. Only someone with an internally based compass could weather a life of uncertain paths.

Related Article - Overweighting the External: Ted Kaczynski, Linus Van Pelt, and Narcissism

   

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