Existence has long been associated with the pain of living. Everyday life inherently poses many challenges to physical and mental integrity. Modern life in particular is characterized by frequent assaults on self-esteem in the form of unceasing comparisons to others via social media, popular culture and advertising. These inadvertent challenges to the self trigger insecurities in many people. Some of them cope with the associated mental pain by performative self-elevation (or “flexing”). Examples of flexing include casual name-dropping, boasting about one’s material or moral self-worth, or pretending to be part of the cultural elite. Of course, some people always had such tendencies, but it is telling that Gen-Z coined a term for this phenomenon (akin to Germans having a word for “Schadenfreude” – people from all cultures recognize the emotion of deriving joy from someone else’s misfortune, but Germans actually have a word for it).
Our research identified the people who are particularly prone to engage in this flexing behavior. It is – in principle – possible that people with such tendencies are genuinely grandiose. However, our findings suggest that this is not the case. Conversely, it is – in particular – highly insecure individuals who tend to do most of the flexing. We also found a strong relationship between insecurity and narcissism (the correlation is astonishingly high, at the limits of what one could expect, given the underlying reliabilities of the instruments used to measure these constructs). This suggests that narcissism (“extreme self-love”) might be widely misunderstood. Instead of being characterized by excessive self-love, the exact opposite seems to be the case. Narcissists appear to harbor deep-seated insecurities and – if triggered by challenges to self-worth – they tend to cope by flexing.
Of course this research raises several important questions. For instance, it would be interesting to know how challenges to self-worth, insecurity, narcissism and flexing interact and develop in the long term. One peculiar consequence of flexing behavior is that it does not actually elevate the individual socially. In many cases, it will instead have a paradoxical effect: As some consider narcissistic behaviors to be particularly annoying, exhibiting them adds to their experienced pain of living, which in turn makes them like the flexing individual less. In other words, while flexing represents a short-term band-aid to one’s injured self-esteem, it makes others who consider flexing to be insufferable think even less of them in the long run, particularly if the flexing is cringe.
From this perspective, narcissism is the end-result of a runaway maladaptive cascade – a vicious cycle between social challenges to self-esteem and ill-advised coping mechanisms (flexing) – which reinforce each other over time. Whether this is actually true will have to be the subject of future research. It is also unclear why not everyone responds to social comparison with flexing. There might be other predisposing factors that have to be jointly present (perhaps lack of self-awareness or social skills) that bring about this unpleasant behavior in some individuals.
Our study also highlights the notion that behavior cannot be taken at face value. Motivations matter. For instance, psychopaths – who tend to be genuinely grandiose – might exhibit the same behaviors as narcissists, but for very different reasons. It is possible to tease these apart, i.e. one could conceive of a study showing that narcissists seek status whereas psychopaths seek power, but by using behaviors that are similar on the surface-level.
Three final brief points:
- It is the case that sufferers and clinicians have suspected this for a long time. But it is arguably the point of science to test such widely held beliefs to assess whether they are actually true.
- Even if you believe the results are well known, it stands to reason that this maladaptive behavior is remarkable. Not everyone with insecurities reacts like this. On the contrary, many people suffer from imposter syndrome or manage to stay humble and blessed in other ways. Why do something that makes the situation so much worse for everyone and frequently leads to many awkward situations?
- Third, there is clinical potential. In other words, NPD is challenging to treat. A better way – now that the underlying reason seems clear could be in making them feel safe. Something must have caused psychological wounds, probably in childhood. Maybe it is time to heal those wounds in a more positive and sustainable way?
To conclude, the tidal wave of narcissism, flexing and insecurities can perhaps be chalked up as another unintended consequence of modern information technology, along with the amplification of hyper-polarization. In the long term, society will have to come to terms with these developments if it is to avoid total collapse.