It turns out that those with positive self-views bordering on narcissism are usually miserable mates - selfish, manipulative, unfaithful and power hungry. Though they may at first seem charming and interested in a relationship, they soon look for dominance rather than delight.
"These people can come on as confident and attractive, but you don't see the negative parts of their personalities until later," said Keith Campbell, assistant professor of psychology at UGA. "It doesn't seem possible that they can betray a relationship as flagrantly as they can. But they do."
The study, co-authored with Craig Foster of the U.S. Air Force Academy and Eli Finkel of Carnegie-Mellon University, was just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Narcissism, it turns out, has many ill-starred variants, and the so-called self-esteem movement may have been completely wrong in saying that a person who doesn't love herself or himself can't successfully love others.
Clinical narcissism itself is a personality disorder affecting only about 1 percent of the population, but there are millions who share characteristics of narcissists to a greater or lesser degree. In general, true narcissists think very highly of themselves, are not very concerned with intimacy, and believe they are unique and smarter and more attractive than others. They often maintain these feelings by seeking and expressing superiority to or dominance over others.
The defining feature of those with narcissistic tendencies, the study found, is what the researchers call "game-playing love." This is an approach in which the narcissist has an aversion to depending on a partner, is deceptive and often cheats. It allows a narcissist to maintain power and autonomy at the expense of his or her partner.
Despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, men are only slightly more likely than women to fall into this category. Indeed, male and female narcissists often date each other and play identical games.
The study was done using students from UGA, the University of North Carolina and Case Western Reserve University, who in certain samples were asked to complete a booklet containing measures of self-esteem, narcissism and love styles. Narcissism was measured with a standard testing tool called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.
"These studies don't necessarily mean that the importance granted to narcissism by the self-help literature is invalid," said Campbell, "but this proposition needs more clarification. There is evidence for a link between narcissism and loving others when narcissism is more akin to self-esteem."
Just why people with narcissistic tendencies become that way remains unclear. It could arise from experiences in early childhood or could even have a genetic component, but so little research has been done on narcissism that researchers aren't sure.
Campbell believes that these people are often clueless when it comes to the affect their behavior has on others. In fact, the studies show they rarely think about others seriously at all and probably never consider the havoc they are creating in interpersonal relationships. One of the problems is that in general people like others who appear successful and confident, and narcissists appear that way, often to excess.
"I don't believe narcissists are more successful than others, though," said Campbell. "One might think from their demeanor that they are, but it's just not true from what we can tell. Somebody always pays the price for the games they play."
These characteristics show why narcissists often find it easy to get dating partners but rarely have long-term relationships. And it's more than a matter of just being Mr. Wrong. They simply see no downside to creating the persona they perceive as successful, and that success, alas, is rarely sated. People with low opinions of themselves may be especially easy prey for narcissists.
While the study is among the first to point out that too much narcissism is just as bad as too little, it comes with some basic caveats, Campbell said. It relies on self-reporting for its basic data, it draws inferences from the material that may be open to multiple interpretations and finally there is no clear cut-off point between high narcissism and normal self-confidence, making judgments of the data somewhat difficult.
Despite these problems, the researchers were able to augment the self-reports with information from past and current dating partners of the participants in the study. In every case, the strategy of game-playing was paramount, and it led without question to serious problems in the relationships.
Viewing excessive narcissism as a problem is nothing new, of course. In Greek myth, Narcissus saw himself as beautiful and better than those around him, but his love of himself kept him from falling in love with anyone else. In the end, he fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and died.
The new study, however, is among the first to take what has been suspected for thousands of years and subject it to a rigorous scientific experiment. As it turns out, Narcissus probably got what was coming to him.