Recently I was doing some research for a projected essay on the “pickup artist” phenomenon, when I came across a rather interesting piece in Psychology Today titled “How to Spot a Narcissist.” The article contained a link to something called the “Narcissistic Personality Inventory,” a widely-used test designed by psychologists. On a whim, I devoted a few minutes to taking this test — and got quite a shock. My score was 29.
To put this into perspective, scores between 12 and 15 are considered “average.” If you score over 20 you are officially a narcissist. The “interpretive” portion of the test adds this helpful remark: “Celebrities often score closer to 18.” Great. This means I might be a bigger narcissist than Angelina Jolie.
I took the test again, this time thinking a bit more about each item and trying to be completely honest with myself. I again scored 29.
The test consists of 40 items. In each case you are supposed to choose which of two statements describes you best. Item One, for example, asks you to choose between Option A “I have a natural talent for influencing people,” and Option B “I am not good at influencing people.” I chose Option A, since it is true and has been all my life (in fact, I believe I started influencing people as a zygote). This was my first mistake. Because it was a very narcissistic answer.
My other narcissistic answers included “Modesty doesn’t become me,” “I can usually talk my way out of anything,” and “I will be a success.” But consider that last one. The other option was “I am not too concerned about success.” That’s not true of me — and it’s not true of most people, in fact. Do I have a basic conviction that I am (or will be) successful? Yes. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it? But I’m getting ahead of myself . . .
I knew I was in trouble when I chose “If I ruled the world it would be a better place.” The other option was “The thought of ruling the world frightens the hell out of me.” Well, in a way it does. Ruling the world would be an awesome, intimidating responsibility. However it’s also true that the world would be better off if I were in charge. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not being arrogant, because I recognize that becoming King of the World would probably involve a rather steep learning curve. But could I do any worse than the present bunch of scoundrels and fools? In fact I’ll wager that probably everyone reading this website would rather have me in charge.
And that must mean that I’m right. Right? I mean, “I know that I’m good because everyone keeps telling me so” (#4, Option B). Actually, that was one of the “narcissistic” responses I did not pick. However, I did pick “I think I am a special person.” I picked this for the same reason I picked “I am an extraordinary person”: I have an unwavering commitment to the truth.
The fact is that I am special and extraordinary, for too many reasons to list here. One reason, however, is something I have in common with a good many of the other special and extraordinary people reading me right now: I have seen through the bullshit. I have seen through the bullshit that passes for truth in our society, and spoken out against it (okay, I’ve spoken out against it using a fake name — but at least I’ve done something). I’m not one of the herd. This isn’t me flattering myself, it’s the truth.
And this brings me to a general problem I have with this entire test. Saying you’re “special” or “extraordinary” is only a problem if you aren’t “special” and “extraordinary” — in other words, if these claims aren’t based on anything. I had a similar problem with how the test treats what it calls “authority.” This involves how (or whether) you perceive yourself as a leader. In fact, a great deal of the test is devoted to this. For example, I chose “I see myself as a good leader,” “I like to take responsibility for making decisions,” “I would prefer to be a leader,” and “I am a born leader.”
I chose these because I have discovered in my life that I actually am good at being a leader – and I’ve been that way for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been the one who stepped in, organized things, and helped make things happen. And, oddly, people have always tended to just allow me to do this, because, I suppose, “People always seem to recognize my authority” — another option I selected, because in my life it’s usually been true.
I also chose “I like to have authority over other people,” because the alternative was “I don’t mind following orders.” Ugh. The trouble with that is that “I am more capable than other people” (#39, Option A). All my life I’ve been bedeviled by people who were lazy, disorganized, and incompetent. In fact, I work in a profession where you can distinguish yourself just by being minimally competent. The truth is that I am very self-critical: I don’t think I’m nearly as energetic, organized, and disciplined as I should be. Nevertheless, in those areas I have always tended to outshine the people around me. When I encounter someone I perceive as in some way more authoritative and knowledgeable than me, I’m always delighted. And yes, I would follow them. Over the barricades, in fact.
Some more about me, me, me: “I have a strong will to power.” Picking this one was irresistible, given my liking for Nietzsche. But it’s true. Given the choice, I’d rather have more power than less; more control over my life and my surroundings (and, yes, other people), than less. And, as Nietzsche taught us, “life is will to power.” I chose “I will never be satisfied until I get all that I deserve” because why should I shoot for less? (This ambitiousness is the reason why someday “I am going to be a great person,” and somebody will “someday write my biography.”) I checked “I insist upon getting the respect that is due me,” because what kind of person would I be if I didn’t? I am not so proud of checking “I like to be the center of attention” and “I usually show off if I get the chance.” But it’s true. For the psychologist, all of this makes me a pathological narcissist. I just kind of think it makes me a man. And I’m okay with that.
On one level, this test really is anti-male. Many of these “narcissistic” traits are classically masculine traits. But the problems here are actually much worse than this, and it’s Nietzsche that gives us the tools to understand them. What’s behind this test is slave morality: resentment against the strong, capable, self-confident, and self-affirming, whether male or female.
The test breaks narcissistic traits down into seven categories: authority, self-sufficiency, superiority, exhibitionism, exploitativeness, vanity, and entitlement.
The good news is that I scored pretty low on vanity (I don’t linger before mirrors). I scored highest of all on “authority.” But wait, that just means “leadership qualities” — and isn’t that a good thing? And what about self-suffiency? Since when did that become bad? “Superiority” certainly sounds bad, but all it really amounts to is a sense of being a person of real merit — which could be entirely justified. “Entitlement” is a related idea: it means recognizing that your merit entitles you to certain just desserts (a feeling Aristotle had much to say about, as we shall see anon). But why is that bad? Even “exploitativeness,” as portrayed in the test items, really just comes down to an ability to get people to do things. And that’s morally neutral. (I can agree, by the way, that “vanity” is a bad thing – as I will shortly discuss – but “exhibitionism” is often just a reflection of having a healthy thumos.)
In sum, the test basically tells us that having leadership qualities, being independent and self-sufficient, recognizing your own merit and wanting others to recognize it, and being able to get people to do things are all signs of a psychological malady. It’s transvaluation of values time, folks! And the slaves have got the knives out . . .
Aristotle’s moral ideal was what he called “the great-souled man” (megalopsuchos). He defines this individual as “one who, being worthy of great things, requires of himself that he be worthy of them.” In other words, he “thinks himself worthy of what he is actually worth.” He’s not just “special,” he’s “extraordinary”: and he knows it. Aristotle, as he usually does, contrasts this virtue with two vices. “On the other hand,” he writes, “the man who requires of himself that he be worthy of great things when he is not worthy is called ‘vain.’” Now, the basic problem with the Narcissistic Personality Inventory is that it gives us no way to distinguish between the great-souled man and the vain man: between the man who is justified in thinking himself great, and the man who is not.
Yes, I fear the great-souled man would rate as a terrible narcissist, if examined by today’s psychologists. And here’s the smoking gun: Aristotle tells us that “if a man both is and thinks himself worthy of great things, and especially of the greatest, he would be concerned with one thing most of all.” That thing is honor — praise, acclaim, approbation — the “greatest of external goods” (greater than money or possessions, for example).
So a great-souled man is concerned with honors and dishonors as he should be. And, apart from this argument, great-souled men do appear to be concerned with honor; for it is great men who think themselves worthy of honor most of all, and they do this in virtue of their worth.
In other words, the great-souled man wants “to amount to something in the eyes of the world” (#18, Option B). Goodness! If he goes on this way he might “insist on getting the respect that is due [him],” and not be satisfied “until [he] gets all that [he] deserves.”
Aristotle makes it clear, however, that the great-souled man is not moved by honor of just any sort:
A great-souled man, then, is concerned with honors and dishonors most of all, and he will be moderately pleased by great honors bestowed on him by virtuous men, as if he were receiving what belongs to him or even less; for no honor could equal the worth of his complete virtue. Yet he will of course accept it, since virtuous men can have nothing greater to bestow on him. As for honor paid to him by ordinary people and for actions of little worth, he will regard it as entirely unworthy, for he will consider those actions beneath him; and likewise for dishonor, for dishonor does not apply to him justly.
The vain man, on the other hand, is overly pleased by honors, and undiscriminating in who he accepts them from. The honor of vicious people is as pleasing to him as the honor of virtuous people. And he is not above being crushed by the disapproval (or “dishonor”) of others, no matter who they are, since their approval means so much to him. The heart of the “narcissistic personality” really is what Aristotle would call “vanity,” and this is what people are responding to negatively when they think they’ve pegged somebody as a “narcissist.”
But, again, the criteria for narcissism developed by today’s headshrinkers give us no way to distinguish between the genuine article — the great-souled man — and the pretender, the vain man. And this is no accident. While I always responded to Aristotle’s description of the great-souled man (in Book Delta, Chapter 7 of the Nicomachean Ethics) with admiration and a desire to become that man, Aristotle’s moral ideal has provoked quite different reactions from others. For example, it made Bertrand Russell (a kind of real-life Ayn Rand villain) “shudder.”
To the resentful mediocrities in this world there are no great-souled men; there are no great men worthy of great things. There are only vain men: only pretenders (“narcissists”) waiting to be exposed and “treated.”
Now, the opposite of the vain man — the opposite sort of vice Aristotle discusses — is the “low-minded” man, “who thinks himself worthy of smaller things than he is worthy of.” But this is pretty close to the picture of mental health that emerges, indirectly, from the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.
To see this, consider the portrait of me that would emerge had I chosen quite different options on the test:
“I am much like everybody else.” “I am no better or worse than other people.” “I am essentially a modest person.” “I prefer to blend in with the crowd.” “I am not too concerned about success.” “I don’t mind following orders.” “I just want to be reasonably happy.” “Being an authority doesn’t mean that much to me.” “It makes little difference to me whether I am a leader or not.” “I try not to be a show off.” “I like to do things for other people.” “I am not good at influencing people.” Etc.
Who would agree with all of those statements? Why, the man of the future! The Last Man. The man without a chest. The man without qualities. The man happy to queue up and empty his pockets. The man who is contented enough just to have 500 channels. The man delighted to fit himself into the System as best he can. And with the help of Soma, he can do it! All necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused. This is the ideal citizen our psychologists are working to create – and working to free from the depredations of dangerous narcissists!
The good news about psychologists, though, is that they are always changing their minds. Psychology is the only “science” in which something can be declared no longer to be a disease simply by majority vote of a professional organization. In 1973, the American Psychological Association removed “homosexuality” from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Now, to be clear, I don’t think homosexuality is a mental illness. But the APA’s decision in this case was clearly motivated not by science, but by politics. A similar sort of unscientific arbitrariness is to be detected in the APA’s “criteria” for such maladies as Attention Deficit Disorder. It seems increasingly obvious that psychologists are now manufacturing and dismantling “disorders” at will. And many of their categorizations seem curiously tailored to the financial interests of pharmaceutical conglomerates.
Well, lately there has been fierce debate within the APA about whether to retain Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the DSM. (One obvious argument for eliminating it — which, to my knowledge, nobody has yet raised — is that narcissism of the phoney, vain variety is now the norm for modern Westerners.) Last year, the organization decided to retain narcissism in the DSM, but with major changes to its definition.
Still, the debate continues. Narcissism may yet one day be banished from the manuals. And I, for one, ardently hope that this day will come. For when it does, I will officially be cured.