Originally published on November 23, 2014
Narcissism has become a dirty word. But the kind of narcissism that’s such a hot topic all over the media and the Internet right now is the the type we call malignant narcissism–or at the very least, NPD. Narcissism isn’t a bad thing itself, but like most good things, it becomes bad when it becomes extreme or there is too much of it.
Why do we always hear about “malignant” narcissists, but never “benign” ones? Do they exist? This was a topic that was brought up in the comments section of one of my posts a few days ago.
Of course they do. Not everyone with narcissism is malignant. Narcissism, like autism, runs on a spectrum from practically non-existent to mild to moderate to severe. Most of us have some degree of narcissism, especially those of us with blogs! Studies have shown that people who post lots of photos on Facebook or Twitter or are very active on social media, who take a lot of selfies, or keep online journals or blogs where they talk about themselves are narcissistic, or at the very least, vain. Well, vanity is one aspect of narcissism.
Benign narcissists are lower on the spectrum than malignant narcissists. Some in the middle of the spectrum or close to the middle may be self-centered, can act like jerks, talk about themselves a lot, and may be overly concerned with their appearance, likeability, athletic prowess, or some other quality. Think of the popular kids you knew in high school, the cheerleaders and the overconfident jocks on the football team. (Of course, some of the “mean girls” and boys are probably malignant narcissists). Even farther below the annoying jerks on the spectrum, a benign narcissist is just a normal person with high self esteem.
Benign narcissists don’t normally use or manipulate others to get what they want, they have a conscience, and they can feel remorse, guilt or empathy. They can feel genuine love or care for someone else. They can be moved by beauty or truth. They can be happy for you. They can weep tears that aren’t of the crocodile variety. They may be annoying at times and seem full of themselves, but they are not generally dangerous to others. A malignant thing, whether it’s a tumor or a narcissist, is a threat. Something benign will generally not hurt or kill you.
Benign narcissists do not have NPD. Not all people with NPD are malignant narcissists, but they are still above the midpoint on the spectrum and can be manipulative and make other people suffer. They are more malignant than benign narcissists, who populate the entire lower half of the spectrum. In fact, most bloggers probably “suffer” from benign narcissism, at the very least.
Benign narcissism has evolutionary advantages. A woman wanting to look beautiful and who preens in the mirror or takes time choosing an attractive outfit is more likely to attract a mate than one who is slovenly and doesn’t take care of her appearance. A man who works out at the gym and takes pride in his appearance is likewise more likely to attract a beautiful woman than a flabby man who sits in a La-Z-Boy all day munching on hot wings and drinking beer. On the evolutionary level, attractiveness and beauty signify fertility and good health. Even if we don’t want children, we are unconsciously more attracted to people who appear fertile and healthy–which means a good looking person. Wanting to feel good about ourselves is healthy–and narcissistic. So reasonable levels of narcissism are healthy and have advantages in propagating the human species. A person without narcissism at all is a person who thinks they’re worthless and deserve nothing. That can be just as “malignant” as a dangerous narcissist, the difference being that person is more likely to hurt themselves instead of others–and are likely to suffer instead of making those around them suffer. Benign narcissism is good. It’s only when it overtakes other qualities necessary for survival that it becomes malignant and dangerous.
There’s even an increasingly popular theory stating that malignant narcissism (psychopathy) is an evolutionary strategy that was adaptive before we became sentient and civilized. Malignant narcissists and psychopaths normally fear commitment but have high sexual desire and like to have many sexual partners. They may be “serial monogamists” (keeping one lover at a time, but will callously leave one lover for the next) or they may be promiscuous, having several lovers at the same time.
For a man, being promiscuous or bedding many women can result in having many children (even if having children is not consciously desired). There are many male mammals that use this strategy–they don’t stay with the female or care for the young. They will mate with the female, impregnate her, and move on to the next. This strategy results in more offspring, which helps propagate the species. Of course, many of the young will die, but overall, the strategy works. Think of male lions: they are terrible fathers and “husbands.” Male lions are lazy and spend most of their days sleeping and lounging around while the female does all the hunting, caring for the cubs, and defending the pride. Male lions insist on being the first to eat a kill, even though the female was the one who did all the work and brought the kill back to the pride. A hungry male lion will aggressively cuff an upstart cub or a female who dares to eat before him (the male lions in the movie “The Lion King” are anthropomorphized and are atypical of real lions). Male lions are also known for killing unrelated cubs of a female he wants to mate with. This is to ensure she can only devote herself to his cubs, once she gives birth to a new litter. This isn’t far off from the psychopathic stepfathers we hear about in the news who abuse or even kill babies and young children that don’t belong to them.
It’s harder to see how this strategy would work for females, but think of reptiles or fish–or spiders. Non-mammalian females (except for birds, which are very nearly mammals) do not have the capacity to feel love for their young, and evolution has ensured they give birth to many young at a time to ensure that some survive. It’s to their advantage to drop their load of young and abandon them, moving on to finding another mate. In the case of the spider, the female will even eat the male after she mates with him. That’s pretty psychopathic, but the strategy works if you’re a spider.
A person with psychopathy seems to lack the higher, mammalian part of the limbic system of the brain that enables them to feel love or provide care for their young after they are born. They are acting on the reptilian (or in the case of males, the lower mammalian) brain instead, which all of us still possess. The problem is that as humans have become civilized, these reptilian, callous strategies that many animals use to propagate themselves have become maladaptive to civilization. That’s why we’ve developed laws that keep psychopathic behaviors that were once advantageous under control.
But a little narcissism is adaptive, because it helps us attract and keep a mate.