Is narcissism caused by nature or nurture?


Although the consensus seems to be that narcissism or NPD (clinical narcissism) is a result of abuse or neglect during childhood, there may also be genetic factors involved.   An article from The Narcissistic Life cites several studies and concludes that narcissism results from a combination of nature and nurture, describing it this way:

These factors include biological vulnerability, social interactions with early caregivers, and psychological factors that involve temperament. There are studies that suggest that a gene (or genes) for narcissism can be inherited but that a person also needs the “right” environment for narcissism to be manifested.

What this means is that while a child may be born with a predisposition to becoming a narcissist, they won’t unless environmental factors are also fulfilled.  If the parents do their job well and give the child a secure emotional foundation, they will not develop NPD even if they are predisposed to it.    In this way it works a lot like alcoholism:  alcoholics are probably born predisposed to becoming alcoholic, but if they don’t take their first drink until they are well past adolescence or if the culture they are raised in discourages heavy drinking (or drinking at all), they will not develop alcoholism.

Some babies are born more demanding or needy than others.   These may be “difficult” children who are easily hurt or upset and have trouble learning self-soothing.   Such a temperament doesn’t necessarily indicate the child will become a narcissist, but they are probably more likely to than a calm baby who can soothe themselves, if the parents fail to mirror them properly or don’t attend to their emotional needs.

Most children whose parents were abusive or neglectful do not become narcissists.  They may develop some other problem like C-PTSD or BPD or be prone to depression or anxiety instead.  These are probably children who have a calmer, less sensitive or less demanding temperament than children who grow up to be narcissists.  Personally I think people who develop narcissism were children who were especially sensitive and had no emotional defenses at all so they sent the true self into exile and replaced it with a false one.   No other mental disorder causes a person to completely reject their own vulnerability and authenticity.


It’s not always abused children who become narcissists.  Some are children who are spoiled by their parents. Spoiling may actually be a form of abuse, because it’s a lie and doesn’t acknowledge the child’s real self.  It still fails to mirror them properly.  The child is constantly told how perfect they are and showered with gifts and praise for being so “perfect.”  As a result, they feel like they must always be perfect which of course is a lie.  They feel entitled to whatever they want because of this belief in how perfect they are, and they never learn how to deal with criticism or setbacks when they get out into the real world.

I also think the nature of the abuse and role in the family plays a big part in whether a child develops narcissism and what type of narcissism they develop.   Golden children, who are essentially spoiled children, are more likely to become narcissists than scapegoats are.   Children who serve as both scapegoats and golden children (common in only children) can also become narcissistic, but I think they’re more likely to become Borderlines.   If a scapegoated child does become a narcissist, it’s more likely they’ll become the covert, fragile type of narcissist than the grandiose, overt type.

Some studies have also shown that narcissists’ brains have less grey matter in the left anterior insula region of the brain, thought by researchers to be involved with both the regulation of emotion and the generation of empathy.   But the jury is out on whether these brain differences are genetic or if the brains of narcissists fail to develop properly due to being raised in a narcissism-inducing (abusive or spoiling) environment.

Further reading:

Does Excess Praise and Spoiling Create Narcissists?


Does excess praise and spoiling create narcissists?


Many experts, including Sam Vaknin, think spoiling a child or pouring on excess praise (placing them on a pedestal) is actually a form of child abuse, because it does not mirror the child as who they really are, but as who the parents wish them to be or believe them to be. Children not mirrored appropriately, whether excessively criticized or excessively praised, grow up unable to form a viable true self and are vulnerable to developing disorders of the self, especially NPD.

The following article explains in further detail why excessively praising a child can actually hurt their self esteem, rather than help it develop normally. It also describes the two types of praise–one that builds self esteem because it takes a child’s effort into account (“you worked hard to win that contest” or “you showed a lot of dedication in getting those A’s”) and one that fosters narcissism because it implies inherent superiority over others (“you’re the prettiest girl in school” or “you’re the smartest kid ever”).

Do Parents Nurture Narcissists By Pouring On The Praise?
By Poncie Rush, for

When a kid does something amazing, you want to tell her so. You might tell her that she’s very smart. You might tell her that she’s a very special kid. Or you might say that she must have worked really hard.

On the surface, they all sound like the same compliments. But according to Brad Bushman, a communications and psychology professor at Ohio State University, the first two increase the child’s chances of becoming a narcissist. Only the last one raises the child’s self-esteem and keeps her ego in check.

Bushman and a group of collaborators surveyed parents to see how they show warmth and value their child’s accomplishments. They then compared those findings to the children’s levels of self-esteem and narcissism. The results were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Of course, self-esteem and narcissism are two very different things. The difference has to do with how you value yourself compared to other people. “Self-esteem basically means you’re a person of worth equal with other people,” Bushman tells Shots. “Narcissism means you think you’re better than other people.”

And not in a good way.

“Narcissism is a somewhat toxic personality trait,” Jean Twenge, author of The Narcissism Epidemic and psychology professor at San Diego State University, tells Shots. Narcissists tend to overestimate their abilities, take too many risks and mess up their relationships, she says. Some people see narcissists hurting the people and society around them, but they hurt themselves, too. “In the long term it tends to lead to failure,” Twenge says.

While narcissists tend to have high self-esteem [my note–this is not true], not all people with high self-esteem are narcissists. Bushman needed to separate the two. So he asked children ages 7 to 12 years old how they felt about statements like “Some kids like the kind of person they are,” or “Kids like me deserve something extra.” The first statement measures self-esteem; the second, narcissism.

Bushman made sure to focus on children between 7 and 12 years old, so that by the time the study finished all of them would be older than 8. “You can’t measure narcissism in children before age 8, because every child is a narcissist,” he says. If you ask younger kids in a classroom if they are good at math or good at baseball, Bushman says all the kids will raise their hands.

Then he surveyed the children’s parents, asking them to respond to statements to determine whether they overvalued their children. For example, “I would not be surprised to learn that my child has extraordinary talents and abilities,” or “Without my child, his/her class would be much less fun.” And he asked how they expressed warmth toward their child by measuring how strongly they agreed with statements like “I let my child know I love him/her.”


When he analyzed the results from the surveys, Bushman found that the more narcissistic children had parents who consistently overvalued their accomplishments. He ran additional tests to make sure that the parents weren’t narcissists, too — after all, it’s possible that the children could be mirroring narcissistic behavior. But statistically, the children of narcissists aren’t more likely to be narcissists themselves.

The research team continued to survey the same group of 565 children and their parents for a year and a half. They watched the children develop, and they could link each child’s tendency toward self-esteem or narcissism back to what the parents had told them six months earlier.

“We’re not just measuring their narcissism at time one; we’re using these measures to predict the behavior a year and a half later,” says Bushman. “Parental warmth doesn’t predict it. Parental narcissism alone doesn’t predict it. But parental overvaluation alone does predict it.”

Bushman is particularly worried about narcissism because both he and other researchers have linked it to aggressive and violent behavior. He thinks it’s partly because narcissists are less likely to feel empathy toward others.

“Empathy involves putting yourselves in other people’s shoes, but narcissists have a very difficult time putting themselves in other people’s shoes,” Bushman says. Plus, he says that narcissists respond poorly when they don’t get special treatment. “Whenever people have this sense of superiority, then they lash out at others in an aggressive way.”

Of course, someone who appears more narcissistic at age 10 isn’t necessarily going to grow up to be a narcissistic adult, let alone aggressive. And the results of this study hinge on a handful of short surveys — no extensive personality testing here.

“There are definitely going to be things that influence the personality after that stage,” says Twenge. “Those [narcissistic] tendencies may start to show up around then, but will continue to be influenced by parenting and environment throughout adolescence.”

But this study has Bushman thinking about the way he praises his own children. “It’s a lot better to say ‘You worked really hard’ than ‘You must be really smart,’ ” he says, “because if you tell the kid that they’re smart and then if they fail they think ‘Oh I’m stupid.’ ” If the praise relates to effort, a child who fails will work harder next time.

Bushman is also trying to cultivate self-esteem in his children, because people with high self-esteem tend to have lower levels of anxiety and depression over time. Based on Bushman’s research, parents can raise their children’s self-esteem just by expressing more warmth.

Both researchers agree that voicing the connection you feel to your children really helps. “If you want to look for a substitute for ‘You’re special,’ just say ‘I love you,’ ” says Twenge. “It’s what you mean, and it’s a much better message.”

Have a child age 8 to 12? Find your own “Parental Overvaluation” score here.

Original article is here.