Different kinds of narcissists appear to respond differently to different kinds of pain experiences, according to new research published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
“Previous research into narcissism has found that narcissists exhibit a different response to social rejection and social pain than non-narcissists. We were interested in whether this finding could be replicated and then expanded to physical pain,” said study author Melissa T. Buelow of The Ohio State University.
Her co-author, Amy Brunell, added that “there’s considerable research that demonstrates that the brain processes physical pain and social pain in similar ways — we wanted to examine what the narcissistic experience of pain was.”
The researchers conducted three separate studies, which indicated that “narcissists are biased in the way the way they interpret and report about their experiences,” Brunell said.
The studies examined both vulnerable and grandiose subtypes of narcissism. Vulnerable narcissism is characterized by excessive self-absorption, introversion and insecurity, while grandiose narcissism is characterized by an exaggerated sense of superiority, extroversion, and domineering behavior.
For their first study, the researchers had 1,330 undergraduate students complete assessments of narcissism before indicating how much they agreed with statements such as “When I’m in pain, I can’t seem to keep it out of my mind” and “I am afraid that I might injure myself accidentally.” The researchers found that grandiose narcissists reported reduced preoccupation with pain, while vulnerable narcissists reported heightened preoccupation with pain.
“Two interpretations can come from this finding,” they wrote in their study. “One is that vulnerable narcissists have a more intense response to pain than grandiose narcissists. A second is that vulnerable narcissists are more open with their self-reported negative experiences (pain) than grandiose narcissists.”
In an effort to find out which interpretation was correct, Brunell and her colleagues conducted two more studies.
In the second, 105 undergraduate students participated in a Cyberball task, a virtual game designed to evoke either feelings of social inclusion or exclusion. After finishing the game, the participants completed three tests of cognitive ability.
Vulnerable narcissists tended to perform worse on the learning and memory tests following social exclusion (compared to social inclusion.) Grandiose narcissists, on the other hand, did not appear to be impacted by exclusion. “It appears that grandiose narcissists were simply less bothered by the experience of social pain or are better able to rationalize it,” the researchers said.
In the third study, which included 69 undergraduate students, the researchers examined physical pain sensitivity by having the participants partially submerge their arm in a cold water bath for one minute. The participants rated their level of pain every 20 seconds.
The degree of reported pain was unrelated to narcissism levels. However, grandiose narcissism was associated with worse mood from experiencing pain.
The findings provide some evidence that “narcissists can experience both physical and social pain differently than non-narcissists,” Buelow said. “Narcissists may self-report being unaffected by an experience of ostracism or of physical pain, but may instead endorse lowered mood (which may indicate they actually are experiencing pain but will not acknowledge it.)”
“A limitation was the smaller number of participants included in Studies 2 and 3,” Buelow noted. “Our findings indicate some question as to whether narcissists are open to self-reporting negative reactions to painful experiences. A future study should directly examine openness in the context of self-report among narcissists and non-narcissists.”
The study, “Narcissism and the experience of pain“, was authored by Amy B. Brunell, Melissa T. Buelow, and Zina Trost.