What Causes Narcissism? It Might Be Linked To Parenting, But Not In The Way You'd Expect
It's an old joke in psychology: In the end, everything goes back to the mother. The reality is far more nuanced — you can't actually blame a mother for her child's actions (and I would argue that doing so reveals our culture's deep-seated gender bias) — but parents do wield an enormous influence over their children's mental health. According to a study recently profiled in Science of Us, what causes narcissism might be linked to parenting. In a paper to be published in the next issue of the Annual Review of Clinical Psychology , researchers at the University of Georgia explain that different ways of parenting may be associated with how narcissism manifests later in life.
Narcissism can be divided into two types, grandiose and vulnerable. The former is what you probably picture when you think of a narcissist; grandiose narcissists are incredibly confident and feel that they're inherently superior to other people. Vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, are more sensitive and tend to seek out validation that they're special. Speculation about what causes narcissism abounds in the psychological community, but there's comparatively little actual research on the subject.
That's where the University of Georgia research comes in. According to the Science of Us, researchers point out in their paper that most theories point back to parenting as the cause of narcissism — just in different ways. According to one way of thinking, narcissism is the result of overattentive parents. When someone grows up being told how special and lovely they are, according to this theory, they wind up with an inflated (dare I say, grandiose?) sense of their abilities.
Other psychologists hold the opposite belief. Instead of being the result of too much affection, narcissism develops as a way to cope with inattentive parents; their apparent confidence is a shell hiding their low self-esteem.
The theories appear to contradict each other, but it's possible that they're both on to something. In the Clinical Psychology paper, researchers examined data on parenting and narcissism. They conclude that it's possible grandiose narcissists are linked to the more attentive style of parenting, if there's a parenting connection at all. Vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, may develop from "colder, more controlling/intrusive, or inconsistent parenting."
It's just a preliminary connection, and far more research has to be done before any solid conclusions can be drawn. It's also worth noting that personality disorders appear to have a substantial genetic component, so a child may wind up narcissistic even if their parents were miraculously perfect. By definition, personalities are fairly persistent, and they tend to solidify when we're young — maybe even as early as first grade.
But that doesn't make it any less fun to armchair psychoanalyze for funsies. So next time you're headed to a party, bust out the question that tells you if someone is a narcissist, and prepare to ask probing questions about their childhood. Trust me — the narcissistic partygoers will love it.