Spotting a narcissist should be easy, right? You'd think that people who are so obsessed with themselves would talk about themselves a lot, too — but according to new research, that's actually not the case. A study recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that narcissists don't use the pronoun “I” nearly as much as we all probably think they do. So much for being able to identify someone with narcissistic tendencies based on their vocabulary choice, huh?
It's been a commonly held belief that narcissists use what's called “I-talk” a lot — that is, they use personal pronouns like “I” and “me” much more than people with fewer narcissistic tendencies. But as the researchers for this new study — which, by the way, came together from six different universities, four in the U.S. and two in Germany — pointed out, the 1988 study from which this belief hails, Raskin and Shaw's "Narcissism and the use of personal pronouns," was actually rather small: It only had 48 participants. So what happens when you widen the pool to several thousand participants? Does the I-talk-narcissism connection hold? Let's see what the new research uncovered:
The study aimed to examine three specific questions: “To what extent is narcissism related to first-person singular pronouns (i.e., I-talk)?”, “To what extent does the relationship between narcissism and I-talk vary across communication contexts?”, and “To what extent does the relationship between narcissism and I-talk vary by gender?” They conducted a whopping 15 different experiments in an effort to uncover some answers to these questions, the end result of which was data gathered from 4,800 participants. You can check out all of the experiments here(the paper is free to read online), but they all followed the same general format: Participants answered a series of questionnaires that measured them on their narcissistic tendencies (like the Narcissistic Personality Inventory), and performed some sort of action that allowed the researchers to check out how often they used I-talk. These I-talk measures ranged from examining their Facebook status updates to talking about one of their hobbies for a few minutes.
After they had gathered all their data, the researchers ran a correlation to see whether there was a connection between people who scored highly on narcissistic traits and those who frequently used I-talk.
Here's where things get interesting: I-talk usage turned out to be totally unrelated to narcissistic tendencies across all three research questions in all of the countries in which the study was conducted. Using “I” and “me” a lot didn't correlate with narcissism; it didn't vary across communication contexts (that is, it was pretty much the same, regardless as to whether they were talking or writing); and it didn't even vary according to gender. Although the study did find that men are slightly more prone to narcissism and I-talk than women, the researchers noted that the effects were “relatively small in magnitude and often not statistically significant.”
So… What Next?
The big question to come out of this study is this: If I-talk doesn't denote a narcissist, what does? In response, Forbes points to Harvard Medical School's Craig Malkin, who wrote the book Rethinking Narcissism. Look for authoritative statements, rather than expressions of how someone feels: Says Malkin, “Narcissists are arrogant and argumentative, even the shy, quiet types (covert). They're far more likely to interrupt, glaze over when you speak, swear, post provocative pictures, and tag themselves in social media than ever use the word 'I.'” Why? According to Malkin, “Tagging opinions with 'I' makes them sound subjective instead of like what they're saying is absolute truth — and narcissists like to think — and prove — that they've cornered the market on truth.”
Indeed, this is actually the angle the researchers are looking to explore next: How narcissism is revealed through language, if not through I-talk. Confirmed lead author Angela Carey to Science 2.0, “We are working on this question in a follow-up study using the same data.”
I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to the follow-up. Who knows what we might find?
Images: Cora Foxx/Bustle; Giphy (2)