Narcissist may be the only people capable of tolerating narcissists.
Picture a narcissist. Who comes to mind? Is it your narcissistic boss, the mean girls from high school, the parent preening in yoga pants at drop-off, a political candidate, a frenemy on the outside of your circle, one of your child’s classmates? When you get the image in mind, you can’t help but think, gosh, who would be friends with this person? That’s the question of a paper(link is external) in the March issue of the journal Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin. Really, what kind of person is besties with a narcissist?
It’s an interesting question for many reasons, one of which is the fact that the members of a friend circle don’t tend to share personalities. Previous research(link is external) shows that best friends tend to be as different from each other and they are from a randomly chosen stranger. “The reason that people initiate friendships are manifold,” writes the paper, and these many reasons result in best friends that pair an introvert with an extravert, a crank with an optimist, or any other combination of seemingly mismatched personalities.
Is that true even when a narcissist makes friends?
To find out, the researchers from Humbolt University in Germany gathered 290 pairs of best friends and hit them with personality tests – a widely used test of the Big Five personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness,neuroticism) and also a common test of what is called the “dark triad” of personality traits, namely narcissism, psychopathology and Machiavellianism (the last one is a person’s tendency to use cunning to control others). In this big stew of numbers, the researchers were able to ask if personalities – good and bad – tended to clump together between best friends.
Of course, there were pairs with very similar personalities, but there were also pairs in which the friends were very different from each other and so overall it was nearly a wash: The personalities of best friends were only slightly more similar to each other than they were to a randomly chosen stranger. (This goes against my intuition…and maybe yours, too?)
Now let’s look at narcissists. Unlike people pulled randomly from this sample, the Big Five personality traits of someone who scored high in narcissism were likely to be very similar to the personality traits of his or her best friend. This was almost doubly true when both best friends scored high in narcissism. In the (lovely…) case of a narcissist paired with a narcissist, Big Five personality traits tended to be extremely similar; the more a pair’s narcissism pushed toward the top of the scale, the more similar were their personalities.
Yes, narcissists are friends with versions of themselves. And when both friends are narcissists, the pull of shared personality is powerful. (This was true whether the pair was made up of female, male or female/male best friend pairs.)
My first thought was that the reason for this similarity must be that narcissists consider themselves perfect and so seek out “perfect” friends who share their own “perfect” personality. But that’s not the only explanation. Maybe, the authors suggest, the reason that narcissists end up being friends with people like themselves is that these same-personality friends are the only ones who can stand them.
The authors write that, “There is evidence that narcissists are even more tolerant of others’ narcissistic traits (e.g., bossy aggressive, arrogant, selfish) when they possess these characteristics themselves… based on their positive self-view and tendency to be less repelled by narcissistic traits.”
Personally, I can’t think of a whole lot scarier than the power couple composed of a pair of personality-aligned narcissists. But maybe in addition to fearing the power of best-friend narcissists, we could also find some pity? It may not be that narcissists seek themselves, but that they can’t help but be stuck with themselves.