Social Media and Narcissism

Meta-analytic evidence on relationships between internet use and psychological variables

Based on Gnambs & Appel, 2018, Journal of Personality

What is Narcissism?

Since the late 19th century scientists interested in human experience and behavior described excessive self-love with the term narcissism.1 The term is based on the mythological figure of Narcissus who—instead of accepting an approach by the nymph Echo—fell in love with his image that was reflected from a pond’s surface. Narcissism is characterized by an inflated sense of the self and self-entitlement. In psychological research and practice, narcissism is often conceived as a personality trait, i.e., all persons in a society can be described along the dimension of low vs. high narcissism. There is, however, also a clinical form of narcissism, narcissist personality disorder.

When narcissism as a personality trait is focuses on, two distinct, albeit related forms of narcissism are documented3: Grandiose narcissism involves a sense of self-importance, uniqueness, dominance, and grandiosity. Vulnerable narcissism is characterized by insecurity, interpersonal hypersensitivity, and social withdrawal.

Individuals with a pronounced grandiose narcissism (the form that has received more attention in recent years) perceive themselves as gifted, remarkable, and successful, and individuals high in grandiose narcissism engage in active self-presentation (they tend to brag about their accomplishments4). These individuals need others in order to demonstrate their high and superior qualities and achievements.5 Narcissists’ high self-esteem is rather unstable and narcissists are more likely to react aggressively when they are faced with threats to their embellished self-concepts.

Narcissism and social media: Background

Researchers identified an increase in narcissism across time (“generation me”6) – but not all scholars agree that with this assessment.7 Differences in narcissism across time have been connected to the prevalent media culture, which is considered to reflect and shape individuals’ narcissism.8

Since the early days, concerns have been raised that Facebook is a playground that promotes narcissistic tendencies by encouraging users to present themselves frequently and in most positive ways.9; 10 Indeed, SNSs entail particular features of communication that differ from offline communication11, and that might suit narcissistic tendencies:

1) SNSs provide easy access to a large number of other individuals. Users have the opportunity to send self-related information to a large audience and to receive feedback about oneself and information about others.

2) SNSs provide partial or complete anonymity. Users can rather freely choose which information they present about themselves given the smaller likelihood that the presented information is scrutinized for consistency with true characteristics or achievements.

3) The asynchronicity of communication on SNSs gives users the opportunity to craft their self-presentations meticulously.

Do individuals who use social media intensively score high on questionnaires that assess narcissism? The available research is spread through different disciplines and remains somewhat inconclusive: Whereas many studies have supported the notion of a positive relationship between grandiose narcissism and the number of contacts on SNSs12; 13, others found no14;15 or reversed relationships16. Similarly, whereas some narrative reviews in the field tend to emphasize the narcissism–SNSs link8, others assess the connection to be non-established18. To avoid cherry-picking results, we conducted a meta-analysis on the relationship between SNS use and narcissism.

Results

The meta-analysis19 is based on 57 studies that were published between 2008 and 2015. Most studies were reported either in peer-reviewed journal articles (68%) or in books (2%); unpublished work appeared in theses (23%), conference proceedings, and research reports (8%). The meta-analytic database comprised 62 independent samples providing 289 effect sizes, with each sample contributing between 1 and 32 (Mdn= 3) effect sizes. The meta-analysis involved 25,631 participants (range of the individual samples’ Ns: 31 to 2,927) from 16 countries. About 50% of all samples originated from the United States, 21% from Europe, and 15% from Asia. Approximately 60% of the participants were female, and the mean age of the samples ranged from 14 to 35 years.

Most correlations (85%) involved variants of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.20 Among the diverse SNSs, Facebook (58%) and Twitter (14%) dominated the observed correlations; the rest referred to generic SNSs (11%) or various regional or special-purpose platforms, such as StudiVZ or Weibo.

The present meta-analysis provided three central findings.

  1. First, we identified an overall relationship between SNS behaviors and grandiose narcissism of r = .17 that replicated across a variety of conditions: Narcissism was equally predictive of activities on Facebook, Twitter, or other SNSs; the relationship did not vary with the gender composition or the age of the participants; and no differences were found between early and more recent studies. This relationship is of small to moderate size, according to prevalent interpretation guidelines.21; 22 Its size is similar to effect sizes often found in applied psychological research23; 24; as a point of comparison, a recent review involving nearly 8,000 effect sizes23 reported that empirical associations between attitudes and behaviors typically amounted to r =.16.

     

  2. Second, we provided a nuanced assessment of the SNS–narcissism link. As expected, the relationship was stronger for grandiose narcissism than for vulnerable narcissism (the latter association was nonsignificant). Our data further indicate that narcissists have a larger circle of contacts on SNSs, they are particularly inclined to upload photos, and they tend to feel a strong connectedness to Facebook (Facebook intensity25). Thus, although narcissists tend to spend more time on SNSs in general, they display specific usage patterns. Together, these usage behaviors explained about 20% of the differences in the observed effects and, thus, were partly responsible for the heterogeneous findings reported in the published literature.

  3. Third, our meta-analytical approach allowed us to compare findings from different countries and to relate the findings to their cultural contexts: Whereas the relationship was comparable in individualistic and collectivistic countries, the SNS behavior–narcissism link was particularly strong in societies in which social stratification is considered to be fixed and where citizens’ place in a society appears to be a given—countries with a large power distance26.

The more social media is used the higher is the likelihood for grandiose narcissism, ρ̂ = .18. However, this relationship is rather small.

 

Grandiose narcissism and social media use

Vulnerable narcissism and social media use were not related, ρ̂ = .08.

Vulnerable narcissism and social media use

Conclusion

In summary, the association between narcissism and social networking behavior proves to be a phenomenon that is supported by empirical research. It does not vary with the platform (e.g., Facebook vs. Twitter), with the average age or gender composition of the sample, or with the year the study was conducted. It is, however, restricted to the grandiose form of narcissism. Moreover, it fluctuates with the power distance in a culture and the specific SNS behavior under study. Future research is expected to incorporate longitudinal designs, to engage in a theory-guided assessment of behavioral patterns on social networking sites, and to intensify the search for moderating variables.

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