Narcissists are significantly overconfident in their intellectual performance

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Narcissists are less likely to use critical thinking processes that are important for solving problems and making sound decisions, new research from the University of Waterloo shows.

The researchers found that while many narcissists may perceive themselves as highly intelligent, critical thinkers, they are less likely to use important reflective thinking strategies when solving problems, Therefore, the high levels of confidence they have in their intellectual abilities are often misplaced.

Shane Littrell, lead author and cognitive psychology Ph.D. student at Waterloo, said that while there is research connecting personality to behaviour, “our research takes a step toward understanding how personality is associated with reflective thinking.”

Grandiose narcissists are significantly overconfident in their intellectual performance

As part of a series of studies investigating the relationship between narcissism, impulsiveness, and cognitive reflection, two types of narcissism – grandiose and vulnerable – were assessed.

Grandiose narcissists feel more entitled, superior to others, and have higher self-esteem, while vulnerable narcissists feel more insecure, defensive, introverted, and have lower self-esteem.

In one study, the researchers recruited 100 participants from the United States and assessed their performance on the Cognitive Reflection Test, self-reported engagement in reflection, metacognitive insight, Need for Cognition, and intuitive thinking.

In a later study, the assessments were repeated, with the additional examination of the impact of overconfidence on cognitive ability.

“We found that grandiose and vulnerable narcissism are negatively associated with certain types of important reflective thinking processes,” said Jonathan Fugelsang, who co-authored the study along with Evan Risko, both supervisors of Littrell and cognitive psychology professors at Waterloo.

Their results confirmed that grandiose narcissists are significantly overconfident in their intellectual performance.

“We also found that when vulnerable narcissists attempt to engage in cognitive reflection, they’re more likely to find it a confusing and ineffective experience,” said Littrell.

The research has helped to identify the associations between narcissism and reflective thinking processes, which could have important implications for broader societal questions. “In light of recent events over the past few years, the impact of narcissism (and other more negative personality attributes) has seen an increased interest from the media and the public at large

So, we felt this study might help answer interesting questions related to that larger public conversation,” Littrell said.

“With this research, we are able to learn more about the various factors involved in critical thinking and decision making.

The better we understand the things that can lead people to make poor decisions, the more we can help them make better ones,” Risko said.


Nowadays, an increasing tendency to describe narcissism as a non–clinical personality trait is being observed among psychologists (e.g., Paulhus and Williams, 2002).

Empirical data show that narcissism is connected to a variety of psychological variables such as aggression (e.g., Krizan and Johar, 2015), self–esteem and well–being (e.g., Sedikides et al., 2004Dufner et al., 2012).

Several studies explored also the relationship between narcissism and constructs related to emotional functioning, such as empathy and emotional intelligence (EI).

However, these studies provide rather mixed results. Whereas some researchers found narcissism to be associated with low empathy (Delič et al., 2011), others reported no relation, or a positive correlation between narcissism and empathy (e.g., Jonason and Kroll, 2015).

Likewise, in some cases narcissism was positively associated with EI (Petrides et al., 2011Veselka et al., 2012Nagler et al., 2014Zhang et al., 2015), while in other studies this relationship was close to zero or even negative (Vonk et al., 2013Austin et al., 2014Czarna et al., 2016Jauk et al., 2016).

The aim of the present study was a deeper understanding of the association between narcissism and EI.

A careful analysis of prior work presented below reveals that the ambiguous findings might be related to the fact that both narcissism and EI are complex constructs and their relationship depends on the specific aspect being analyzed (e.g., type of narcissism) or the conceptualization and assessment method (e.g., self-report vs. performance EI).

Grandiose and Vulnerable Narcissism

Some researchers suggest that narcissism might not be a unitary construct. The distinction between vulnerable and grandiose narcissism was made by Wink (1991).

The two forms of narcissism share several characteristics such self-centeredness, exaggerated sense of self-importance and entitlement, disagreeableness, and a tendency to interact with others in an antagonistic manner (Dickinson and Pincus, 2003Miller et al., 2011).

Regardless of the narcissistic common core, each dimension has its own exclusive characteristic. Individuals with high vulnerable narcissism are described as being defensive, avoidant, insecure, hypersensitive and vigilant for criticism (Wink, 1991Miller et al., 2011).

At the same time they need people’s recognition (e.g., admiration) to bolster their self–worth. Feeling underestimated may result in withdrawal and passive attitude in interpersonal relations (Pincus et al., 2009Miller et al., 2011).

Vulnerable narcissism is also associated with lower levels of self esteem, extraversion and agreeableness, higher neuroticism (Miller et al., 20112018Maciantowicz and Zajenkowski, 2018), a negative view of the past and fatalistic attitude (Zajenkowski et al., 2016).

Grandiose narcissism is characterized by high self–esteem, interpersonal dominance and tendency to overestimate one’s capabilities (Wink, 1991Pincus et al., 2009Miller et al., 2011).

Individuals with high grandiose narcissism tend to endorse positive illusions about themselves, simultaneously repressing information inconsistent with an inflated self-image (Campbell and Foster, 2007).

They fantasize about superiority, perfection, omnipotence. Grandiosity can also be manifested through exploitativeness and aggressive behaviors (Pincus et al., 2009).

Grandiose narcissism negatively correlates with neuroticism and agreeableness, and positively with extraversion (Miller et al., 2011).

Several studies revealed a tendency to overestimate one’s own cognitive ability among people scoring high on grandiose narcissism (Gabriel et al., 1994Paulhus and Williams, 2002Zajenkowski and Czarna, 2015).

Ability and Trait Emotional Intelligence and Their Association With Narcissism

Emotional intelligence was defined by Salovey and Mayer (1990, p.189) as the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feeling and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.

In their model four branches have been distinguished: Perception of Emotions (the ability to identify one’s emotions accurately, as well as to recognize emotions of other people based on various contextual cues), Using Emotions to Facilitate Thinking (the ability to use emotions and moods to support and guide intellectual processing), Understanding emotions (skills necessary to comprehend and label basic and complex emotions), Managing Emotions (the ability to monitor and modify own emotions in order to enhance emotional and intellectual growth). Within this approach EI is measured similarly to cognitive intelligence via performance tests (Mayer et al., 2003).

In another popular model, EI is defined as people’s perceptions of their emotional world, or a constellation of emotional self-perceptions located at the lower levels of personality hierarchies (e.g., Petrides et al., 2007Petrides et al., 2011).

It is believed that one’s perception of emotional effectiveness is, at least partially, associated with genuine emotional skills (e.g., Van der Linden et al., 2017). In this approach, EI is assessed via rating scales and self-report questionnaires. It need to be acknowledged that in the research literature EI based on performance tests is typically labeled ‘ability EI’, whereas self-reported EI is often labeled ‘trait EI’ (e.g., Zeidner et al., 2009). In the current article we use this terminology.

To date, a few studies have examined the relationship between EI and narcissism, with the latter being mainly considered in the grandiose version (Petrides et al., 2011Vonk et al., 2013Austin et al., 2014Nagler et al., 2014Zhang et al., 2015Czarna et al., 2016Jauk et al., 2016). The empirical data in this area are rather ambiguous; however, a deeper analysis of existing findings provides some general observations.

In Table ​Table11 we present previous studies linking narcissism with EI. First, in most studies using self-report EI measures (e.g., Trait EI Questionnaire by Petrides and Furnham, 2006; The EI Scale by Schutte et al., 1998) a positive correlation with grandiose narcissism has been reported (Petrides et al., 2011Vonk et al., 2013Austin et al., 2014Nagler et al., 2014Zhang et al., 2015); though there were studies with no significant association (study 2 by Munro et al., 2005Austin et al., 2014Jauk et al., 2016).

The ability measures of EI (e.g., Mayer Salovey Caruso EI Test by Mayer et al., 2003; The Test of EI by Śmieja et al., 2014) exhibit much weaker correlations with grandiose narcissism, hardly reaching significance level (−0.16 in Zhang et al., 2015; -0.06 in Czarna et al., 2016; -0.11 in Jauk et al., 2016). It is also worth mentioning that one recent study explored the tendency of individuals with high grandiose narcissism to overestimate their EI (Lobbestael et al., 2016). It has been found that, similarly to cognitive abilities, those scoring high on grandiose narcissism show inflated views of their emotional abilities. However, this study used a measure assessing mentalizing abilities rather than global EI.

In the case of vulnerable narcissism, there is less empirical evidence regarding its relation with EI. Actually, we found only two studies, both reporting a negative correlation between vulnerable narcissism and self-report EI (Vonk et al., 2013Austin et al., 2014).


More information: Shane Littrell et al. Overconfidently underthinking: narcissism negatively predicts cognitive reflection, Thinking & Reasoning(2019). DOI: 10.1080/13546783.2019.1633404

Provided by University of Waterloo

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