You’re having a conversation with an acquaintance who starts to launch into a description of how she’s managed to take advantage of the financial relief offered to her by her employer due to COVID19’s impact on the business.
Out of a limited fund for the workers at this small company, she’s managed to capture an undue amount which, as it turns out, she doesn’t even need. She actually started a small online business herself and, while working from home, is starting to turn a small profit.
She’s actually quite proud of herself, but you feel uncomfortable hearing this story.
Now you start to wonder who else, maybe you, she’s manipulated into getting something she didn’t deserve. What about that time last year when you fed her cat for a week while she was, maybe supposedly, in the hospital?
Considering all the ways that people can be harmed by unfair or even mistreatment, there is reason to believe that when people describe themselves as having suffered as a result, they’re telling the truth. However, what about people who aren’t? What are the qualities that lead them to skate the unethical thin ice of taking advantage of a bad situation?
According to new research by the University of British Columbia’s Ekin Ok and colleagues (2020), there are indeed fake “virtuous victims” who take advantage of the “resource extraction” strategies used by actual victims who deserve those resources.
These self-proclaimed victims realize that they can make unreasonable demands of others, and not have to answer for their inexcusable behavior. This process of signaling their status allows them, in the words of the authors, to “convince nonvictims to willingly provision the alleged victim with resources”
As an example, the UBC researchers cite the astounding statistics reported by an insurance fraud organization’s data showing that billions of dollars are lost each year from fraudulent claims not only to insurance companies but also to government aid agencies and even charitable organizations
. Like your acquaintance, these people find ways to exploit the resources needed by actual victims, whose chances for fair settlements could be lowered when the available funds are usurped by the dishonest.
As you might imagine, the people who take advantage of false victimhood status are hardly reputable individuals. Ok et al. propose that their underlying personalities reflect the so-called ”Dark Triad” traits of psychopathy (lack of empathy and morals),
Machiavellianism (tendency to exploit others), and narcissism (grandiosity and self-promotion). These individuals “guilelessly deploy a range of manipulative strategies for personal gain” through what the authors refer to as “victim signaling”
What’s important to understand about the theoretical background behind the idea of false victims is that these are not actual victims of anything. To convince other people of what they "deserve," they need to portray themselves as honest, trustworthy, and highly moral because otherwise, you would see right through them (hence the term “virtuous victim”).
Those high in the Dark Triad traits combine the signals that they’re victims with signals that they’re virtuous and do so in a callous and manipulative manner.
You can get an idea of some of the types of victim signaling that these Dark Triad individuals might use from the items on the measure used by the UBC research team. Here is a sample of five of them:
Explained how I don’t feel accepted in society because of my identity.
Discussed how I don’t feel financially secure.
Shared how I don’t feel comfortable with my body.
Disclosed that I don’t feel like I am in control of my future.
Pointed out how I am not able to pursue my goals and dreams because of external factors
Actual victims might very well agree with these statements, and to take this into account, the research team controlled in their analyses for demographic factors that might be related to a history of discrimination or other forms of victimization. Such controls should be effective, the authors reasoned, in suppressing the statistical role of true victimization in evaluating personality’s impact on false victim portrayals.
The other piece of the virtuous victim equation involves what the authors call “virtue signaling,” or sending the message to others that you are a moral individual. To measure this quality, Ok et al. used an established measure of “moral identity symbolization,”
in which participants read a set of nine positive morality-related traits (e.g. honesty) and imagined how a person who had these qualities would think, feel, and behave. People high in virtue signaling, then, would agree with statements such as “I often buy products that communicate the fact that I have these characteristics.”
The key here, particularly with regard to narcissism, is that the products "communicate" the individual's high moral character rather than simply supporting a good cause. You may know someone who fits this description of the virtuous signaler.
Perhaps this individual wears tee shirts boldly emblazoned with slogans such as those that proclaim “I support fair trade
It’s possible to support such causes and keep this virtue to yourself or to wear clothing that states the value of fair trade products without broadcasting the fact that “I” support this cause. It’s a subtle distinction, but to the study’s authors, one worth considering in relation to the Dark Triad traits.
Using a variety of samples from undergraduates to online adult participants, the authors first established that people high in the Dark Triad traits were indeed more likely to have high virtuous victim scores, even after controlling for demographic factors that could reflect true victimhood.
Following this step, the authors went on to more behaviorally-oriented studies in which they gave participants the choice of endorsing ethical or unethical behaviors such as buying counterfeit items that clearly violated a company’s copyright.
It was, as predicted, the virtuous victim signalers who were more likely to go with the unethical choice. Also, fitting into the study's predictions, these individuals were also more likely to cheat and lie in a virtual coin flip game.
Next, the authors put Dark Triad traits into the equation, further strengthening the interpretation that personality drives the virtuous victim signaling process. As indeed the authors predicted, participants high in these traits were more likely to endorse virtuous victim items.
Together, personality plus virtuous victim signaling predicted behavior in a simulated job situation in which participants had the choice of engaging in the exploitative strategy of lying about a competitor’s behavior so that they could get the position.
There was a form of narcissism that proved to stand out on its own in the prediction of the instrumental use of virtuous victim signaling. The authors measured what's called “communal narcissism,”
or people's tendency to claim that they are more caring than anyone else they know. In the words of the authors, these people seek to "display their alleged high moral character and behaviors, with the secondary aim of asserting their moral superiority over others"
. The communal narcissists, as it turned out, were particularly likely to take on the guise of virtuous victims. In turn, they then went on to engage in securing unfair advantages for themselves.
In other words, pulling narcissism out of the Dark Triad formula in this particular way suggests that you need to be on the lookout for someone whose grandiosity extends to claims of moral superiority. You might be skeptical about someone who seems to show a touch of psychopathy or exploitativeness, but may be more easily fooled by this type of narcissist.
Again, it’s important to remember that this abuse of “victimhood” comes not from actual discrimination or mistreatment but from a desire for self-advancement and the pursuit of one’s own goals.
As the authors caution, “we do not refute the claim that there are individuals who emit the virtuous victim signal because they experience legitimate harm and also conduct themselves in decent and laudable ways”
It’s those with high levels of exploitative personalities who deploy these signals “as a duplicitous tactic to acquire personal benefits they would otherwise not receive”
To sum up, the object lesson in all of this is that it is advisable to err on the side of caution when you learn of another person’s mistreatment and believe that the person is honest,
a conclusion that the authors endorse. Setting this question aside, the study’s findings suggest how you can protect yourself from being victimized by someone trying to take advantage of you, allowing you to save your kindness and generosity for the truly deserving
Narcissistic personality disorder
Narcissistic personality disorder — one of several types of personality disorders — is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that's vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
A narcissistic personality disorder causes problems in many areas of life, such as relationships, work, school or financial affairs. People with narcissistic personality disorder may be generally unhappy and disappointed when they're not given the special favors or admiration they believe they deserve. They may find their relationships unfulfilling, and others may not enjoy being around them.
Treatment for narcissistic personality disorder centers around talk therapy (psychotherapy).
Signs and symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder and the severity of symptoms vary. People with the disorder can:
Have an exaggerated sense of self-importanceHave a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it Exaggerate achievements and talents Be preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate Believe they are superior and can only associate with equally special people Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior Expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations Take advantage of others to get what they want Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others Be envious of others and believe others envy them Behave in an arrogant or haughty manner, coming across as conceited, boastful and pretentious Insist on having the best of everything — for instance, the best car or office
At the same time, people with narcissistic personality disorder have trouble handling anything they perceive as criticism, and they can:
Become impatient or angry when they don't receive special treatmentHave significant interpersonal problems and easily feel slighted React with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make themselves appear superior Have difficulty regulating emotions and behavior Experience major problems dealing with stress and adapting to change Feel depressed and moody because they fall short of perfection Have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation
When to see a doctor
People with narcissistic personality disorder may not want to think that anything could be wrong, so they may be unlikely to seek treatment. If they do seek treatment, it's more likely to be for symptoms of depression, drug or alcohol use, or another mental health problem. But perceived insults to self-esteem may make it difficult to accept and follow through with treatment.
If you recognize aspects of your personality that are common to narcissistic personality disorder or you're feeling overwhelmed by sadness, consider reaching out to a trusted doctor or mental health provider. Getting the right treatment can help make your life more rewarding and enjoyable.
It's not known what causes narcissistic personality disorder. As with personality development and with other mental health disorders, the cause of narcissistic personality disorder is likely complex. Narcissistic personality disorder may be linked to:
Environment ― mismatches in parent-child relationships with either excessive adoration or excessive criticism that is poorly attuned to the child's experience
Genetics ― inherited characteristics
Neurobiology — the connection between the brain and behavior and thinking
Narcissistic personality disorder affects more males than females, and it often begins in the teens or early adulthood. Keep in mind that, although some children may show traits of narcissism, this may simply be typical of their age and doesn't mean they'll go on to develop narcissistic personality disorder.
Although the cause of narcissistic personality disorder isn't known, some researchers think that in biologically vulnerable children, parenting styles that are overprotective or neglectful may have an impact. Genetics and neurobiology also may play a role in development of narcissistic personality disorder.
Complications of narcissistic personality disorder, and other conditions that can occur along with it, can include:
Relationship difficultiesProblems at work or school Depression and anxiety Physical health problems Drug or alcohol misuse Suicidal thoughts or behavior
Because the cause of narcissistic personality disorder is unknown, there's no known way to prevent the condition. However, it may help to:
Get treatment as soon as possible for childhood mental health problemsParticipate in family therapy to learn healthy ways to communicate or to cope with conflicts or emotional distress Attend parenting classes and seek guidance from therapists or social workers if needed
Narcissists have a prominent place in the popular imagination, and the label "narcissist" is widely deployed to refer to people who appear too full of themselves. There's also a growing sense that narcissism is on the rise around the world, especially among young people, although most psychological research does not support that notion.
Narcissism is properly viewed on a spectrum. The trait is normally distributed in the population, with most people scoring near the middle, and a few at either extreme. The Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), developed by Robert Raskin and Calvin S. Hall in 1979, is the most commonly used measure of the trait.
Scores range from 0 to 40, with the average tending to fall in the low to mid-teens. Healthy individuals who score somewhat higher may be perceived as exceedingly charming, especially on first encounter, but eventually come across as vain.
Such individuals may have awkward or stressful personal encounters, but still have a fundamentally healthy personality.
The Traits of Narcissism
It’s easy to describe someone who spends a bit too much time talking about her career or who never seems to doubt himself as a narcissist, but the trait is more complicated than that. Narcissism does not necessarily represent a surplus of self-esteem or of insecurity; more accurately,
it encompasses a hunger for appreciation or admiration, a desire to be the center of attention, and an expectation of special treatment reflecting perceived higher status. Interestingly, research finds, many highly narcissistic people often readily admit to an awareness that they are more self-centered. A high level of narcissism, not surprisingly, can be damaging in romantic, familial, or professional relationships.
How do I spot a narcissist?
Narcissism is characterized by a grandiose sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy for others, a need for excessive admiration, and the belief that one is unique and deserving of special treatment. If you encounter someone who consistently exhibits these behaviors, you may be dealing with a highly narcissistic individual.
What’s the difference between narcissism and pathological narcissism?
Pathological narcissism, or narcissistic personality disorder, is rare: It affects an estimated 1 percent of the population, a prevalence that hasn't changed since clinicians started measuring it. The disorder is suspected when narcissistic traits impair a person’s daily functioning. That dysfunction typically causes friction in relationships due to the pathological narcissist's lack of empathy.
It may also manifest as antagonism, fueled by grandiosity and attention-seeking. In seeing themselves as superior, the pathological narcissist naturally views everyone else as inferior and may be intolerant of disagreement or questioning.
How to Handle a Narcissist
Navigating a relationship with a narcissist can be deeply frustrating and distressing. In their quest for control and admiration, narcissistic people may manipulate and exploit others, damaging their self-esteem and even aiming to alter their sense of reality.
Arguing with a narcissist about their action often proves fruitless. A more successful solution is to establish boundaries and emotionally distance yourself. Recognize that you may not be able to control your feelings about a person, but you can control how you respond to them.
Cutting ties with a narcissistic partner, family member, or boss may eventually be the best if not the only solution. In that process, it's helpful to reflect on the characteristics of the individual to avoid finding oneself in similar scenarios in the future.
What are the strategies to handle a narcissist?
Acknowledging your frustration, appreciating where the behavior comes from, and refusing to lose your own sense of purpose when a narcissist takes center stage are key strategies, among others. Researchers who classify narcissists as either vulnerable or grandiose argue that specific approaches are warranted for each type.
Manage your expectations, align your successes with your boss’s, draw boundaries, and don’t try to argue, justify, or explain yourself. These and other tactics can help you navigate a narcissist in the workplace.
Are narcissists successful leaders?
Narcissism in Relationships
A narcissist's desire to elicit admiration and praise, especially from potential romantic partners, often makes them charming and charismatic, traits which can rapidly ignite a romance. But their inherent deficit of empathy may prevent them from understanding a partner's inner world and establishing a fulfilling long-term relationship.
It's nearly impossible for people with narcissistic personality disorder to truly fall in love and build a trusting, equal partnership. Such an individual may seek to establish strict rules in a relationship and attempt to isolate a new partner from friends and family, among other disturbing behaviors.
Why so narcissists make such a good first impression?
Research suggests that people may initially be drawn to narcissists because they seem to possess stronger self-esteem than they really do, a trait that people often appreciate.
Can narcissists fall in love?
Narcissists may show passion and charm in the early stages of dating. But for most narcissists, relationships are transactional. They provide positive attention and sexual satisfaction to bolster a narcissist’s ego and self-esteem.
The objective is to enjoy uncommitted pleasure, and most narcissists lose interest in the relationship as the expectation for intimacy increases or they feel that they’ve conquered the challenge of securing a relationship
The Bully Narcissist at Work: A Toolbox for Coping
Most of us show up at work with a benevolent worldview, believing that accomplishments are an outgrowth of hard work and expecting our colleagues to comply with the universal moral codes of kindness, cooperation, integrity, and truth-telling.
To place a label on someone’s back, may feel like an act of degradation. Though at times, labeling offers us a helpful roadmap for interacting with individuals who consistently exhibit characteristics that call for a new toolbox.
The bully narcissists in the office, or at your family gatherings, are one such group.
Though bullies come in a variety of forms, the narcissist offers unique challenges. Workplace bullying is defined as the persistent and deliberate attempt to degrade an employee through manipulation, gossip, sabotage, exclusion, and ostracisation with the ultimate goal to push the target out.
Narcissism falls within the DSM-5’s Cluster B disorders, alongside borderline, antisocial, and histrionic personality disorders, all marked by unpredictable and volatile emotionality
The NPI, or Narcissistic Personality Inventory, is the most prevalent tool for assessing subclinical narcissism, consisting of a series of 40 questions originally designed by Raskin and Hall in 1979.
Though the bully narcissist you encounter in the office is unlikely to have a clinical diagnosis, it is wise to be wary. Narcissists, according to Kacel, Ennis, and Pereira’s, rarely seek counseling, and when they do are difficult to treat.Therefore, recognizing the warning signs is essential if potential victims are to avoid stepping into thought holes, a concept described in Dana Morningstar’s book Out of the Fog.
Thought holes are cognitive distortions that may lead targets to act against their best self-interest and safety. Bully narcissists are experts at twisting people’s reality, circumventing blame, and engaging in manipulative discourse. These behaviors require co-workers to use a new bag of tricks to survive.
According to Craig Malkin, a clinical psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School, narcissists tend to possess a grandiose sense of self, feel entitled to special treatment, and are prone to emotional outbursts.
To feed their intense insecurities, narcissists require constant outside validation of their self-worth, while at the same time failing to empathize with the perspective and pain of others.
For this reason, narcissists often struggle to maintain long-term relationships; though their grandstanding may afford them early popularity, over time, their entitlement, demands, and propensity to rage wear others out. Narcissists struggle to see their own faults and often engage in child-like temper tantrums when disappointed or called out for poor behavior.
Alarmingly, Twenge, Konrath, Foster, Campbell, and Bushman’s cross-temporal meta-analysis show evidence that narcissism is on the rise, making it all the more vital to recognize the bully narcissist’s tactics of projecting, gaslighting, raging, and launching smear-campaigns.
Such maneuvers make it almost impossible for colleagues to rely on typical prosocial interaction strategies such as reciprocal listening, cooperation, and trust.
Below is a cheat sheet for what to look out for followed by suggestions for countering potentially harmful advice given by well-meaning family, friends, and colleagues
The Bully Narcissist’s Top Tools for Engagement
Projecting: Projecting is the act of placing one’s struggles and characteristics onto another in an effort to overt ownership and analysis. For example, an aggressive bully narcissist may accuse his target of being combative when the target politely requests the bully to speak respectfully and refrain from insults.
Gaslighting: Gaslighting is an attempt to make a target question his view of reality and dismiss his gut feelings. For example, a bully narcissist may deny yesterday’s tirade laced with profanity and concluding with her ripping up the final proposal before stomping out of the room. When later questioned about her behavior, she will insist it was simple civil discourse, leaving the target to question his sense of reality.
When targets begin to feel the need to record conversations with a particular colleague, there is a good chance their subconscious is detecting gaslighting.
Raging: Bully narcissists have a propensity for childlike temper-tantrums, spewing obscenities, and tossing out accusations when they are disappointed, irritated, or called out for bad behavior. All individuals have moments of intense frustrations, but when raging becomes a common occurrence, it is wise to step away.
. Smear Campaigns and Flying Monkeys: Bully narcissists may become enraged when challenged or contradicted. In an attempt to patch their self-doubt, they often spread gossip about the target in an effort to damage her reputation.
Bully narcissists frequently deploy flying monkeys, or co-conspirators, to intensify the spread of the slander. Bully narcissists sometimes feed their insecurities by terrorizing colleagues they are jealous of or aspire to become.
Replacing Well-Meaning Advice With Research Driven Solutions
Grijalva and Newman found narcissists to be a lead cause of CWB or counterproductive work behavior, charging colleagues to search out new techniques for reestablishing the office’s equilibrium.
Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist and expert in narcissist personality disorder, advises victims to relinquish their quest for justice, abandon the belief that narcissists will respond rationally,
and stop counting on the narcissist to change. Instead, she urges targets to adopt new approaches shown to mitigate damages and minimize targets’ exposure.
Below are three pieces of advice commonly given by well-meaning family, friends, and colleagues. Such advice is helpful when dealing with thoughtful colleagues but may prove disastrous when applied to the bully narcissist who requires a different toolbox.
It’s just a personality conflict, you should talk it out.
Bully narcissists struggle to engage in open and honest conversations, especially when their actions are challenged. Attempts to use civil discourse to work through problems are often met with escalations and rages. When possible, it is best to disengage, walk away, and minimize contact.
. It wasn’t all that bad, you just need to stop being so sensitive and get over it.
Being on the receiving end of a bully narcissist’s rage can be traumatizing. Often, others urge targets to minimize their feelings in an effort to keep the peace.
To remain in reality and validate their experience, it is helpful for targets to write down the details of each questionable encounter immediately after it transpires, providing an accurate account to refer back to when others insist,
“It wasn’t all that bad.” Targets also benefit from writing themselves permission slips, in which they describe the dynamics of the relationship, remind themselves of their innate value, and grant themselves permission to step away from the abuse.
This letter serves a lifeline for targets to refer back to when they feel tempted to re-enter the bully narcissist’s realms out of fear, obligation, or guilt
You need to hit back harder so he knows not to mess with you.
Bully narcissists do not tend to back down. When called out or challenged, they often ratchet up the threats, intensify the rumors, and spiral into a rage. To maintain targets’ safety and dignity,
Dr. Ramani suggests no contact when possible, and if interactions are unavoidable, becoming a gray rock, meaning the target hides her hurt and refuses to engage in combat. Over time, this response makes her as boring to the bully narcissist as a nondescript pebble, leading him to move onto a new victim.
Office bullies come in a variety of forms. The bully narcissist is often celebrated in corporate cultures for his confidence and grandiosity but feared by those he demeans, rages against, and attempts to dismantle their stellar reputation all in an effort to feed his intense insecurities.
Knowing how to spot the bully narcissist and arm oneself with engagement strategies, help to mitigate the pain, and maintain the target’s mental well-being.
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