Monday, August 26, 2013

The Case Against Covert Narcissism

I would like to take a moment to write a response to the article "23 Signs You're Secretly a Narcissist Masquerading as a Sensitive Introvert." I had a rather lengthy discussion with my wife after she showed me the article. I was to say the least, not at all impressed by how the information was presented, as well as by what it was trying to say.

I'll start off gently. The article begins by contrasting the authors disdain for attention grabbing articles along the lines of XX Signs You're an Introvert! So far, this is fine, there are a few amusing articles referenced, some of which may be mildly interesting if you're into that sort of thing, but none of which look to do any sort of real science. This is all fine and good, except you may have noticed, the attention grabbing headline which appears to be an awfully lot like the very same articles that had been bashed in the introduction. So, hypocritical title aside, there's still time to write something of substance. So we shall continue on.

Some basic foundation. Narcissism is pretty easy to identify, at least in the classical sense. It makes sense, at least on some level, that like most things in life, narcissism is not the one size fits all descriptor for all things egotistical and conceited. Enter covert narcissism, which claims to have more or less, nothing to do with the traditional definition of narcissism as we know it.

Now, I have nothing against the idea that its possible to be either overtly, or covertly narcissistic. In fact, I find it to be quite the interesting premise, as it allows for a wider range of personality traits to fit into a narcissistic framework. Not everyone is the loud boisterous type, and it makes sense that not everyone would express themselves the same ways.Right. So we have a basic premise that works. Lets look at bit at how its presented.

"Have you ever met someone who constantly tells you how “sensitive” and “introverted” they are, but all you actually see is selfishness and egocentricity? I’m sure you have, because these people exist in spades." This is how the concept is presented. Aside from claiming that these people exist in spades, its not a bad start. (How big is a spade? Can you measure it? Is it 1:1,000 or perhaps 1:1,000,000? Can you have half a spade?)

I have a few serious problems with this description. It implies that sensitive introverted people are all actually selfish and egocentric. I don't think it ever says anywhere that all such people are, but rather leaves the reader to imply such by using broad undefined terms such as "in spades." Now, its entirely possible there are sensitive and introverted people who are actually quite selfish and egocentric. I think it would be irresponsible to claim that there aren't any people who fit that mold. But it equally irresponsible to claim the opposite, especially without any sort of data to back up the claim.

I'll state here for the record, that just because you share some features in common does not mean you are that thing. My favorite obvious, but perhaps too obvious example, is that you breathe air every day. Nazis breathed air every day, therefore must be a Nazi. Clearly absurd. However, if you take a step back, and instead compare some mildly scientific traits about personality, it becomes less obvious to people. It seems to be, this stems from being less familiar with the subject matter, as the mechanism that lets people rationally compare conditions doesn't function well, when the baseline of knowledge in the area is lower.

For example, if I told you that you are anxious and neurotic (and you believed me), and I then said that anxious and neurotic people are showing up in hospitals in spades due to a genetic predisposition that causes a specific ailment, it would pretty clearly imply that the link between those personality traits and that genetic predisposition were causing an ailment. But correlation does not equal causation. There is no link, and it is important not to read one in where none exists.

I'll return now to the article at hand. This is an article about science! Its important to have official sounding sources. And so we find an article from the 90s cited as the authority for this article. There's nothing inherently wrong with using 20 year old research. (The Milgram obedience studies for example, were from the 60s, are are still taught in colleges today) However, the social sciences have made tremendous amounts of progress in the last 20 years, and its worth at the very least, taking a critical look at any studies from that era to see if they still hold up today.

I would presume, that most readers on the internet are not terribly interested with checking up on someones sources. Some may give a quick glance to see that there was a source that at least looks on the surface to be genuine, and then trust that the source material was credible. But I got curious, so I took a look. I noticed a few things right off. To keep it brief, Much of the research cited in the source was from the 70s, the writing style felt reminiscent of a college term paper where lengthy technical language was used for the sole purpose of trying to sound smart, but the complete lack of coherency in the descriptions gave the opposite effect.

And rather than considering that perhaps the reason why two different measures of narcissism didn't correlate with each other was that one or both of them wasn't accurately measuring what they thought it was measuring, the authors decided that it meant that there was simply a different type of narcissism that just so happened to fit their data perfectly. This was a classic example of shaping a theory to fit the data, and generally makes for some pretty bad science. 

So, back (again) to the article at hand. The source material is old, references older outdated research, and can generally be considered bunk. This is the sort of thing that I would expect the author, a college professor of psychology, to be able to pick up on, and be critical of. But alas, we have no such luxury.

After having read through the article more than a few times, I was able to pick up on subtle uses of language that were probably intentional, but are at best, still misleading. At no point is is stated that introverts are going to be narcissistic, but its clearly the implication, which is supported by the followup pointing that the reader may well be wondering if they are or are not, and provides a handy quiz to take to find out!

I'm trying not to be overly negative as I conclude my review. I am generally supportive of people taking the time to write interesting articles, that would get people thinking critically or at the least, interested somewhat in the subject matter. I find it all to common these days for the portrayal of science in the media to be misleading and uninformed. I however, expect better when I come across a piece written by a scientist. I have nothing against the concept of there being such a thing as covert narcissism. I simply find that when you define the condition poorly, and intermingle it with a variety of independent if loosely related conditions, you don't end up with much of anything useful.

I would have found it much more useful if instead, we had a clear definition something along the lines of, narcissistic-but-subtle-about-it. This would have been compatible with observations of some introverts who also happen to be varying degrees of narcissistic. While also having the advantage of not implying anything negative about individuals who don't deserve to be mixed into the same bag. Especially when those individuals have been identified as being vulnerable and sensitive.

Because seriously, who thought it as a good idea to let vulnerable, hyper-sensitive, neglected,  and/or anxious individuals believe that they should worry about adding narcissistic to their list of personality traits