A narcissist walks into the room — and suddenly becomes the most popular person at the party. But it doesn’t take long before we just want the outgoing self-involved attention hog to go away.
A recent study on the fleeting nature of popularity finds that the very characteristics that initially attract many people to a narcissist — the energy, the fun, name-dropping— drive us away in a short time. The real secret to long-term popularity lies in being able to understand and identify the feelings of people around us, what psychologists call emotional intelligence.
"Narcissists are really good at the first meeting, the extroversion, the energy, seeming to have status," said W. Keith Campbell, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia, who was not involved in the study.
But then we see their dark side.
"They are not so good at the caring communal part that kicks in later," Campbell said.
Polish researchers examined 273 university students in 15 different study groups. They observed the participants over several months as they naturally formed friendships. At the first meeting, everyone took several personality tests and then ranked the most popular people in the group. Three months later, researchers again asked who the most popular people were.
Flash and fun
Narcissistic people were more popular at first. But feelings shifted after three months; people higher in emotional intelligence became more popular.
“The emotionally intelligent person is, over time, going to get to know you more, empathize with you more, care about you,” said Ann Kearney-Cooke, a therapist at Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute, who did not participate in the study.
The study did not look at pathological narcissism or narcissistic personality disorder.
We all have some level of narcissism: some have a little, others have a lot. The new study, by researchers at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, focused on narcissism that falls into the normal range, people who are called grandiose narcissistic.
Those who are the ‘bloviator, the extroverted narcissist. They are flash and fun up front,” said Craig Malkin, lecturer at Harvard Medical School and author of Rethinking Narcissism.
The same traits that make narcissists interesting initially are what makes them less likable later, said Campbell.
"Part of it is the self-centeredness of the personality," he said. "With narcissism, you are looking for the power and status. That can interfere with relationships over time if what you are looking for is status over warmth and caring."
The study didn’t look at whether narcissistic people would notice — or care — if their popularity waned. But the experts suspect they would pick up on it.
“They would never openly acknowledge it,” said Malkin. Instead they’d find a new group and say, “I didn’t like them anyway or they were jerks or a bunch of losers.”
Being in the moment
People with more emotional intelligence, characterized by the ability to recognize one's own emotions and those of others and respond appropriately, would handle it differently. They’d wonder what happened to cause the change in popularity and how they could fix it.
The good news?
Emotional intelligence can be learned. Therapy, for example, often helps people sharpen their emotional IQ.
Kearney-Cooke said being able to correctly identify feelings and examine why emotions change helps people hone emotional intelligence. Also, when people put themselves in other’s shoes, they can strengthen their empathy, essential to emotional intelligence.
Being in the moment — whether listening to our own feelings or someone else’s — makes a difference.
“Mindfulness helps you have more emotional intelligence,” she said. “Just think ‘pay attention, pay attention.’”