Explaining Narcissism as Personality Trait and Disorder

In a new study, German researchers discovered that people who grew up in the former western states of Germany have higher levels of narcissism than those whose socialization took place in the former eastern states.

Germany provides a unique study environment as between 1949 and 1989/90, life in West Germany was characterized by a culture of individualism. Conversely, life in East Germany was based on more collectivist principles.

Both types of societies had a major impact on citizens’ levels of self-esteem and, further, on narcissistic tendencies. According to research published in the journal PlosOne, the reunification of Germany ushered in a gradual re-balancing of the distribution of these traits among the younger generation.

The term “narcissism” is often connected to excessive self-love and self-centeredness. However, narcissism is only considered pathological if the condition has a negative impact on an individual and if he or she develops symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder.

In the new study, Prof. Dr. Stefan Röpke and Dr. Aline Vater were able to show that a person’s inflated sense of self-importance develops in response to societal influences.

“Contemporary western societies promote narcissism. People who grew up on the western side of the former East-West border or West-Berlin had higher levels of narcissism than those who spent their childhood in the former German Democratic Republic,” Röpke said.

“In our study, this was shown to primarily apply to ‘grandiose narcissism’, a type of narcissism that is characterized by an exaggerated sense of superiority.”

Results obtained in relation to self-esteem painted quite the opposite picture, with higher scores recorded for people in the former East Germany.

For this study, the researchers analyzed data collected as part of an anonymous online survey of German citizens. Out of a total of more than 1,000 respondents who completed the questionnaire, approximately 350 were born in the former GDR (East Germany), and approximately 650 in the former Federal Republic of Germany.

During their analysis, the researchers drew a distinction between “subclinical” (borderline) narcissism — a natural personality trait that is often referred to as healthy narcissism — and a pathological sense of superiority, which goes far beyond what might be considered healthy.

Self-esteem was assessed using an established rating scale widely used in research.

As both borderline and pathological narcissism are associated with low self-esteem, the group of Berlin-based researchers set out to compare levels of narcissism and self-esteem in the German population.

They found a clear age-related effect. According to Dr. Aline Vater, the study’s first author, “No difference can be found within the younger generation — people who had either not been born at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, or had not yet reached school-age, and who therefore grew up within the same western society.

“In this group, the levels of narcissism and self-esteem recorded are the same for respondents from both the former East and West Germany.”

The clearest effect can be seen in those aged between six (school age) and 18 (adulthood) years at the time the wall came down. Some differences remained within the oldest cohort (i.e., those aged 19 and over when the wall fell), at least with regard to subclinical (or borderline) narcissism.

“Overall, our results suggest that levels of narcissism and self-esteem are influenced by societal factors. Western societies appear to promote increased levels of narcissism among their citizens,” Röpke said.

Source: Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin