What Causes Narcissism? Research is Mixed, But Studies Point to Parental Overvaluation
Childhood maltreatment, overvaluation - or both?
Written by Shahida Arabi, MA
When the term narcissism is used in popular culture, there is usually a definitive statement declaring that all narcissists must have a background of childhood trauma and abuse. However, according to research that's not always the case - at least, not in the way people definitively describe it.
There have actually been mixed empirical "results" on the causes of narcissism from studies that have investigated it, with some studies showing contradictory results regarding which parenting styles result in grandiose or vulnerable narcissistic traits. The results so far suggest that narcissists may come from a variety of backgrounds - whether that includes overvaluation, lenient parenting, some form of neglect or maltreatment, or a combination of factors, and that certain parenting styles may foster more grandiose narcissism traits than others.
These environmental factors may also interact with genetic predispositions or neural correlates of trait narcissism.
While more research is needed and there is still no final conclusion on either the origin of narcissistic traits or the full-fledged personality disorder, recent research has found that parental overvaluation has a strong link with the development of pathological narcissism.
Why It’s Important to Study Narcissistic Traits
A 2021 meta-analytic review of 437 independent studies showed that narcissistic aggression can occur even in situations with no provocation and can occur in both “normal” and “pathological” forms of narcissism. This means that the dimensions of entitlement, grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism were all related to aggression.
This suggests that researching the traits of subclinical narcissism is just as important as researching NPD itself, as narcissistic aggression has the potential to affect the well-being of partners, family members, colleagues, and friends of narcissistic individuals whether they display subclinical narcissistic traits or a full-fledged personality disorder.
Research on Parental Overvaluation and Narcissism
Recent research has indicated a strong link between parental overvaluation and the development of narcissistic traits such as entitlement. For example, a 2020 study of 328 individuals revealed that childhood experiences of being overvalued, overprotected and lenient parenting styles were associated with higher traits of pathological narcissism.
Notably, this study did not show any direct effect of childhood maltreatment on narcissistic traits. As the researchers note, being "excessively pampered" was associated with both grandiose and vulnerable narcissistic traits, related to the development of unrealistic self-perception and entitlement.
This finding aligns with previous studies showing an association between parental overvaluation and the traits of narcissism, such as this 2015 longitudinal study of 565 young participants and their parents which revealed that parental overvaluation predicted narcissism over time and that a lack of parental warmth did not predict narcissism over time. These results were contrary to what was expected.
What other research, like this study of 595 participants has shown us is the level of narcissistic traits does not significantly differ between a group exposed to trauma and a group not exposed to a traumatic event.
Narcissistic Traits vs. Narcissistic Personality Disorder: What The Traits Tell Us
It's important to note that there is also no clinical verdict on the cause of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Even if we learn more about the origins of the traits of narcissism, more research needs to be conducted on NPD as a full-fledged disorder too. While the traits of narcissism such as manipulativeness, entitlement, grandiosity, and exploitation of others exist on a spectrum, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is considered a full-fledged personality disorder. Not everyone with traits of narcissism will develop NPD, but anyone with NPD will have many of these traits.
“Research on trait narcissism is relevant to NPD as self-report scores are substantially correlated with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders interviews of NPD and generate a five-factor model personality profile that is congruent with expert ratings of prototypical NPD.” - Joshua D. Miller, The case for using research on trait narcissism as a building block for understanding narcissistic personality disorder
What distinguishes the traits of narcissism from NPD are not the characteristics themselves which are very similar to what you would find in the DSM-5 criteria of NPD but rather whether these traits are chronic, inflexible, and persist into adulthood as ingrained features of personality and behavior. It is also when these traits severely affect an individual’s functioning and pose harm to self or others that they constitute a personality disorder.
Research that explores how narcissistic traits develop also gives us insight as to how NPD might develop as well.
“Both grandiose and vulnerable narcissism factors manifested a high number of significant correlations with the PID5, a 220-item self-report measure designed to assess the 25 personality traits in the DSM–5.” - Grandiose and Vulnerable Narcissism and the DSM–5 Pathological Personality Trait Model
The Big Picture
Childhood trauma regardless of whether it is present is not a justification for any abuse or aggressive behavior. If you believe you have narcissistic traits or are in a relationship with someone who is high in narcissistic traits, and this is affecting your well-being or the well-being of others, it’s highly recommended you seek a mental health professional for care and treatment.
Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Nelemans, S., Orobio de Castro, B., Overbeek, G., & Bushman, B. (2015). Origins of narcissism in children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences - PNAS, 112(12), 3659-3662.
Dragioti, E., Damigos, D., Mavreas, V., & Gouva, M. (2012). Effects of Childhood Trauma on Hostility, Family Environment and Narcissism of Adult Individuals.International Journal of Caring Sciences, 5(2), 137-146.
Feng, C., Yuan, J., Geng, H., Gu, R., Zhou, H., Wu, X., & Luo, Y. (2018). Individualized prediction of trait narcissism from whole‐brain resting‐state functional connectivity. Human Brain Mapping, 39(9), 3701-3712.
Kjærvik, S., & Bushman, B. (2021). The link between narcissism and aggression: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 147(5), 477-503.
Miller, J., Gentile, B., Wilson, L., & Campbell, W. (2013). Grandiose and Vulnerable Narcissism and the DSM-5 Pathological Personality Trait Model. Journal of Personality Assessment, 95(3), 284-290.
Miller, J., & Campbell, W. (2010). The Case for Using Research on Trait Narcissism as a Building Block for Understanding Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Personality Disorders, 1(3), 200-201.
Van Schie, C., Jarman, H., Huxley, E., & Grenyer, B. (2020). Narcissistic traits in young people: Understanding the role of parenting and maltreatment. Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation, 7(1), 10.