It’s no coincidence that narcissism was named after a mythical man like Narcissus and not a goddess like Aphrodite. A new large-scale review of the psychological literature on narcissism published in Psychological Bulletin confirms that men are more narcissistic than women by a statistically significant margin. Researchers from seven universities analyzed 360 studies encompassing nearly half a million research participants across all age groups and “found that men have higher levels of narcissism than do women” as measured by the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI).
The NPI divides narcissistic personality traits into three facets: the Leadership/Authority facet (L/A) measures “desire for authority and power,” Grandiosity/Exhibitionism (G/E) examines “vanity [and] self-absorption,” and the Exploitative/Entitlement facet (E/E) is correlated with behaviors like aggression and manipulation. Despite the longstanding cultural association of vanity with femininity, the review found that men were more narcissistic by statistically significant margins in all three facets—a clean sweep for self-love. The largest difference between men and women falls in the E/E facet of the NPI. As the authors note, the overall gendered differences in narcissism are primarily “driven by men’s heightened sense of entitlement and authority.”
Not only are men generally more narcissistic than women, this difference may be one of the most salient social distinctions between the genders writ large. The researchers observe that male narcissism constitutes one of “the larger differences discovered in the personality domain.” Other large psychological meta-analyses have already disproved some of the most longstanding gendered stereotypes—men are not more proficient at math than women, for example, and women are not necessarily more emotional than men—but differences in narcissistic personality traits seem to hold up in the academic literature. Men might not be from Mars and women might not hail from Venus, but male narcissism is one difference that’s not pseudoscience.
But the authors of this review would rather not have their findings become cannon fodder in a war of the sexes. They are careful to note that “the gender differences referred to in this article do not apply to every individual within a group” and they even issue a #NotAllMen-style disclaimer in their conclusion: “Not all men are entitled or exploitative.” This awkward echo of an Internet meme aside, the authors are rightly concerned for men’s wellbeing. Narcissism and entitlement have been correlated with “men’s heightened antisocial behavior and aggression” and they could prove to causative factors behind that behavior. And although men with high E/E scores may reap certain “societal advantages,” they also have less satisfying social relationships and engage in “counterproductive behaviors” at work and school.
The challenge for the researchers moving forward is to identify the origin of these differences. They speculate that women may be less narcissistic than men because they suffer “harsher sanctions for displaying dominant behaviors.” This is certainly the case in the business world where both men and women continue to express a preference for male bosses despite evidence suggesting that women may be more effective leaders. Conversely, men are expected to avoid being seen as “weak.” The researchers note that men who display “agentic characteristics” such as “competitiveness, dominance, assertiveness” are “more socially accepted” than women who display those same characteristics, a circumstance that may encourage men to develop narcissistic personality traits.
In other words, the source of gender differences in narcissism may be gender stereotypes themselves, which essentially act as “self-fulfilling prophecies.” Male narcissism and female timidity are two self-fulfilling prophecies that we can all afford to prove false.