Does narcissism drive our body image and dietary choices?

In a recent study published in the journal PLOS One, researchers evaluate the role of narcissism in body image concerns and dietary choices.

Study: Narcissus’ belief about his body: Aspects of narcissism, body image, and eating disorder symptoms. Image Credit: Igor Koopakov / Shutterstock.com Study: Narcissus’ belief about his body: Aspects of narcissism, body image, and eating disorder symptoms. Image Credit: Igor Koopakov / Shutterstock.com

How can personality affect your desires and lifestyle?

Clinical narcissism is a personality trait characterized by extreme self-involvement to the extent that the individual is oblivious to the needs of those around them. Researchers have identified antagonism, an inherent lack of empathy, as a fundamental characteristic of the condition.

Narcissism can be categorized as agentic extraversion, which is associated with subjective well-being, popularity, and attractiveness, or narcissistic neuroticism, which is associated with psychoticism and lack of interpersonal sensitivity. Together, antagonism, narcissistic neuroticism, and agentic extraversion comprise the ‘Trifurcated Model of Narcissism.’

Recent research has included two additional factors to this model, including leadership/authority and exhibitionism/entitlement. However, many argue that these can be subsumed into agentic- and antagonism, respectively, as opposed to being standalone factors. Moreover, these elements relate to an individual’s attention-seeking, shame perception, and self-focus and are hypothesized to play a vital role in individuals’ self-image and health behaviors.

Body image concerns are negative evaluations of one’s body, and, in more severe cases, may manifest as eating disorders. Furthermore, body image concerns vary in focus, but generally refer to the size and shape of a specific feature of one’s body, or overall body size/shape/weight.”

Body image concerns are of various types, most notably the desire for a thin body and musculature. These desires are often associated with actions and behaviors such as diet and physical exercise that are targeted towards attaining a low-body fat physique.  

Few studies that have tested these hypotheses have shown that these desires are linked to mental and physical health concerns, including depression, distress, and muscle dysphoria. Clinically diagnosed narcissists have been found to monitor their eating habits and over-exercise much more frequently than normal controls as a hypothesized approach-improving strategy.

However, these findings were observational and byproducts of larger personality-centric studies. Furthermore, ‘narcissism’ has been used as an umbrella term, with no research on how individual subcategories under the Trifurcated Model of Narcissism differ in their wants and behaviors.

About the study

The present study used a multimethod-matrix to investigate associations between health behaviors, self-image, and narcissism across sex and correlated narcissism measures. The study cohort comprised 430 adult Americans recruited using the online Amazon Mechanical Turk (mTurk) platform.

The methodology consisted of an online survey comprising six questionnaires, including the Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Questionnaire, Drive for Muscularity Scale, Hypersensitive Narcissism Scale, Eating Disorder Examination Questionnaire-Short, Drive for Thinness Scale, and Sex-Specific Somatomorphic Matrixes.

The Narcissistic Admiration and Rivalry Questionnaire is an 18-item test used to measure individual-level differences in antagonism and agentic extraversion. To differentiate between agentic extraversion subfactors, including leadership/authority versus exhibitionism/entitlement, the Narcissistic Personality Inventory was used.

Narcissistic neuroticism was measured using the Hypersensitive Narcissism Scale. The strength of participants’ desire for specific body types was calculated using the Drive for Muscularity and Drive for Thinness Scales. Additionally, the translation of body type desires into dietary behaviors was measured using the Eating Disorder Examination Questionnaire-Short.

Current and desired body types and their sex-associated relationships with narcissism were evaluated using the Sex-Specific Somatomorphic Matrixes, which comprises a matrix of 34 items on two scales of weight (underweight-to-obese) and musculature (underweight-to-hypermuscular).

Study findings

With leadership/authority being a noteworthy exception, all narcissistic traits were associated with the desire for thinness and muscularity. Leadership/authority remains the only exception in narcissistic traits’ yearning for more significant desired body fat; however, it was not an exception in health behaviors, including current muscularity and current eating disorders.

When statistically controlling for shared variance between narcissistic traits, agentic extraversion correlated with the desire for thinness negatively, as was leadership/authority with eating disorders and the desire for muscularity. The opposite results were observed for narcissistic neuroticism, thus suggesting that certain narcissistic traits like leadership/authority may have an evolutionarily adaptive function.

Attitudes and behaviors that drive one to obtain the ideal body would also accommodate a sense of superiority and the opportunity to devalue or look down upon individuals with less-than-ideal bodies, thus serving antagonism.. On the other hand, agentic extraversion–assertive and self-enhancing behaviors aimed to generate more social admiration and to boost one’s ego–could also be fulfilled by obtaining the ideal body.”

Sex-specific analyses revealed that, especially in women, admiration and rivalry are accurate predictors of an increased desire for thinness and muscularity. Measures of body fat indicate that antagonism was associated with a desire for thinness in women and increased body fat in men.

Interestingly, leadership/authority was more positively associated with eating disorder symptoms among women. These findings may suggest that narcissistic men, except for those characterized by leadership/authority, are driven to thinness more than narcissistic women and that they are more likely to exhibit behaviors aimed at staying thin.

Conclusions

The present study investigates the sex-specific associations between various narcissistic factors and the desires and health behaviors of individuals who express them. Despite the limitation of being restricted to educated Americans and therefore non-generalizable, these findings represent the first effort in this field. Notably, leadership/authority results suggest that not all narcissistic traits are maladaptive in their behavioral associations, unlikely previously assumed.

Journal reference:
  • Szymczak, P., Talbot, D., Gritti, E. S., & Jonason, P. K. (2023). Narcissus’ belief about his body: Aspects of narcissism, body image, and eating disorder symptoms. PLOS ONE 18(11). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0293578
Hugo Francisco de Souza

Written by

Hugo Francisco de Souza

Hugo Francisco de Souza is a scientific writer based in Bangalore, Karnataka, India. His academic passions lie in biogeography, evolutionary biology, and herpetology. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. from the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, where he studies the origins, dispersal, and speciation of wetland-associated snakes. Hugo has received, amongst others, the DST-INSPIRE fellowship for his doctoral research and the Gold Medal from Pondicherry University for academic excellence during his Masters. His research has been published in high-impact peer-reviewed journals, including PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases and Systematic Biology. When not working or writing, Hugo can be found consuming copious amounts of anime and manga, composing and making music with his bass guitar, shredding trails on his MTB, playing video games (he prefers the term ‘gaming’), or tinkering with all things tech.

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