How Not to Spot a Narcissist

Photo: George Marks/Getty Images

It makes sense to think that people who pepper their speech with an annoyingly high number of me-me-mes and I-I-Is might have narcissistic tendencies. It’s such an intuitive idea that it’s caught on with both the general public and with researchers, especially after a 1988 study that showed a correlation between first-person pronouns and narcissistic tendencies. But as the authors of a new study published online this week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology point out, that original study was pretty small, and it hasn’t been widely or successfully replicated. So the team, led by Angela Carey of the University of Arizona, decided to test again whether there’s rigorous evidence for this connection by looking at the combined results of a bunch of prior studies. 

To do so, they partnered with teams at four universities in the U.S. and Germany, which gave them access to more than 4,800 study participants across 15 studies that had tested the I-word-narcissism connection. In one experiment, for example, 130 participants completed a series of questionnaires — including the standardized 40-item survey used to measure narcissism — and then prepared and delivered a brief autobiographical speech. In another, 44 German users of a social-networking site took personality tests and provided researchers with the “about me” sections of their profiles. 

Combining the results of all 15 studies, the researchers found no association between narcissism and an individual’s use of first-person pronouns. “The most interesting finding is that the results did not vary much across two different countries, multiple labs, five different narcissism measures and 12 different samples,” said Matthias R. Mehl, one of the study’s co-authors, in a press release. “We were surprised by how consistent of a near-null finding it was.”

And yet, as the authors point out in their paper, despite a clear lack of solid evidence between I-me-I-ism and narcissism, some researchers are still clinging to this idea. For example, a 2011 study that found an uptick in appearances of words like I and me in pop-song lyrics argued that this was evidence of increased narcissism among those crazy millennials. 

It’s true, in a squishy and very nonscientific way, that it feels like self-focused people use me and I more in their speech than less-narcissistic individuals. Carey and her team don’t have a good answer to why that is, but they write that it may simply be a trick of human perception — we expect narcissists to use more mes  and Is, so we’re more likely to notice when they do. But there may be, according to another recent study on the subject, a more reliable way to identify a narcissist: Just ask, and they’ll be happy to tell you. 

How Not to Spot a Narcissist