A dark personality trait may protect from depression

Narcissism could come with some serious mental health benefits.

personality traits, narcissism

Narcissists may not be particularly endearing, but there could be unexpected upsides to an overinflated ego. Having a high opinion of yourself may protect you from mental health conditions like depression, according to two research papers published this week.

Kostas Papageorgiou, Ph.D., has been preoccupied with the benefits of narcissism for several years.

In a 2018 study, Papageorgiou’s team found that people with low levels of narcissism tended to get better grades in school. But this new study points to an even greater advantage to such self-centered behavior.

Across two papers, one published in Personality and Individual Differences and another in European Psychiatry, Papageorgiou and his team detail evidence that narcissists, for all their faults, tend to be mentally tough. They are less likely to have symptoms of depression and have lower levels of perceived stress, the papers suggest.

stress, depression
Narcissists are less likely to show symptoms of depression and have lower levels of perceived stress, largely because they're more mentally tough, according to these results. 

“The results from all the studies that we conducted show that grandiose narcissism correlates with very positive components of mental toughness, such as confidence and goal orientation, protecting against symptoms of depression and perceived stress,” Papageorgiou said in a statement.

Mental toughness and resilience

Papageorgiou is developing a model to explain why narcissists appear to have lower levels of stress and depression. Back in 2018, he told Inverse he was researching a “mediation model,” which posits that narcissism isn’t enough to protect against stress or depression on its own. Instead, being a narcissist is correlated with mental toughness, or resilience, which acts as a buffer against outside stressors that take a toll on mental health.

The model gibes with an unrelated 2018 study, published in the International Journal of Stress Management, that found mental toughness is a “stress resilience resource.” Higher scores on tests of mental toughness were associated with fewer mental health complaints. The researchers also found that evaluated stress (a potential risk factor for depression) was linked to depression only in study participants who had scored low on the tests.

By looking at personality test scores, Papageorgiou found that narcissistic tendencies and mental toughness tend to come hand-in-hand, supporting his mediation model.

Individuals who scored higher on tests for narcissism tended to have higher scores on mental toughness tests, but lower scores on perceived stress tests. He found a similar connection with depression: high subclinical narcissism scores were tied to mental toughness, and in turn, predicted lower levels of depression.

One thing these results don’t do is draw a direct, causal relationship between fewer depressive symptoms and narcissism. And it’s important to note that depression is a multifaceted condition with links to genetics, neuroscience and numerous other fields, so boiling it down to personality science is a dangerous game.

However, they did show significant, compelling connections.

Why are narcissists mentally tough?

Papageorgiou’s study isn’t designed to explain why this relationship exists. And because participants reported their own personality traits via online surveys there is reason to be skeptical of the connection. Still, Papageorgiou suggested that specific kinds of narcissists may see the world in a way that increases their mental toughness.

In the European Psychiatry paper, for example, Papageorgiou’s team notes that grandiose narcissism, a specific type of narcissism, has a closer relationship to mental toughness. Grandiose narcissism is an obsession with power or status (think any character in the Succession series, for example).

This type of outlook can affect the way people view challenges, Papageorgiou said in a statement.

“This research really helps to explain variation in symptoms of depression in society - if a person is more mentally tough they are likely to embrace challenges head on, rather than viewing them as a hurdle,” he said.

Of course, not everyone who is mentally tough is also a narcissist. But this work does suggest that their inflated egos may be imparting a beneficial kind of fortitude.

Abstract: Previous research reported that Subclinical Narcissism (SN) may increase Mental Toughness (MT) resulting in positive outcomes such as lower psychopathy, higher school grades and lower symptoms of depression. We conducted three studies (N = 364, 240 and 144 for studies 1, 2 and 3, respectively) to test a mediation model, which suggests that SN may increase MT predicting lower Perceived Stress (PS). The participants were drawn from the general population in studies 1 and 2; and were undergraduate students in study 3. SN exerted a negative indirect effect on PS, through MT across all three studies: β = −0.26, SE = 0.039, 95% CI [−0.338, −0.187]; β=−0.25, SE=0.050, 95% CI [−0.358, −0.160]; β=−0.31, SE=0.078, 95% CI [−0.473, −0.168]. The results were replicated in the combined dataset. In study 3, we extended the sensitivity of the model showing that, it is the Grandiose SN that decreases PS, through MT; Vulnerable SN exhibited the reverse pattern. The findings indicate that the model, from SN to MT, may predict positive outcomes in various domains (e.g. in education and psychopathology) suggesting that inclusion of SN in the dark triad of personality may need to be reconsidered.