Are Narcissists Born or Made?

Recent studies suggest a rise in the number of narcissistic people. The effects of that kind of behavior tend to be quite damaging. But where does it come from? Are narcissists born that way or is it a result of their upbringing?
Are Narcissists Born or Made?
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Are narcissists born or made? This is a question many people ask themselves, given the impact that narcissists have on society. Technically, psychologists estimate that only about 1 percent of the population is affected by narcissistic personality disorder.

An air of superiority, manipulation, low levels of empathy, arrogant behavior, a need for admiration… You’ve most likely experienced these traits that characterize the narcissistic profile first-hand.

Maybe you’ve had a narcissistic boss, friend, or significant other. Dealing with a narcissist in your life can be harmful. Surviving them, and then trying to move on after managing to distance yourself from them, often involves healing a lot of pain.

Dr. Theodore Millon, a pioneer in the study of personalitypredicted that narcissistic behavior would increase in society over time. Also, he indicated that some types of narcissism are more damaging than others. Prosocial narcissists are the ones who tend to be the best at adapting to the outside world. On the other hand, antisocial narcissists are the most arrogant and aggressive. They pose a social risk for others.

So why did Dr. Millon, in his book Personality Disorders in Modern Life, predict that the number of narcissists would increase in the future? Was his explanation based on genetics, or did he believe that people’s surroundings play an important role in shaping behavior?

A woman arguing with her coworkers.

Are narcissists born or made?

Science seems to have a clear answer to this question: narcissists are made. Decades ago, researchers started to suspect that children’s upbringing and their social context played an important role in the narcissistic personality. However, over time, it seems that we’ve gotten a better handle on the dynamics, situations, and circumstances that define it.

First of all, during the 20th-century, psychologists came up with the idea that children who didn’t have a safe and close attachment to their parents tended to develop narcissistic traits. Psychoanalysis made us believe that people who didn’t receive love and affection during their childhood sought outside validation, attention, affection, and admiration.

However, Dr. Eddie Brummelman and his team at Utrecht University conducted a study that yielded very different results. A lack of parental affection doesn’t cause narcissistic behavior. Instead, the opposite is true. Parents who overprotect their children, spoil them, and fail to set appropriate boundaries set their children on the path to narcissism. As a result, these children believe that they’re above other people.

This kind of upbringing puts children on a pedestal and makes them believe that they have exclusive rights and that they’re privileged. The study also showed that you can measure and observe narcissistic behavior in children between the ages of seven and 12. This is when children’s sense of self emerges and when they start to consider themselves special and deserving of more than everyone else.

The danger of parental overvaluation

Most people believe that narcissists are the product of their environment. Consequently, putting all of the responsibility on the parents is somewhat controversial.

  • Is there something wrong with making children feel loved and special? The answer is no. In fact, raising your children with love, positive reinforcement, and affection is crucial for their well-being.
  • The problem lies in overvaluation, which is when parents make their children believe that they’re better than everyone else and that they deserve more than other people.
  • Another factor to consider is that, sometimes, the parents themselves have narcissistic behavior patterns. In this case, children imitate their parents, internalizing what they see and making it their own, for better or worse.
A boy king.

Are narcissists born or made?

Psychologists Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell wrote a very interesting book called The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. In it, they point out that narcissism exists on a spectrum. Some people have a few narcissistic traits, and others fall into that 1 percent who suffer from narcissistic personality disorder.

It’s important to understand that children aren’t only affected by their family environment. Society also influences and shapes them. Not only that but, in recent years, we’ve all witnessed the rise in self-worship and the constant need for “likes” to boost people’s self-esteem. Social media is fertile ground for creating neo-narcissists at an alarming rate.

Also, it’s important to remember that narcissists aren’t happy people. Not only do they make others suffer but they’re generally unsatisfied themselves. They’re constantly battling with their own frustration.

In conclusion, the answer is to the question we posed at the beginning of the article is that narcissists are made, not born. Consequently, it’s everyone’s responsibility to raise new generations in empathy, respect, and altruism.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.