Narcissim: social learing theory vs psychoanaltic theory

From “Origins of narcissism in children,” in the proceedings of the national academy of sciences.

There’s an interesting theoretcal challenge here to the idea that problematic behavior is due to unconscious desires to make up for early wounds. Equally, we get some insight into how pretty rotten people can have quite nice parents.

Narcissism levels have been increasing among Western youth, and contribute to societal problems such as aggression and violence. The origins of narcissism, however, are not well understood. Here, we report, to our knowledge, the first prospective longitudinal evidence on the origins of narcissism in children. We compared two perspectives: social learning theory (positing that narcissism is cultivated by parental overvaluation) and psychoanalytic theory (positing that narcissism is cultivated by lack of parental warmth). … Results support social learning theory and contradict psychoanalytic theory: Narcissism was predicted by parental overvaluation, not by lack of parental warmth. Thus, children seem to acquire narcissism, in part, by internalizing parents’ inflated views of them (e.g., “I am superior to others” and “I am entitled to privileges”). Attesting to the specificity of this finding, self-esteem was predicted by parental warmth, not by parental overvaluation. These findings uncover early socialization experiences that cultivate narcissism, and may inform interventions to curtail narcissistic development at an early age.

4 thoughts on “Narcissim: social learing theory vs psychoanaltic theory

  1. Having read the article, I have several problems with the conclusions presented.

    Firstly, in comparing psychoanalytic theory to social learning theory in the aetiology of narcissism, the authors claim that the psychoanalytic approach equates to a “lack of parental warmth”, which they equate to the expression of “little affection, appreciation, and positive affect” towards the child. I believe this is not representative of psychoanalytic theory, even of the references cited in the paper, namely Kohut, and the true theory involves an emphasis on empathic responsiveness to the child and mirroring.

    The other significant issue I take with the paper is with the research method. and, specifically, the way in which questions are used, and the choice of questions used, in the study. For example, it is far from uncommon for psychoanalysts to argue that children internalise problems with parenting in order to maintain the view that the parent is the good, supportive parent desired, so asking a child if their parents love them, and or treat them with kindness, is likely to be unrepresentative of the actual parental treatment, particularly where subtle issues such as emotional neglect or invalidation are concerned. It also seems unreasonable that parents would give a negative response to “I let my child know I love him/her”, and, “I treat my child gently and with kindness”, in most cases, even where an outside may judge otherwise. These questions also in no way differentiate between parenting involving conditional love, in which a child is put under pressure to earn the parent’s praise by living up to their expectations, and the empathic validation of the child as a human being, the lack of which I have said I believe is a truer representation of psychoanalytic theory. Similarly, asking a child whether they like the person they are, and if they are happy with themself as a person, seems like it would be less indicative of self-esteem than assessing the child’s interaction with others, and comparison of themself to others.

  2. Andreabehindglass, your very interesting objections could be devastating, but I don’t think they really work. First of all, i think the traits they list, such as warmth, are closely tied to empathy. It’s hard to imagine genuine warmth without empathy. Mirroring may be special. The term itself is now hotly contested. But in general mirroring goes along with warmth, at least on the neurophysiological level.

    Your criticism of the questions look apt, but if you follow through on their references, you’ll see they are using very well validated interview instruments. In addition, Fiske, who vetted the paper, is unlikely to pass on research that isn’t well grounded. As far as I can tell, there isn’t a lot of controvery about these very standard instruments.

  3. Thank you for your reply. I still stand strongly behind my original points. I disagree that perceived warmth necessarily implies genuine empathy in any way. For instance, a person can care very much about a child, but in a way that shows no recognition of them as a human being in their own right. (See Alice Miller’s, The Drama of Being a Child/The Drama of the Gifted Child.) Emotional manipulation is an example of outward warmth devoid of empathy.

    I don’t think validation of the interview instruments in any way addresses the points I made about the questions themselves. I make no claim as to the academic community’s views. In fact, one of the reasons this paper bothers me so much is that I believe psychoanalytic theories are judged negatively through the difficulty of assessing them against scientific criteria, a difficulty that is inherent by the very nature of analysis. Misrepresenting the theories themselves, and using questions that do not capture what is being tested, fuels the problem.

  4. ABG: I take your point about warmth, principally because I don’t think the term has a set enough meaning. I don’t count manipulation as warmth, for example. There are manipulative people who grabbed one and tell you how lovable you would be if you’d just change in such and such a way. I feel very chilled by such encounters.

    I don’t know why the authors didn’t just use “empathy.” As a term it appears many times in all sort of discussions of narcissism. I was writing last summer about a study in which they authors mischaracterized their opponents in this sort of way. I’m inclined not to think this feature is very important in comparison to other issues about evidence.

    I have trouble with your criticism of the questions. First because I haven’t seen them. Secondly, these very standard interview questions and tests tend to be acknowledged by very different kinds of therapists. If an exercise is really widely thought to capture, e.g., paranoid schizophrenia, it tends to be a starting point at least across lots of different approaches to treatment. If we didn’t have such things it would be really unclear whether we could reach any agreement about what ails a person.

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