The Non-Hostile Narcissism of the Actor - Pacific Standard

The Non-Hostile Narcissism of the Actor

German researchers report actors crave the admiration of audiences, but they’re disinclined to derogate their peers.
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(Photo: nito/Shutterstock)

(Photo: nito/Shutterstock)

Many actors freely admit it: Narcissism is a common personality trait among members of their profession. The “look at me” impulse drives many performers, at least in their early years, and some never manage to let it go.

But recent scholarship suggests there are at least two distinct varieties of narcissism. Those driven by the first type seek out situations where they will be admired. Those propelled by the second, darker type adopt an antagonistic attitude, essentially knocking other people down in order to boost their own grandiose self-image.

Newly published research from Germany finds actors, to no one’s surprise, score higher than the average person on that first, spotlight-seeking brand of narcissism. But, interestingly, they also score lower than average on the second, more toxic variety.

This research helps explain how actors can come across as self-centered even as they fawn over one another with apparent sincerity. Such behavior is consistent with the notion that the narcissism of the actor is, usually, not polluted by anger or antagonism.

“Theater stages represent ecological niches that provide narcissists with an opportunity to fulfill their desire for admiration,” writes a research team led by University of Leipzig psychologist Michael Dufner. They want—or need—to be held in high regard, but derogating rivals is seldom their style.

Writing in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, the researchers describe two studies. The first featured 1,128 university students in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, 244 of whom were majoring in either acting or musical theater performance.

All responded to a series of statements designed to detect the aforementioned two types of narcissism. Participants reported their level of agreement with such assertions as “Being a very special person gives me a lot of strength,” and “I want my rivals to fail.”

“Actors were higher in admiration than individuals in the control group,” the researchers report, “but at the same time, the actors were lower in rivalry.” These trends were not significantly affected by the amount of time the budding thespians had spent studying their craft.

The second study featured 164 actors who work regularly in improvisational theater, as well as 119 “civilians” who regularly attend such performances. They were given a list of reasons they chose to be actors and asked the extent to which each applied to them.

To measure narcissism, they responded to the same set of statements as the students. Once again, the researchers found “an elevated level of admiration, paired with an attenuated level of rivalry in actors.”

To guard against a lack of self-awareness—after all, not every narcissist recognizes him or herself as such—all were invited to reach out to a “close other person” who would add their assessments of the participant’s personality. These friends or colleagues supplied information on 61 of the actors and 45 of the non-actors.

Analyzing these “informant reports of narcissism, a virtually identical pattern of results was obtained,” the researchers write. “Both actors themselves and their close peers describe them as high in (the desire for) admiration and low in rivalry.”

It would be interesting to try to duplicate these results in, say, Hollywood. The desire to take down one’s rivals may be stronger in such a high-stakes environment.

But on the other hand, this research helps explain how actors can come across as self-centered even as they fawn over one another with apparent sincerity. Such behavior is consistent with the notion that the narcissism of the actor is, usually, not polluted by anger or antagonism.

Sure, they crave those standing ovations. But when sitting in the audience, they’re often the first ones on their feet.

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