In the research “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Leads to Inflated Self-Assessments” self-esteem was explored as a factor for appropriate (typical) and inappropriate (atypical) reaction of the person’s ego in relationship with competence. Moderated multiple tests revealed significant interactions between self-esteem and personality for typical and atypical reactions (Anderson, 1996). A positive relationship between self-esteem and typical changes was found under success and between self-esteem and atypical changes under failure when ego of a person denied the possibility of being incompetent. The research shows that high self-esteem in critical situations is a cause of maladaptive behaviors, including the maintenance of overly ambitions and unrealistic goals. This article states, that it is a variant of the concept of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) (Anderson, 1996). Persons with this disorder have an enormous sense of self-importance and are often preoccupied with dreams of unlimited success. They believe they are superior, inimitable, or unique as no one else and others should recognize them as such. The concept of narcissistic personality disorder has one particular feature: the individual denies his incompetence because he is unaware of his incompetence and in most cases is unable to realize this. This fact may cause serious distress and diseases of the individual. The aim is to help the individual realize and assess the problem of such hidden disorders, and then work out the strategy how to deal with such injures on a conscious level (Brehm, & Cohen, 1962).
Leon Festinger (1957) of Stanford University introduced “Cognitive Dissonance” to describe feelings of unpleasantness deep in the unconscious which lead to personality distress (Brehm, & Cohen, 1962). This statement directly correlates with the problems of the concept of narcissistic personality disorder. Psychologists developed tests to identify the presence, origin and specific area of personality’s life-space where such hurts were found. Behavior of people according to cognitive dissonance theory is that they do not like to have dissonant cognitions (Chow & Thompson, 2003). Many people argue that the necessity to have consonant cognitions is as strong as our basic desires. As a result, when individual experiences dissonant cognitions (or conflicting thoughts), he will endeavor to ignore the dissonance. According to the tests there are several ways in which person attempts to overcome or stop cognitive dissonance. Ignoring the dissonant cognition allows the individual to do things otherwise viewed as wrong or inappropriate. Another way to overcome cognitive dissonance is to reduce or substitute the importance of certain cognitions. Individual has less difficulty dealing with the dissonance but disorder remains despite the unawareness of the personality. The most common method people ignore cognitive dissonance is not to put the statement on the first place but to substitute it with the one not conflicting with the ego of a person (Chow & Thompson, 2003). Unpleasantness of the dissonant cognitions deep in the unconscious makes the person to eliminate the threat to the ego by ignoring dissonant cognitions and overpower our logic and leads us to act in ways that are not to our own benefit.
These actions make a certain model of behavior and relations to the social world of the people with narcissistic personality disorder. The model relates to behaviors and imperatives intended for control of the impressions and responses of other persons. Such reactions are also employed to diffuse or eliminate threats to the personality. The result that narcissist’s concerns about upholding positive self-evaluation triggered interpersonal behaviors that ultimately should contribute to disturbances in interpersonal relations, a hallmark of the narcissistic syndrome (Brehm, & Cohen, 1962).
Narcissists’ interpersonal relations have consequences in terms of shaping outcomes and interpersonal reactions that feed back onto the personality (Hartmann, H. 1958). This feedback is not passively adopted but rather undergoes through a number of intrapersonal self-regulatory operations that include cognitive, affective, and motivational components. The model claims that these intrapersonal processes relates to the self-enhancing distortions described previously. A core intrapersonal strategy appears to be the inclination to make self- exalting attributions for positive outcomes (Rhodewalt & Morf, 1995, 1998; Rhodewalt, Tragakis, & Finnerty, 2003). This self-aggrandizing style has extreme reflections for the narcissist’s self-regulations, emotional reactions, and interpersonal behavior. The research reveals that narcissists stake out statements that they cannot assent (Rhodewalt & Morf, 1998; Rhodewalt et al., 2004). Thus, failure or the threat of failure has greater influence on their feelings of self-evaluation and behavior than it has on the self-evaluation and behavior of less narcissistic persons, probably because of the uncertainty upon which narcissistic self-evaluation is based. As is evident, narcissists’ intra- and interpersonal self-regulatory processes and self-evaluation are closely interacted. In order to maintain self-evaluation narcissists have to diffuse threats to the ego after interpersonal denial (Rhodewalt & Eddings, 2002) or when they hold negative conceptions of those personalities who pose a threat, either because they provide negative feedback or because they outperform the narcissist (Kernis & Sun, 1994; Morf & Rhodewalt, 1993). Finally, the model includes the social interrelations and background in which narcissists function. The statement is that through their actions, regulations, interpretations, and choices of that are not to their own benefit, and in order to feel good about themselves narcissists create maintain social environments that are objectively different from those of less narcissistic individuals (Campbell, 1999). This brief overview of the dynamic self-evaluation maintenance processing model of narcissism highlights its main elements and displays their dynamic interdependencies. By viewing narcissistic self-evaluation maintenance as inseparable from the social environment in which it functions, one can realize the combination of emotional instability, and interpersonal insensitivity that characterizes these individuals (Campbell, 1999).
Psychologists proposed dynamic systems to account for how people exaggerate the positiveness of their self-evaluations (discussed previously) in the face of performance evaluations by others. Steele’s (1988, 1990) self-affirmation model also suggests that if person performs poorly in a particular field, the one is likely to treat that performance result as irrelevant. Steele’s model claims that if a performance domain is important to self-affirmation, the chance of poor performance is increasing. (Schneider, 1948) has argued that person is often motivated to avoid from thinking about their personality, especially in relations with negative self-evaluations (Bennett, & Cormack, 1996). The research on self-evaluation and its involvement for performance suggests that self-affirmation is an important intrapersonal and interpersonal component.
Tesser and Cornell (1991) showed how self-evaluation maintenance and self-affirmation are interrelated (Bennett, & Cormack, 1996) The typical self-evaluation maintenance response to a negative social comparison is diffused by the opportunity to self-affirm. The opportunity to self-affirm makes a narcissist’s positive features more obvious and the need for a positive self-evaluation by other methods less necessary.
According to the self-affirmation theory, any threat to one’s sense of competence, ego or goodness can be eliminated by the opportunity to display or affirm even an unrelated aspect of the personality (Steele, 1975). However, the studies have shown that the aspect of narcissists being examined is different; participants who experience narcissistic personality disorder affirm themselves by expressing characteristics unrelated to the target behaviors.
In order to avoid distress narcissist in most cases may act without having any idea of the relations of his action with the actions of others or of the goal to which his actions lead. This is so called rationalization trap, a scheme of conscious and unconscious regulations and a definite plan the conditions of which are understood by others but not by the narcissist who acts to reduce dissonance and provides set of justifications and rationalizations.
Self-discrepancy theory proposes that a discrepancy between actual behaviors and an ideal self-guide is a meaningful model of self-beliefs. The theory claims that this pattern represents a particular psychological situation. If an individual possesses this discrepancy, the current state of his actual attributes, from the person’s own standpoint, does not match the ideal self that someone wishes or hopes that he or she would attain (Moskowitz, 2001). Thus, an actual-ideal discrepancy as a whole represents the absence of positive results. The theory also proposes that if an individual possesses an actual-ought discrepancy, then the current state of his or her actual traits, from the person’s own viewpoint, does not match the state that somebody else believes is his or her obligatory duty to attain. As the violation of prescribed duties is associated with punishment or criticism, this discrepancy as a whole represents the expected presence of something negative.
This ability of narcissists to represent the relation between two self systems introduces a new possible pattern of self-beliefs– self guide discrepancy. By searching for solutions to conflicts narcissists are more likely to create self-chosen principles to which they are personally committed and to become conscientious (Hartmann, H. 1958). Each individual can create his own viewpoint that differs from the viewpoint of others and can function as the integrated, coordinated solution to the complex array of alternative self-guides.
Self-discrepancy theory identifies five major levels in the development of the self-system. The theory proposes that self-guides are based on a history of social interactions between a narcissist and significant others involving interpersonal contingencies (Hartmann, H. 1958). It is these interactions and relations of self-other contingencies that provide the underlying meaning and importance of narcissist’s self traits. The levels of mental representational capacity are necessary conditions for the attainment of self-other contingency knowledge and self-guide (Hartmann, H. 1958).
In a military training situation, there was a test of the claim that high self-esteem individuals would overreact to ego threats and make themselves to fail. (Smith, Norrell, & L., J, 1996). The participants received false feedback from a leadership test that followed by attempted grenade tosses in which they selected the distance they would try. According to the theories, an interaction was discovered between self-esteem and ego threat such that high self-esteem persons who received ego-threatening feedback selected more complicated tasks than low self-esteem individuals, leading to marginally reduced accuracy. Thus, when not receiving an ego threat, the performance was relatively equal by high and low self-esteem persons.
Participants and Design
Eighty-four commissioning junior cadets (75 male, 9 female) ranging in age from 19 to 24 years, took part in the study as a part of their training. They were randomly chosen to receive either success or failure feedback on a bogus leadership test. Self-esteem results obtained earlier created the second independent variable.
Participants answered 10 questions, half of which were reverse-scaled, on 4-point scales ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 4 (strongly disagree). The range of possible scores was 10 to 40, with higher results representing more positive self-evaluations. Half of the participants were arbitrarily assigned to get negative feedback on the test and were informed that they had failed. This represented the ego-threat manipulation. The remaining participants were informed that they had passed.
After all the individuals had finished their grenade toss, a complete discussion was held. It was explained to each person that the leadership test they had taken, as well as the success or failure feedback they had got regarding this test, were fictitious.
The experiment proved that high self-esteem is associated with less adaptive behavior than low self-esteem. The research discovered that when faced with an ego-threatening stimulus, high self-esteem individuals overreacted, making what proved to be overzealous commitments.
Using such type of a test of performance that was of clear relevance to our participants, some basic pattern of results was obtained: ego threat reacted in maladaptive overreactions from high self-esteem participants.
Anderson, N. H. (1996). A Functional Theory of Cognition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Bennett, M., & Cormack, C. (1996). Others’ Actions Can Reflect on the Self: a Developmental Study of Extended Identity. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 157(3), 323-330.
Brehm, J. W., & Cohen, A. R. (1962). Explorations in Cognitive Dissonance. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Chow, P., & Thompson, I. S. (2003). The Personal Development Test and the Cognitive Dissonance Test: A Comparison. Education, 123(4), 733+.
Hartmann, H. (1958). Ego Psychology and the Problem of Adaptation (Rapaport, D., Trans.). New York: International Universities Press.
Moskowitz, G. B. (Ed.). (2001). Cognitive Social Psychology: The Princeton Symposium on the Legacy and Future of Social Cognition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Schneider, L. (1948). The Freudian Psychology and Veblen’s Social Theory. New York: King’s Crown Press.
Smith, S. M., Norrell, J. H., & L., J. (1996). Self-Esteem and Reactions to Ego Threat: a (Battle)Field Investigation. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 18(4), 395-404.
Wicklund, R. A., & Brehm, J. W. (1976). Perspectives on Cognitive Dissonance. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.