Narcissism has been something of a mystery to psychologists. With narcissists, things tend to be extreme: the good is really good, and the bad is really bad. Narcissism expert W. Keith Campbell compares interacting with narcissists to eating chococate cake: “When I eat chococlate cake, 20 minutes later I’m under my desk wanting to die. When I eat broccoli, in 20 minutes I feel good. But given the choice I always eat the cake.”
On the one hand, the narcissist’s charisma and self-confidence can be highly alluring. Psychologists Mitja Back and colleagues found that narcissists are indeed more popular at first acquaintance, and its due to four particular cues that make up their “charismatic air”*:
- Attractiveness (flashy, neat attire)
- Competence (self-assured behavior)
- Interpersonal Warmth (charming glances at strangers)
- Humor (witty verbal expressions)
On the other hand, research shows that the initial popularity of narcissists at the early stages of interpersonal interactions depends on the behavioral pathway that is triggered: expressive and dominant behaviors are associated with a positive evaluation, whereas arrogant and combative behaviors are associated with a negative evaluation. According to this research, narcissists may be more popular at first acquaintance because they are more likely to display behaviors that trigger a positive pathway, perhaps because they are trying to make a good first impression.
In line with this idea, W. Keith Campbell and Stacy Campbell proposed a new model of narcissism in which they argue that two particular time points are important. The “emerging zone” includes situations involving unacquainted individuals, early-stage relationships, and short-term contexts. In contrast, the “enduring zone” involves situations involving acquainted individuals, continuing relationships, and long-term consequences.
The costs of narcissism are seen primarily in the “enduring zone.” As the relationship develops, narcissists start displaying behaviors that are evaluated negatively, such as arrogance and aggression. Narcissists cyclically return to the emerging zone because they are addicted to the positive social feedback and emotional rush they get from this zone. They live in this zone. As a result, they are good at being popular, making new friends, and acquiring social status, but are really quite terrible at sustaining anything meaningful and intimate.