Have Lots of Friends on Facebook? You may be a Narcissist

By Peter Bernstein March 21, 2012

Wow! Yesterday Samantha Murphy at Mashable had an interesting piece on research from Western Illinois University which showed a link between the number of Facebook friends you have, with the caveat of how often you post, and the likelihood that you are being a “socially disruptive” narcissist. Ouch!

Ok, here is a bit of background. I joined Facebook in 2007 and on purpose: a) have 205 friends (mostly people I actually know), and 2) check in periodically and rarely comment. In other words, in the name of disclosure I may or may not be the best person to comment on the above revelation. That said, this one is hard to let pass without a few words.

 What’s all the hubbub about?

Let’s start with the findings. The study -- recently published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences -- was conducted among 300 participants, each of whom took a Narcissistic Personality Inventory questionnaire. For those who know statistics, this is hardly a scientific sampling.

What the researchers found, according to study author Chris Carpenter in an interview with Ms. Murphy was that, “People who have a heightened need to feel good about themselves will often turn to Facebook as a way to do so…Facebook gives those with narcissistic tendencies the opportunity to exploit the site to get the feedback they need and become the center of attention.” 

For all of us with Facebook pages whose walls are occupied not by the OWS crew but by friends who believe their benefits are in constant sharing, you could line us all up and knock us over with a feather. In fact, the correlation of narcissism is supposedly strongest with people who like to share the main photo, view photos, and status updates and notes parts of Facebook. In a word, from that famous philosopher and cultural icon Homer Simpson, “D’oh.”

But wait! There’s more. Carpenter got a bit Freudian, or is it Jungian. He noted that Facebook users that self-promote themselves show signs of two narcissistic behaviors: grandiose exhibition (GE), which describes people who need to suck all the air out of a room so they are the center of attention; and, those who practice entitlement/explotiveness (EE), which is a barometer of just how far people will go to make it all about them. 

He was at least careful about drawing too many conclusions from what he had observed saying, “There isn’t a baseline of how many friends a person has or how often they update their status that would qualify as them to have these narcissistic characteristics…However, it’s interesting to note how often these people use first-person pronouns such as ‘I’ and ‘me’ on the site.”

So are you a narcissist? Are you socially disruptive?

Before you get too upset about whether you are a social misfit and a boor, consider the following:

  • As stated, the study is interesting but not compelling because of the small sample size.
  • People use Facebook with various intents. This includes the niceties of the nature of their relationships with family, life-time friends, colleagues and strangers who seem interesting. Differentiating who gets what on a wall where the settings are for everyone to see (and why not) makes messaging complicated.

Furthermore, and maybe most importantly, being expressive is not a sin. In fact, making use of virtual megaphones does not and should not brand somebody as “socially disruptive.” Words matter. Categorization of an individual who is electronically gregarious, especially without full knowledge of their intentions and motivations, and then sticking them with a highly-charged term like “socially disruptive” to me borders on being irresponsible. In slanguage it is, “not helpful!” 

The field of behavioral science is very clear in drawing distinctions between “narcissists” and “evil narcissists,” i.e., those whose narcissism whether consciously or unconsciously generates harmful impacts for others. We all know people, including those who may be looking back at us in the mirror, who are demonstrative for no other reason than that is who they are. We also have met people whose sole intent of making themselves the focus of attention is driven by less than honorable desires.

The good news is that even if you have braggadocio tendencies you are not getting a scarlet letter and are not a bad person. You may even be a narcissist but that does make you evil.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that netiquette is an evolving and dynamic process. There are more than enough electronic megaphones to go around for people who like to shout. Facebook happens to be the one. Twitter is another  that researchers like to study because they are critically massive, and easily trackable for analyzing. We all have free will and hopefully some smarts to go with it. In other words the proper application of settings as to who sees what is useful, as is setting up separate social networking accounts for our personal and professional persona to avoid being branded “socially disruptive.”

Look forward to comments, but please make them all about me.    

Edited by Jennifer Russell
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