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Narcissism May Sabotage Your Health, Study Finds

Narcissism May Sabotage Your Health, Study Finds

It’s no wonder why Carly Simon's 1972 classic, "You're So Vain," was such a hit: It describes that self-absorbed jerk we all know, the type who always seems to end up winning. (Plus, the song features Mick Jagger on backing vocals!). Well, turns out there’s a major downside to narcissism: Research shows that maintaining that image of superiority could take a serious toll on a man’s health.

Cortisol's connection
Researchers from the Universities of Michigan and Virginia gave 106 college students a 40-item questionnaire that checked for five aspects of narcissism, and the researchers also measured the students’ cortisol levels in their saliva. The scientists found that men who scored higher on two of narcissism's more destructive traits -- exploitation and entitlement -- had significantly higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol than others who scored lower on the test. And doctors have linked chronically higher cortisol levels to health problems like high blood pressure and heart disease.

Understanding the stress response
It’s worth noting that some of the personality features associated with narcissism actually prove useful in everyday life, such as leadership and confidence. But the researchers explained that narcissistic people can also have a fragile sense of identity, which leads them to act out aggressively if their superiority is threatened. The researchers think that the need to always appear better than others is the source of stress that leads to high cortisol. The study was published in the journal PLoS ONE.

Interestingly, while the questionnaires showed that women in the study were just as likely to be narcissistic as men, the women didn’t have the same cortisol stress response. Future research will focus on why this is the case.

Take it easy
Some people are simply driven to succeed in life, thrive on high-stress situations and can’t help their perfectionism. If you’re a guy who falls into that camp, it's okay. Just make sure to manage your stress effectively, and learn to appreciate even your faults. It's good for your health and good for your heart.

Medically reviewed in December 2019.

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