Narcissism on social media is driven by insecurity, study suggests

A new study may explain what motivates the ‘self-focused nature of social media’ – and people who constantly post selfies on Instagram.  

From surveys of nearly 300 people, US psychologists found that narcissistic behaviour is linked to what they call ‘vulnerable narcissism’. 

Vulnerable narcissism can manifest itself as self-promoting behaviours – such as constant selfies – but is due to low self-esteem and extreme sensitivity to criticism, the researchers say.  

According to the experts, from New York University, narcissism is ‘not self-love’ driven by an inflated sense of one’s self, but ‘self-loathing in disguise’. 

Narcissism has been ‘fundamentally misunderstood’, they claim.  

Narcissism is driven by insecurity, and not an inflated sense of self, the new study reveals. The authors say narcissism ‘has been fundamentally misunderstood’

‘For a long time, it was unclear why narcissists engage in unpleasant behaviours, such as self-congratulation, as it actually makes others think less of them,’ said study author Professor Pascal Wallisch at New York University’s Department of Psychology.

‘This has become quite prevalent in the age of social media – a behaviour that’s been coined “flexing”.

‘Our work reveals that these narcissists are not grandiose, but rather insecure, and this is how they seem to cope with their insecurities.’ 

People with narcissism can suffer from narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) – a condition where people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a need for excessive attention and admiration and a tell tale lack of empathy for others.

It's likely we know someone who frequently posts selfies to Instagram, but they might be experiencing 'vulnerable narcissism'

It’s likely we know someone who frequently posts selfies to Instagram, but they might be experiencing ‘vulnerable narcissism’ 

The researchers say ‘narcissism’ can be split into two subtypes – ‘grandiose’ narcissism and ‘vulnerable’ narcissism.  

These two subtypes essentially explain the emotional and mental processes that are driving behaviours seen as narcissistic. 

The researchers say: ‘Vulnerable narcissism [is] characterised by low self-esteem, anxiety about attachments and extreme sensitivity to criticism.


NPD is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships and a lack of empathy for others.

People with NPD may be generally unhappy and disappointed when they’re not given the special favours or admiration they believe they deserve. 

NPD can cause problems in many areas of life, such as relationships, work, school or financial affairs.

Source: Mayo Clinic 

‘Vulnerable narcissism is associated with low self-esteem, life-satisfaction, and interdependent self-construct. 

‘Grandiose narcissism… manifests as high self-esteem, self-aggrandisement and self-importance.  

‘[It’s] associated with high self-esteem and life-satisfaction and an independent self-construction. 

Another related affliction, psychopathy, is also characterised by a grandiose sense of self. 

An individual with psychopathy displays ‘amoral and antisocial behaviour’ and ‘a lack of ability to love or establish meaningful personal relationships’, according to a 2017 paper. 

‘Grandiose narcissism seems to resemble psychopathy in many respects,’ the NYU team say.    

The psychologists sought to refine the understanding of how these conditions relate, by creating a ‘performative self-elevation index’ (FLEX) that captures ‘genuinely narcissistic behaviour’.

For the purposes of this study, FLEX can be seen as essentially a proxy of how likely one is to post lots of selfies on social media. 

For the study, researchers used data from 270 participants – 60 per cent female and 40 percent male, and with an average age of 20– who were recruited for a survey. 

FLEX, as well as the two types of narcissism and psychopathy, were calculated for each participant, based on their rankings of how true or false a series of statements were.  

 FLEX was shown to be made up of four components – impression management (‘I am likely to show off if I get the chance’), the need for social validation (‘It matters that I am seen at important events”), self-elevation (‘I have exquisite taste’), and social dominance (‘I like knowing more than other people’).

Overall, the results showed high correlations between FLEX and narcissism – but not with psychopathy. 

For example, the need for social validation (a FLEX metric) correlated with the reported tendency to engage in performative self-elevation (a characteristic of vulnerable narcissism). 

By contrast, measures of psychopathy, such as elevated levels of self-esteem, didn’t really correlate with vulnerable narcissism, implying a lack of insecurity. 

These findings suggest that genuine narcissists are insecure and are best described by the vulnerable narcissism subtype.

Whereas grandiose narcissism might be better understood as a manifestation of psychopathy. 

‘The results suggest that narcissism is better understood as a compensatory adaptation to overcome and cover up low self-worth,’ said study author Mary Kowalchyk, formerly an NYU graduate student and now at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. 

‘Narcissists are insecure, and they cope with these insecurities by flexing. 

‘This makes others like them less in the long run, thus further aggravating their insecurities, which then leads to a vicious cycle of flexing behaviours.’    

The study has been published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. 


Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) falls on a spectrum: you can score high, low or anywhere in between on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.

Unlike being pregnant, you can be just a little bit narcissistic.

There are nine official criteria – but you only need to meet five to clinically qualify as a narcissist. These are:

An exaggerated sense of self-importance. People with NPD often wildly exaggerate their achievements and talents.

A sense of entitlement. They insist on having the best of everything, expect special favours and are indignant if anyone dares to question why.

A need for constant, excessive admiration. Narcissists expect to be recognised as superior, often without any achievements of qualifications to warrant it. They can’t handle criticism and become angry when they don’t get the attention they think they deserve.

Preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance and the perfect mate. They’re often depressed or moody because they fall short of perfection. This can lead to problems with drugs or alcohol.

A belief that they are superior, special and unique and should only associate with equally special people. They belittle people they consider inferior.

Interpersonal exploitative behaviour. They take advantage of others to get what they want.

A lack of empathy. They are incapable and unwilling to recognise the needs and feelings of others.

Envious of others or believe others are envious of them. They’re constantly measuring themselves against others to see if they come out on top.

Arrogant and haughty behaviour. Narcissists come across as conceited, boastful and pretentious.

The hidden truth. Secretly, narcissists feel insecure, shameful, vulnerable and often humiliated. This can mean suicidal thoughts or behaviour. It most certainly means they have relationship difficulties with everyone.