URJHS Volume 8


Narcissism and Levels of Social Competence

Megan Fulton
Shalicia Holman
Huntington University


The purpose of this study was to investigate the correlation between narcissism and social competence. The population for the study consisted of undergraduate students, ranging in age from 17 to 23. The Selfism Scale (Phares & Erskine, 1984) was used to measure levels of narcissism, and the Miller Social Intimacy Scale (MSIS) (Miller & Lefcourt, 1982) was used to measure levels of social competence. Using a Pearson r, the correlation for the two variables was -0.236; thus no statistically significant correlation was found. However, when three additional responses that included missing data were added, the data were statistically significant. Further research should be conducted to determine the relationship between narcissism and social competence.


An ancient Greek myth suggested that romantic attraction is characterized by a focus on the self and a lack of attention to others. This self-love produces traits of narcissism, ultimately exemplified in romantic attraction and interpersonal relationships (Campbell, 1999). As a result, narcissism and interpersonal relationships have been a focus of psychological research, linking traits of selfism to a lack of intimacy in relationships (Boldt, 2007; Campbell, 1999; Campbell, Bosson, Goheen, Lakey, & Kernis, 2007).

Narcissism has been defined as a personality trait, characterized by grandiosity, self-focus, high levels of self-absorption, and a demonstration of self-important behavior (Atlas & Them, 2008; Campbell, et al., 2007; King, 2007). Common characteristics and traits can be found in individuals who display narcissistic traits. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) identifies nine common traits of narcissism: 

1. Belief in a grandiose sense of self-importance

2. A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, beauty, or ideal love

3. Seeks recognition as being superior, special, or unique by others

4. Seeks excessive admiration from others

5. Expects a sense of entitlement

6. Consciously exploits others to gain personal desires

7. Lacks empathy toward others

8. Envious of others and believes others are envious of them

9. Displays arrogant, rude, and snobbish behaviors toward others (King, 2007).

These traits reflect feelings of superiority, producing arrogant behavior and a desire for attention and admiration from others (Bogart, Benotsch, & Pavlovic, 2004). Those with narcissistic characteristics are likely to be distant in relationships (West, 2004), displaying a high degree of self-reference in interactions while needing constant admiration from others (King, 2007). In order to fulfill this desire for admiration, individuals with high levels of narcissistic traits manipulate others to elevate their self-concept and achieve a sense of superiority and recognition (Bogart et al., 2004).

Dimaggio, Fiore, Salvatore, and Carcione (2007) ascribe three relationship patterns common among those with narcissistic characteristics. First, narcissists view themselves as superior beings, describing others as incompetent and inferior, promoting dominance and submissiveness in relationships. Second, when confusing or unpleasant situations arise, narcissists gravitate toward others for protection. When this occurs, instead of displaying appropriate emotions, such as a need for direction or consolation, narcissists appear tense and become self-reliant. Third, mutual idealization and recognition in relationships is important for those with narcissistic characteristics. When a narcissist is admired by others, a sense of cohesiveness forms between the admirer and the narcissist, increasing the self-concept of the narcissist by ensuring that self-enhancement is expected in the relationship (Dimaggio et al., 2007).

Campbell (1999) proposed a self-orientation model regarding narcissism and relationships suggesting that narcissists, when compared with non-narcissists, are involved in interpersonal relationships that are focused on self-orientation (defined as attraction to self-oriented targets more than other-oriented targets) rather than relationships centered on emotional intimacy. Self-oriented targets focus on admiration and identification, specifically behaviors that elevate and focus on the self rather than the relationship, while other-oriented targets provide intimacy and caring in relationships (Campbell, 1999).

While using the self-orientation model, Campbell (1999) discovered certain relational patterns common in narcissistic individuals. Lack of intimacy in relationships is common among narcissists, preferring relationships that promote enhancement of the self rather than closeness with the other person. In addition, hostile and egocentric communication patterns are common, potentially increasing the narcissist’s self-esteem but producing negative effects on the duration of the relationship (Campbell, 1999). These findings suggest that destructive relational patterns are more persistent among narcissists than constructive relational patterns, affecting the closeness and duration of the relationship.

Smolewska and Dion (2005) found similar results, linking narcissism with adult attachment avoidance. Relationally, narcissists are defensive and emotionally detached. Interpersonal exploitation and exhibitionism can be developed due to a desire for dominance and self-importance in relationship with others. When the ability to dominate decreases, the narcissist tends to flee from the potential closeness in the relationship, seeing intimacy as a threat to his or her self-concept.

An integral facet to forming and maintaining social relationships is the level of social competence that an individual exhibits. Social competence refers to the ability to interact with others, successfully forming interpersonal relationships (Larson, Whitton, Hauser, & Allen, 2007). Individuals develop the skills required to form intimate relationships from early social interactions and from skills such as closeness, security, and trust shown in childhood (Larson et al., 2007). These skills are developed over time, enabling individuals to interact effectively and positively with other people (Smart & Sanson, 2003).

Williams and Galliher (2006) described social competence as the ability to engage in satisfying interactions focused on initiating, facilitating, and maintaining interpersonal relationships. Building these satisfying relationships forms support and friendship for individuals, potentially increasing psychological well-being for those involved. Those who lack interpersonal relationships experience higher rates of stress-related symptoms, including physical illness and characteristics of depression. Therefore, individuals who fail to establish intimate relationships have a higher probability of developing physical, interpersonal, and emotional difficulties (Williams & Galliher, 2006).

In support of this, Miller and Lefcourt (1982) suggested that the ability to establish intimacy in a relationship is an important predictor for healthy functioning, both psychologically and physiologically. In developing the Miller Social Intimacy Scale (Miller & Lefcourt, 1982), Miller and Lefcourt (1982) found that intimacy was correlated with relationships, especially in regard to marriage, friendship, and response to stress. Furthermore, Hook, Gerstein, Detterich, and Gridley (2003) established that intimacy has a significant relationship to an individual’s psychological and physiological well-being. In addition, intimacy has been correlated with levels of happiness, contentment, and social support in individuals (Hook et al., 2003). From this research, the ability to interact positively in social interactions seems to be associated with the overall well-being of an individual.

Larson and colleagues (2007) conducted a study linking social competence with healthy psychosocial functioning in young adulthood, specifically individuals between the ages of 18 and 25. Social competence was defined as the ability to “achieve and maintain emotional intimacy with one individual,” referring to skills associated with “intimate dyadic relationships and friendship, such as warmth, trust, and reciprocity” (Larson, et al., 2007, p. 137). Using several measures regarding social competence and social functioning, correlations were established between the level of social competence and healthy functioning in adulthood. These areas of functioning included higher self-esteem, educational attainment, and ego development. Emotional well-being, especially in regard to low psychological distress, was found to be associated with social competence, furthering the idea that lack of interpersonal skills potentially increases levels of psychiatric disorders (Larson et al., 2007).

Because social competence affects the well-being of individuals, an understanding of how personality traits affect relationships seems to be quite important. Bennett (2006, p. 52) stated, “Narcissism is embedded in attachment relationships from infancy,” linking traits of selfism to the ability to form interpersonal relationships. This study seeks to discover whether a correlation exists between narcissism (a psychological disorder characterized by selfish tendencies) and social competence (the skills required to form close interpersonal relationships). This study hypothesized that as a person exhibits higher levels of narcissistic tendencies, the ability to form close relationships declines.



The participants were conveniently sampled from all male and female full-time undergraduate students at a small Christian-affiliated liberal arts school in the Midwest. Sixty-eight students (22 males and 46 females) participated in the study, ranging in age from 17 to 23 with a mean age of 20.13 and a standard deviation of 1.34. Of the sampled population who participated, 86.76 percent were Caucasian, with 13.24 percent comprised of Asian, Latino, and African American participants. The study had a response rate of 7.6 percent. Participants were recruited via email advertisements; they participated on a voluntary basis.


The Miller Social Intimacy Scale (MSIS) (Miller & Lefcourt, 1982) was used in this study to measure levels of social competence. This scale measures the ability to be close with others, showing intimacy to be a predictor of “healthy psychological and physical functioning, especially in regard to…relationships with others” (Corcoran & Fischer, 1987, p. 471). This scale is composed of 22 questions relating to the level of closeness in relationships. High scores indicate an increased ability to be close with others, resulting in increased social competence. The MSIS has internal consistency with a test-retest reliability of .96 over a 2-month interval (Miller & Lefcourt, 1982). The MSIS demonstrates good convergent validity with the Interaction Ratings Scale (r = .71), as well as good discriminant validity with the Fitt’s Tennessee Self-Concept Scale (r = .48) (Miller & Lefcourt, 1982).

The Selfism scale (NS) (Phares & Erskine, 1984) was used to measure narcissism, viewed as how one deals with the satisfaction of needs. This scale measures selfism on a continuum, with a high score indicating that the participant views many situations in a selfish or egocentric manner (Phares & Erskine, 1984). This scale is composed of 40 questions dealing with personal attitudes and feelings about a variety of situations. The Selfism scale has internal consistency, with a four-week test-retest correlation of .91, as well as concurrent validity, correlating significantly with the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (Phares & Erskine, 1984).


Participants were asked to arrive between 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. on Monday, March 9, 2009 and Wednesday, March 11, 2009 to participate in the study. Upon arrival to the designated classroom, participants were given oral instructions explaining that their participation implied consent and was voluntary. Participants were informed that they were free to discontinue their participation at any time.

The scales were stapled together and numbers were placed on each packet to ensure that the two scales remained together during the duration of the study. To counterbalance, each packet was numbered, with the odd packets beginning with the MSIS and the even packets beginning with the NS. Each participant was handed a packet and a pencil and asked to fully complete each scale. Demographic information, including age, gender, ethnicity, and class standing by year were asked of each participant. In addition, participants were assured of the confidentiality of their participation. Participants did not include any identifiable information, such as their name or college identification number. After completing each survey, participants were asked to place their responses in a folder at the front of the classroom.


Out of 71 returned packets, three packets contained incomplete data and were discarded leaving 68 completed packets for analysis. Each of the three incomplete packets contained one missing response. The data were entered into a Microsoft Excel program to determine the Pearson r coefficient. Using a 0.05 alpha level and 66 degrees of freedom, the obtained r value of - 0.236 was not large enough to indicate a statistically significant correlation when compared to the critical value of - 0.240. However, since the probability of the computed data was 0.052 (p = 0.052), the r value approached significance. The mean score of the NS was computed at 63.87 out of 140 and the mean score of the MSIS was computed at 53.03 out of 73. Figure 1shows the scatterplot of the data.

Figure 1. Correlation of Scores for the Miller Social Intimacy Scale and the Selfism Scale


This study hypothesized that persons exhibiting higher levels of narcissistic tendencies would demonstrate an inability to form close relationships. According to the results, no significant correlation was found between scores on the Selfism Scale and the Miller Social Intimacy Scale; therefore, the hypothesis of this study was not supported and the correlation between narcissism and social competence was not found in this study.

When compared to the critical value of -0.240, the obtained r value of -0.236 was found to approach significance (p = 0.052). Because of this small difference between the critical value and the obtained value, the three incomplete packets were computed with the initial data, entering a middle value for each of the incomplete responses. This was done in order to examine the impact of the three additional responses. After computing the data with the three incomplete packets included, the obtained r value was -0.242 and the critical value was -0.240. With the additional responses, the r obtained was greater than the critical value indicating that our hypothesis would have been statistically significant with the increased sample size (p = 0.042). This signifies that the results of this study reflect a possibility of a significant relationship between narcissism and social competence.

Previous research reflected this correlation between narcissistic tendencies and an inability to sustain close relationships. Campbell (1999) found that lack of intimacy is common among those with narcissistic tendencies, preferring relationships that include self-enhancement. In addition, Smolewska and Dion (2005) proposed that in regard to relationships, narcissists tend to be emotionally detached, fleeing from relationships that involve closeness. Although the data from this study do not technically reflect this relationship, they do near significance and previous research provides support for our hypothesis. Because of these results, future research needs to be conducted in order to further examine the correlation between these two variables.

Most of the past research that was in support of our hypothesis and conducted with college-aged students refrained from drawing samples from “Christian” universities. Because the sample used in this study was comprised of students from a Christian-affiliated university, these results might reflect a possible difference in the presence of narcissistic tendencies among students from Christian universities compared to students from non-Christian universities. Because the mean score on the NS was 63.87, the data might suggest that narcissistic tendencies are lower among students at Christian-affiliated universities or lower among college students in general. Because random sampling was not used, results cannot be generalized to all students attending a Christian-affiliated university. Further research needs to be conducted in order to support or reject this possible relationship.

This study has notable limitations. The first limitation is related to the affiliation of the participants. All participants attended a Christian-affiliated liberal arts school in the Midwest, a type of school that is typically associated with a negative response to self-centered attitudes and behaviors. Common Judeo-Christian values include a strong encouragement toward other-centered behaviors conflicting with the common narcissistic tendencies that include an increased desire for self-enhancement and superiority (Bogart, Benotsch, & Pavlovic, 2004). As a result, participants believing in the Judeo-Christian values might have a predisposition to reflect other-centered attitudes, skewing the results of the Selfism Scale. Ultimately, we believe that this would result in a greater number of lower scores on the NS scale and a lower percentage of those who have narcissistic tendencies.

In addition, because of our small and fairly homogeneous sample, as well as the absence of random sampling in the study, the results of this study cannot be generalized to the entire population. Most participants were Caucasian and all attended a Christian-affiliated university limiting the diversity of the population. Students from secular universities might respond differently to the measures used in this study. Future research would benefit from diversifying the affiliation of participants in order to broaden the scope of this study.

Finally, the sampling method could have skewed the data. E-mail was the predominant sampling method; however, friends of the researchers were specifically requested to participate in this study as well, possibly affecting the results of each measure. Because of the relationship between a portion of the participants and the researchers, previous knowledge about the purpose and nature of the study might have been a factor in responses, although we are aware of no such instances.

Further research needs to be conducted to address these limitations. Researchers should be aware that the projected population might bias results related to narcissistic tendencies, as narcissism is usually not reflected in a positive light. Because the data approached significance, further research concerning these two variables would be advantageous to the study of the correlation of narcissistic tendencies and social competence.


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