In our last post, we considered signs that Elliot Rodger had narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), according NPD’s DSM-5 criteria. Researchers estimate that 1% of the general population has lifelong NPD. That’s one person in one hundred. And the prevalence of narcissism may be increasing. (Twenge et al, 2014) That means you and I encounter NPD often, in other people and perhaps in ourselves.
Not all narcissism is pathological. Besides those with a disorder, many of us present narcissistic behaviors less frequently or intensely than constitutes a disease. We may even go through phases of being more narcissistic, such as in adolescence. Some even argue there are benefits to a little narcissism. Still, if someone experiences the three Ds (dysfunction, distress, and deviance) from five or more NPD behaviors, psychologists consider that person ill. To treat a mental illness, it’s important to understand its possible causes.
CAUSES: Most psychologists today understand mental illness through the biopsychosocial model. The biopsychosocial model (BPS) assumes a mixture of factors contributes to a person’s physical and mental wellbeing. These factors may be biological (e.g. a genetic predisposition), psychological (e.g. thought patterns) or social (e.g. the family environment). Here are just a few possible factors that support NPD.
- Biological: Researchers have found that part of the brain associated with empathy, the left anterior insula, has less gray matter in those with NPD. Gray matter is made up of neuron cell bodies and non-neuron brain cells, which provide nutrients and energy to neurons. Neurons send and receive information in the nervous system. Researchers have found the degree to which people empathize with others is related to the size of gray matter in this region.
- Psychological: In NPD, the disease can also be one of its causes. By practicing self-absorbed thinking, people may be more likely to have self-absorbed thoughts in the future. By not attending to other people’s feelings and interests, people don’t strengthen their ability to empathize or make empathizing a habit. In the case of Elliot Rodger, he repeatedly told himself that people have wronged him and are unworthy of respect. This may have solidified those beliefs, making him feel justified in treating his victims as objects rather than as individuals with rights.
- Social: There’s a list of ways researchers have found that parents may contribute to NPD. This list could be applied to any caregiver and not just parents. There are also societal contributors to narcissism. Individualistic cultures, like the United States, coach people to strive to be special or better than our peers. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, says that parenting, celebrity culture and the internet are among causes of increasing cases of NPD.