The exact cause of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is not known. However, many researchers and mental health professionals believe it results from a combination of factors. These factors include biological vulnerability, social interactions with early caregivers, and psychological factors that involve temperament and the ability to manage stress. Some researchers suggest that NPD is more likely to develop when children experience care giving that is excessively pampering and overindulgent, or when parents have a strong need for their children to be talented or special in order to boost their own self-esteem. On the other hand, other researchers speculate that NPD develops as the result of neglect or abuse/ trauma inflicted by parents during childhood. The disorder is typically evident by adolescence or early adulthood when personality traits are more solidified. Still other studies suggest that NPD, at least partially, is due to genetics. As mentioned, there are several schools of thought about what leads to narcissism. A common theme overall is that the transition into the adult world fails in some way, leading the person to remain in the early, self-focused primary narcissistic stage of development.
Narcissism does appear across families, perhaps through some genetic cause, but also because the narcissistic parent doesn’t bond with his or her children. This, in turn, may cause the children to become narcissists as well.
Narcissistic personality disorder is rare (1% of the general population). It affects more males than females. NPD often begins in early adulthood. Although many adolescents may seem to have traits of narcissism, this is normal for that developmental stage and doesn’t mean they’ll go on to develop NPD.
Although the cause of NPD isn’t known, some researchers think that extreme parenting behaviors, such as neglect or excessive indulgence, may be partially responsible.
Risk factors for narcissistic personality disorder may include:
- Parental derision for fears and needs expressed during childhood
- Lack of parental affection and praise during childhood
- Severe neglect and emotional abuse in childhood
- Excessive praise and overindulgence by parents, other family members, or peers
- Unpredictable or unreliable care giving from parents
- Learning manipulative behaviors from parents
- An oversensitive temperament at birth
- Excessive admiration that is never balanced with realistic feedback
- Excessive praise for good behaviors or excessive criticism for bad behaviors in childhood
- Being praised for perceived exceptional looks or abilities by adults
Researchers can study the genetics of personality through two different means:
- identical twin studies and
- examination of the human genome.
Twin studies typically examine identical twins that were separated at birth and raised in different households. Identical twins share identical genes, and therefore, any similarities in personality traits may be attributed to genetics. Research has suggested that identical twins raised separately share more personality traits than fraternal twins, who do not have identical genes.
Scientists have begun to correlate the existence of certain gene variations with personality disorders. According to a study in a 2007 issue of the “International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology”, a specific gene called tryptophan hydroxylase-2 may be implicated in the development of certain personality disorders, including narcissistic personality disorder. Tryptophan hydroxylase-2 helps regulate the production of serotonin, an important brain chemical involved in mood regulation.
Other research has indicated that abuse or severe neglect in childhood can lead to narcissistic personality disorder as well as other personality disorders. Individuals with documented cases of child abuse are four times more likely to be diagnosed with a personality disorder, including NPD, in early adulthood. Similar findings have been found in research regarding a mother’s verbal abuse of her children. However, researchers remain cautious about interpretation because “retrospective” studies cannot distinguish whether this is a cause-and-effect situation or if the two are related in a different way.
Environment during Childhood The environment that a child experiences while growing up may impact the development of personality disorders. According to the Mayo Clinic, treatment by the parents (or caregivers) can influence personality disorder development through severe neglect, lack of affection, unpredictable parenting and the parental demonstration and teaching of manipulative behaviors. If a child learns from his parents that vulnerability is unacceptable, he may lose his sense of empathy for other people. As mentioned earlier, overindulgence and treating the child as excessively special may also lead to narcissism.
The modern media bombards people with information on how we should aspire to achieve bigger and greater things in a world where celebrity status is viewed as the ideal state. People are taught via media, if not parents, to expect special treatment; there is little regard for the value of community and helping their fellow man. It’s now the norm to expect to get something for nothing and always be on the “look out for number one”.
Over emphasis is placed on physical fitness to promote sexual relationships and self-image rather than being fit for physical health. The emotional side of relationships is undermined as people concern themselves with seeking an attractive mate as opposed to one who can share their values and provide emotional support to them and any children they may have together.
There has been a general decline in morals and an increase in activities that were once seen as “socially unacceptable” e.g. prostitution, pornography, drug taking, gambling etc. Being “nice” and having a strong moral character are becoming less and less encouraged as personal qualities. The phrase “Nice guys finish last” is used more frequently and has become more acceptable for promoting ruthlessness and risk taking. How often does that phrase come from the lips of narcissistic people?
Single-mindedness, wealth, status, influence, and sexual prowess are the qualities that dominate the mass media today. Excessive narcissistic traits are regularly glorified in nearly all the national and international newspapers with stories of celebrities breaking the law or their marriage vows.