Can you inherit narcissism? Is it genetically-based? These are questions that have some scientists, geneticists and researchers searching for answers. The exact cause of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is not known. However, most 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. There are studies that suggest that a gene (or genes) for narcissism can be inherited but that a person also needs the “right” environment for narcissism to be manifested. There are scant studies that look specifically at whether narcissism is genetic, although many theories as to the cause including trauma or abuse in early childhood, overindulgent parenting, genetic predilection toward NPD and narcissistic parenting.
What are some of the studies?
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.
Livesley et al. concluded, in agreement with other studies, that narcissism as measured by a standardized test was a common inherited trait. The study subjects were 175 volunteer twin pairs (ninety identical, eighty-five fraternal) drawn from the general population. Each twin completed a questionnaire that assessed eighteen characteristics of personality disorder. The authors estimated the heritability of each characteristic by standard methods, thus providing estimates of the relative contributions of genetic and environmental causation.
Of the eighteen personality characteristics, narcissism was found to have the highest heritability (0.64), indicating that this trait in the identical twins was significantly influenced by genetics. Of the other seventeen characteristics, only four were found to be statistically significant: callousness, identity problems, oppositionality and social avoidance.
Advances in technology such as brain imaging have proven that the brains of those with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD), both of which are in the same cluster of personality disorders as NPD, are not functioning properly. The activity levels in the brains of those with BPD and APD are abnormal. Research studies involving the “cluster B” personality disorders have confirmed significant physiological brain dysfunction in two of the four cluster B disorders. Just what has caused the brain to function improperly is not completely understood.
Very little research can be done with NPD, specifically, as most narcissists don’t admit to having any problems and don’t go to a therapist unless forced to by family or work.
Additional research conducted on BPD has detected this personality disorder in the offspring of parents at a rate of roughly 68%. In other words, approximately two thirds of the children of those diagnosed with BPD have BPD themselves. A review of the literature suggests narcissism runs in families and that many narcissists have had a narcissistic parent themselves. But once again, does that prove it is genetic or learned behavior?
As scientific research on narcissism and the other cluster B disorders expands and results in better information, it seems that there will be a greater likelihood that genetics may play a role to some degree.
There is considerable speculation and many theories about the causes of narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Some scientists believe narcissism is primarily genetic, but many mental health professionals strongly believe narcissism is rooted in childhood. Few studies have been done to date on the causes of narcissism, but some geneticists have implicated a high-frequency recessive gene as a genetic explanation for the personality trait and for the more severe NPD. Interestingly, the authors who discount the genetic explanation and believe parenting is the cause of narcissism are evenly split on the details of the parenting theory. Some believe over-critical and demanding parenting methods result in the development of NPD, while others believe the opposite is true, and that permissive parenting styles are to blame.
Currently, there is no cure for NPD and generally narcissists are highly resistant to therapy or change. The most common advice therapists give their clients who are involved with a narcissist remains the same: discontinue contact or at least limit contact with narcissists as much as you possibly can; people with NPD cannot or will not change their behavior and everything must be done on their emotionally abusive terms.
In the event that more research suggests that there is indeed a genetic predisposition, some questions will still remain. Is narcissism the result of a genetic predisposition which does not manifest unless the disorder is psychologically or physically triggered by childhood experience? Is the disorder purely genetic, passed down to a certain percentage of offspring and requiring no triggering events or experiences at all? Considerably more work is needed before the causes of narcissism can be fully understood.