What Causes Aggression in Narcissists?

The Narcissist and Aggression

In the 1970’s the American writer and family counsellor Dorothy Law Nolte penned a famous and succinct analysis of how children learn to live as an adulthood what they experience in childhood. This piece of fine writing called: “Children learn What They live” has been a staple of teacher training and parenting courses for many years now:

“If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.”

A further dimension is the tendency for children not just to be victims of their treatment by adults but active copyists of their adult models too. The psychologist Alfred Bandura demonstrated the like in a laboratory experiment where he watched the behaviour of young children towards a bobo doll after they had witnessed an adult beating it. Many more children demonstrated violence toward the doll after witnessing violence themselves.

Low self-esteem and social learning are the favoured explanations for violent behaviour. Do these explanations hold up when violence and narcissism are considered? It is a truism than narcissists tend to be extremely violent both verbally and physically. Is the cause purely to do with parentally inflicted low self-esteem or is it more complicated than that? research suggests the latter.

Self Esteem and Aggression in Narcissists

Narcissists are well known for their high levels of positive regard for themselves. There is a tendency for Narcissists to boast about achievements and have a higher than healthy narcissistic self-regard. Narcissism too is characterised by grandiosity – a need to be centre of attention and to control and manipulate the impression others have of them. On the surface, these behaviours would seem to be the very opposite of low self-esteem. It appears that the issue is the fact that their self-esteem and self-regard is not stable and can easily be rocked by external events and the views of others. Baumeister and his colleague’s reviews evidence from numerous pieces of research and suggested that:

“hostile aggression was an expression of the self’s rejection of esteem-threatening evaluations received from other people.”

And that realistic high self-esteem are often the least violent people around. This has been explained that those with fluctuating self-esteem may have a tendency for hostility and anger towards those who threaten their view of self. Narcissists fall into this category.

Narcissists it appears, are more aggressive towards those who threaten their self-view and that anger is directed. Whilst this is true also of non-narcissist to some extent, the rest of us are more likely to take out our anger in a non-directed or displaced way say by slamming doors or proverbially “kicking the cat” and the anger passes quickly, we apologise to the cat and move on. For narcissists aggression is different personal and directed toward those who threaten their ego and is much more like revenge. It does not pass without expression.

Narcissism, Violence, Entitlement & Exploitativeness

As with any personality disorder, diagnosis is made usually from assessing the behaviours of an individual and applying them to a checklist of known behaviours for that condition. No one individual diagnosed with narcissism will have all the traits. Some narcissists display extreme violence and others are guilty of violent acts against a person including rape. This type of aggression is fundamentally different and more extreme than that displayed when a person feels threatened.

It has been suggested that only those narcissists who have the sub-trait of entitlement and exploitativeness display these types of aggressive behaviours. Narcissists who have these characteristics believe they have an almost divine right to exploit others and use them by virtue of their own believed superiority. Their self-identified superior status means that others are lesser in some way and the narcissist has a right to treat them how they wish. Reidy and his colleagues suggested that this sub type of narcissism was the most dangerous and they conducted a laboratory experiment to test the willingness of people to hurt another person. They concluded:

“Entitlement and exploitative tendencies in the narcissistic individual may, therefore, not only be linked to greater maladjustment and psychopathology, but represent a particularly high-risk factor for aggressive behavior and violence”

Narcissism and Reactance – The dangerous temper tantrum

Lying somewhere between the narcissistic aggression caused by a threatened ego and the rage of entitlement lies reactance. Anyone can have reactance, you don’t have to be narcissists to feel aggrieved when denied something you feel you are entitled to. In the case of a narcissist, both the strength of the frustration and the action which follows may be more extreme.

Reactance is a response to being denied a freedom which makes the denied behaviour more appealing. A narcissist when denied something they feel entitled to, may react against the person who denies them the coveted thing or even the person who delivers the message. They are the focus of aggression which may look and feel like a temper tantrum. Narcissists suffer reactance and associated aggressive behaviours more than non- narcs because they are less able to self-regulate their aggressive responses.

So, there you have it three explanations why a narcissist may display more aggression than the next person. The key skill is to avoid being a person who provokes aggression or at least stand well back when you accidentally ignite the blue touch paper.


  1. Baumeister, R. R, Smart, L., & Boden, J. M. (1996). Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: The dark side of high self-esteem. Psychological Review, 103, 5-33.
  2. Reidy, D,  Zeichner A, Foster,J, ,&  Martinez A (2007) Effects of narcissistic entitlement and exploitativeness on human physical aggression Personality and Individual Differences 44 (2008) 865–875