Men who are narcissists may be at risk for some health problems, since they could have inherently higher levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol even when they're not under pressure, a study finds.
Cortisol, which is released by the body when it's under duress or going through an intense activity, can have some benefits--lending an energy surge, helping the body burn fat, and boosting memory. But too much cortisol from chronic stress can have deleterious effects, such as higher blood pressure, lower immunity and higher levels of abdominal fat.
Researchers tested the saliva of 106 undergraduate students (79 women, 27 men) twice in a lab setting to check their cortisol levels. At those times the students were not under stress.
They also filled out a 40-question narcissism test that focuses on different aspects of the personality trait, with question such as, "I know that I am good because everybody keeps telling me so," and "If I ruled the world it would be a better place." Healthy narcissism (acceptable levels of self-worth) was distinguished from unhealthy narcissism (exaggerated self-importance, low empathy). Those with unhealthy narcissism may feel stress and act more aggressively, the researchers said, when they feel their ego and perceived authority are threatened.
The tests revealed that narcissism was linked with higher levels of cortisol, especially in men, and after adjusting for factors such as general stress levels, mood, social support and relationship status. When researchers looked at healthy versus unhealthy narcissism, they found an association between higher cortisol and unhealthy narcissism in men, but in women that relationship was only marginal. There was no link found between higher cortisol and healthy narcissism in men or women.
"Narcissistic men may be paying a high price in terms of their physical health, in addition to the psychological cost to their relationships," said co-author Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan in a news release.
The authors noted that more research is needed to determine why men who are narcissists have higher cortisol levels compared with women. In the release, Konrath said, "Given societal definitions of masculinity that overlap with narcissism--for example, the belief that men should be arrogant and dominant--men who endorse stereotypically male sex roles and who are also high in narcissism may feel especially stressed."
The study was released Monday in the journal PLoS One.