College Adjustment Difficulties and the Overt and Covert Forms of Narcissism

Article excerpt

Overt narcissism correlated negatively with emotional distress and interpersonal difficulties among female, but not male, students. After controlling for self-esteem, overt narcissism correlated positively with depression among female students and with emotional distress and interpersonal difficulties among male students. Covert narcissism correlated positively with emotional distress and interpersonal and academic difficulties among both male and female students. Associations between covert narcissism and emotional distress and interpersonal difficulties remained after controlling for self-esteem.


Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) involves characteristics such as inflated self-esteem, lack of empathy, tendency to exploit others, and need for excessive admiration (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2000). Approximately 3% of college students have probable diagnoses of NPD (Taylor, 2005). In addition, others may exhibit subclinical narcissistic tendencies, which can be measured with the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI; Raskin & Terry, 1988) as a dimensional trait (Foster & Campbell, 2007) involving vanity, sense of superiority, desire for authority, interpersonal exploitation, and feelings of entitlement (Kubarych, Deary, & Austin, 2004; Raskin & Terry, 1988). These characteristics may be increasing among American college students (Twenge, Konrath, Foster, Campbell, & Bushman, 2008a, 2008b).

College students might also exhibit a covert form of narcissism. Factor analytic research with college student and clinical populations has supported the existence of both overt and covert expressions of narcissistic personality (e.g., Fossati et al., 2005; Rathvon & Holmstrom, 1996; Wink, 1992). The prototypic, overt type of narcissism involves the obvious grandiosity and arrogance represented by both the NPD description in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed., text rev.; DSM-IV-TR; APA, 2000) and the narcissistic tendencies measured by the NPI (Fossati et al., 2005; Rathvon & Holmstrom, 1996). In contrast, covert narcissism, also referred to as closet narcissism (Masterson, 1993) and described in the recently published Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (Alliance of Psychoanalytic Organizations, 2006) as a depressed or depleted type of NPD, involves outward expression of low self-esteem and hypersensitivity but underlying (covert) attitudes of superiority and sense of entitlement (Affsprung, 1998; Masterson, 1993; Wink, 1991) that may be revealed through the NPD features of grandiose fantasies and a need for excessive admiration (Fossati et al., 2005). The overt and covert forms of narcissism may be differentially related to the types of difficulties experienced by college students.

Most of the narcissism research with college student populations has focused on the overt form of narcissistic tendencies measured by the NPI. These narcissistic tendencies involve less emotional distress and more extraversion than what is specified in the DSM-IV-TR NPD description, but share with the DSM-IV-TR NPD description a tendency toward antagonism (Miller & Campbell, 2008) and features such as exploitativeness and lack of empathy (Watson, Grisham, Trotter, & Biderman, 1984). Average scores on the NPI may represent what clinicians such as Kohut (1971) have referred to as normal narcissism, involving well-developed self-concept and adaptive qualities such as creativity (Raskin, 1980). What is disconcerting, however, is that the overt narcissistic tendencies of college students can be associated with difficulties such as aggressive reactions (e.g., Reidy, Zeichner, Foster, & Martinez, 2008; Twenge & Campbell, 2003) and binge drinking (Luhtanen & Crocker, 2005). Furthermore, overt narcissism among college students is associated with fluctuating self-esteem (Rhodewalt, Madrian, & Cheney, 1998).

Thus, on the basis of a review of research primarily conducted with college student populations completing the NPI, Morfand Rhodewalt (2001) suggested that narcissistic tendencies may result in a dynamic maladaptive cycle. …