A question commonly asked is whether narcissism is genetic or learned. Are narcissists born or made? Is narcissism genetic or caused by childhood trauma? In the past months, I dove into a lot of research, articles, and videos about this subject.
In this article, I will explore and share some of this research about narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). I’m aware that it can be quite complicated due to specific terminology, so I will try to simplify it and structure it from my perspective as much as possible. Be warned that I’m not a research professor, so I’m basically sharing what I’ve learned until now!
The answer to the question of whether narcissism is genetic or learned known at this time is basically that we don’t know exactly and that it could be both explained by biological factors as well as environmental factors. It’s expected to be a combination of nature and nurture, which includes heritability, environmentability, and neurobiological factors.
I will first shortly explore why we might ask this question and the risk of making this question too important. I believe asking this question can be important and helpful, but it should never be more important than choosing for yourself and your energy.
Why do we want to know if narcissism is genetic or learned?
It might be interesting to shortly assess why this question seems to be an important question and why it’s so frequently asked. Of course, due to growing up with a narcissistic father, I have wondered about this question myself as well at times.
In general, we like to find an explanation for things we don’t understand because explaining something gives a feeling of comfort. We don’t like the uncertainty when we are unable to understand or explain something.
Mostly, those experiencing narcissists don’t understand why someone would behave in such a way and shows all these kinds of manipulative behaviour. Especially because victims are likely empathic and quite the opposite of a narcissist. Sadly, this ‘not being able to understand’ could result in constantly seeking an explanation. This not understanding or believing can additionally be (ab)used by a narcissist in order to gain a form of control. It can become a form of attachment to the narcissist.
Also, there could be a fear beneath asking the question of whether narcissism is genetic. Personally, sometimes I feared whether I might become a narcissist as well. I wanted to be the exact opposite of my father, and therefore it would be quite a disturbing thought that narcissism is somehow genetic.
In my opinion, however, the question should never become too important as I think the most important thing is to eventually shift your attention from the narcissist to yourself and the kind people in your environment.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) vs. narcissistic behaviour
In general, it’s a challenge to research narcissism because it’s a spectrum disorder and someone with NPD mostly doesn’t acknowledge they have a problem or disorder. It’s thus a complicated subject when it comes to labeling or explaining why and if someone is a narcissist. Also, there are many different ‘types’ of narcissists, such as grandiose, malignant, and vulnerable narcissists.
In the end, it’s about certain ‘narcissistic’ behaviour shown by a person. Therefore, in my articles, I focus on behaviour shown rather than on the label NPD or narcissist. Narcissistic behaviour is normal and healthy for children and adolescents and a part of development. Sadly, it seems a narcissist doesn’t grow out of this behaviour. Growing up, healthy development would mean noticing other people in the environment as well, learning how to transfer emotional energy, and how to cope with experiences in a healthy way (becoming emotionally mature).
It all results in a problem of definition when it comes to studies on narcissism. This is because it’s quite arbitrary to diagnose a person as having NPD based on showing at least 5 of the 9 criteria named in the DSM. You can learn more about how this works in my article going into NPD and explaining the 9 criteria.
Research on whether narcissism is genetic or learned
In the research field, the term etiology is defined as the cause, set of causes, or manner of causation of a disease or condition. Most research is focused on whether there is an association and not on finding causation. I will now go into the three possible causes for NPD one by one, which are (1) Genetics (heritability/nature), (2) Environmentability (stressors/nurture), and (3) Neurobiology (brain structure).
1. Genetics (heritability/nature)
Role of genetic factors in characteristics of individuals
An important twin study is a study published in 1990 by Bouchard, Lykken, et. al. called ‘Sources of Human Psychological Differences: The Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart’. They compared twins/triplets that were reared apart with twins reared together on measures of personality and temperament, interests, and social attitudes. They found that identical twins who were raised apart had an equal chance of being similar to twins who were raised together. It means environmental factors did not have a significant effect in their model used. The study thus shows that genetic factors and inheritance play a role in the development of a person and the characteristics they show.
They also interestingly state ‘monozygotic twins are so similar in psychological traits because their identical genomes make it probably that their effective environments are similar’. This would mean that the environmental factors/influence of twins raised apart play out quite similarly because of genetics. The thought is that genetics influence what an individual focuses on and thereby determines/influences how environmental factors are experienced.
A possible biological component related to NPD
Some studies show NPD may have a biological component. For example, one study (Lee et al, 2020) shows that narcissistic and borderline personality disorders (NPD & BPD) predicted oxidative stress levels (a biological mechanism). They found that the oxidative stress level is increased for people with NPD. The findings were similar for people with NPD and BPD, which shows a possible biological relation. The question of whether the personality disorder came first or the excessive oxidative stress remains unanswered.
Also, they found a connection with interpersonal hypersensitivity. It shows a person with NPD is actually hypersensitive to the environment. This makes sense when thinking about the sensitivity of a narcissist when it comes to criticism, healthy feedback, and also their need for appreciation, confirmation, and positive attention. Lastly, they mention a possible relation between the emotion of shame and hypersensitivity, which could lead a person to avoid empathy.
Genetic predispositions to developing narcissism
An important twin study is called ‘genetic and environmental contributions to dimensions of personality disorder’ by Livesly et al (1993). They found that narcissism had the highest heritability in this study and that 40-60% of the variance could be explained by this. The study supports the hypothesis that personality disorders are hereditary.
Prof. Sam Vatkin provides a great explanation about epigenetics and the possible existence of a genetic predisposition to developing NPD in a youtube video. Epigenetics means the study of certain heritable characteristics/trait changes that will not alter the DNA itself. It’s how genes are expressed. Epigenetics thus studies the way that genes affect us or how genes express themselves (but the genes themselves actually stay the same).
Some siblings within the same environment can grow to have personality disorders, while other siblings don’t. It supports the view of a possible genetic predisposition of certain individuals to developing personality disorders.
Prof. Sam Vaknin concludes that ‘it seems that being born to the wrong parent predisposes you to develop a variety of mental illnesses or traits, such as anxiety, depression, fear apprehension, etc. but this is not necessarily only because of inheritance.’ This can be both due to genes but also the alteration of genes because of exposure to stress. A combination of genes and stress can then result in developing certain behaviours.
If you have this genetic predisposition, you might develop the disorder dependent on your life stressors, early childhood experiences, environment, and so forth. He also suggests that it’s likely that multiple children will be wired differently as this increases chances of survival from a biological point of view. Interestingly, this would likely lead to a difference in the biological vulnerability for different siblings of (a) narcissistic parent(s).
A lot of people shared experiences where children with one narcissistic parent develop narcissism without experiencing abuse or trauma. For example, when their child has a narcissistic father but this father hasn’t been in their life growing up. These children are raised in a loving way and still can develop NPD. It leads to a strong belief that NPD can be genetic. As there are many examples of these stories, I believe that in specific situations the genetic factor can be dominant in developing NPD.
2. Environmentability (Stressors / Nurture)
Parenting and grandiose and vulnerable narcissism
Some studies go into the influence of the environment, such as the influence of parents. One study (Horton & Tritch, 2014) investigated the links between parenting and grandiose narcissism and found that psychological control was associated positively with narcissism, whereas monitoring and coldness were associated negatively. The results don’t provide a possible causal direction of the identified links. Lastly, overvaluation and parental support showed no reliable associations with narcissism.
One of these findings is confirmed by a study by Koepernik, Jauk & Kanske (2021) who find ‘’that grandiose narcissism is attributed to feelings of superiority rather than inferiority, and vulnerable narcissism is attributed to inferiority rather than superiority. In line with this, participants displayed predominant beliefs in parental overvaluation as a developmental antecedent of grandiose narcissism and parental coldness as an antecedent of vulnerable narcissism.’’
As narcissism can show in different shapes and forms, such as grandiose and vulnerable narcissism, it’s even more complicated to research ‘narcissism’ as a whole. Again, it results in trouble with defining ‘narcissism’. If interested, you can learn more about grandiose and vulnerable narcissism in my article about the covert narcissist.
Parenting and parental values: excessive praise and criticism
A child seeks their parent’s approval and attention and in certain family dynamics, it can be the best adaption for a child to develop narcissistic characteristics. Extremes in parenting that seem to be related to developing narcissism are excessive praise and excessive criticism. Clearly, balance is healthy and important, and NPD can thus be the result of childhood family environments that show these extremes.
There could be narcissistic parental values where high achievement is rewarded and love is conditional to achievements, acquiring status, and being perfect. There is thus a lot of force to compete and be the best. Children will be used to brag about and are thus seen by a parent as an extension of the parent. Clearly, such an environment can stimulate a child to develop narcissism.
If perfect, there will be praise and attention (golden child) and if not, you are a disappointment and criticized (scapegoat/black sheep). Children could then be devalued by narcissistic parent(s) when not fulfilling unrealistically high expectations. On the negative side, this thus plays out as excessive criticism. This is all very brutal behaviour.
A study called ‘Origins of narcissism in children’ demonstrates that narcissism in children is cultivated by parental overvaluation. This is where parents believe their child is more special and more entitled than others. It would mean there is excessive parental pampering. It could lead to a child internalizing their parents’ inflated views and feeling superior and entitled. In the study, the association between parental overvaluation and narcissism was modest in size.
Other possible factors to developing NPD are a lack of parental empathy, inconsistent parenting, overprotective parenting, and authoritarian parenting. This can all play out as parents not being able to teach how to be aware of emotions and how to regulate emotions. It can cause a lack of emotional awareness.
Childhood experiences and neglect
An article on Medium (Thomas P Seager, PhD) suggests that malignant narcissism is the result of early childhood experiences. This is based on that every normal adult goes through a developmental stage as a toddler that is quite similar to the behaviour of a malignant narcissist. The reasoning is that if a toddler suffers either neglect or indulgence it could leave this developmental stage without completing it and as a result mature into an adult who still maintains a toddler’s self-perception.
This is the traditional view whereas narcissism is a reaction to childhood trauma, such as (emotional) abuse or neglect. This traditional view, where childhood trauma is the single cause, is being questioned more in recent years, as the view has become broader and is linked to genetics as well.
3. Neurobiology (Brain structure)
Neurobiology is about the connection between the brain and behaviour and thinking of a person. Brain cells are constantly forming new connections and restructuring our perceptions and physiology over time. This so-called neuroplasticity (brain plasticity) means that a brain has the ability to change and adapt as a result of experience. Childhood trauma is a great risk as it negatively affects the brain and alters the brain’s connections.
An article called ‘the cognitive neuroscience of narcissism (George, 2018)’ concludes from the (not so large) body of research on the neuroscience of NPD, that there are consistencies pointing to abnormalities in certain brain areas that are associated with the features of NPD, especially a lack of empathy. Also, it’s associated at least partly with brain areas linked to higher-level processing, judgment, and decision making.
Another study about the brain structure in NPD (Nenadic et al, 2014) associates NPD with frontal grey matter loss. It’s linked to the parts of the brain that are associated with empathy and compassion and also with cognition and emotional regulation. It thus could mean that there a narcissist might have a damaged capacity for emotional empathy and regulation.
There is a lot of research on NPD and the exact cause of NPD is not known yet. A lot of questions remain unanswered. Most researchers draw conclusions on observed associations and not on the causation. Most conclude NPD results from a combination of factors, including biological vulnerability, psychological factors such as temperament, and social interactions with early caregivers.
What makes the most sense to me is that there is truth in several causations and narcissism could develop in different ways. It means several truths exist, which makes it complex or maybe even impossible to explain in a ‘generalized’ manner. Sometimes, there could be a genetic predisposition (biological vulnerability) to developing NPD, and experiences/stress can trigger this predisposition. I do believe that also without the genetic predisposition a person can develop narcissism, due to for example childhood trauma or neglect.
It’s thus likely to be a mix of genetics (heritability), environment (stressors), and neurobiology, and this mix can as well differ in what factors are dominant for a specific person/situation. All these factors seem to play a role in the development of narcissism. Because NPD can be both caused by nature and nurture, it does make sense that narcissism can run in families.
The question of whether narcissism is nature or nurture might be a discussion of semantics. How to make a real distinction between a person and their environment? Nature and nurture, physical and mental, it’s one. A person and their environment are one and interact continuously.
Therefore, it’s complicated and maybe even impossible to explain how a person develops in life and why, because there basically are too many variables (life as a whole): genetics, environment, how a person’s mind works and develops, self-reflection, character, empathy, experiences in youth, and so forth.
I suppose this might leave us the choice to rather focus on ourselves and our own behaviour and development!
The limitations of research
Clearly, research has limitations, and therefore trying to find an explanation will likely not give any definitive answers. Theories in research are an attempt to explain/predict/understand the behaviour and intentions of others. To make this attempt it will always be simplified and generalized.
It’s therefore important to think about in what way knowledge can serve you and at what point (the need for) more knowledge can become a pitfall. To me, knowledge about narcissism and how it works can be useful and often necessary in order to recognize, predict and be aware of certain manipulative behaviour.
What’s more important, however, is deciding how you want to deal with the behaviour of others and to know you have a decision on how to respond to it. You have control over your own behaviour and decisions. It’s about deciding what’s your truth, belief and learning how you can protect your energy.
I hope this article can be helpful to you, and I wish you kindness.
– Lee RJ, Gozal D, Coccaro EF, Fanning J. Narcissistic and Borderline Personality Disorders: Relationship With Oxidative Stress. J Pers Disord. 2020 Mar;34(Supplement):6-24.
– Horton RS, Tritch T. Clarifying the links between grandiose narcissism and parenting. J Psychol. 2014 Mar-Apr;148(2):133-43.
– Livesley WJ, Jang KL, Jackson DN, Vernon PA. Genetic and environmental contributions to dimensions of personality disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 1993 Dec;150(12):1826-31.
– Bouchard Thomas, Lykken David, McGue Matthew, Segal Nancy, and Tellegen Auke. “Sources of Human Psychological Differences: the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart.” Science 250 (1990): p. 223–228
– Koepernik, T., Jauk, E. & Kanske, P. Lay theories of grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. Curr Psychol (2021).
– George FR, Short D (2018) The Cognitive Neuroscience of Narcissism. J Brain Behav Cogn Sci Vol 1:6
– Igor Nenadic, Daniel Güllmar, Maren Dietzek, Kerstin Langbein, Johanna Steinke, Christian Gaser (2014). Brain structure in narcissistic personality disorder: A VBM and DTI pilot study, Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Volume 231, Issue 2, 2015, Pages 184-186.
– Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Nelemans, S. A., Orobio de Castro, B., Overbeek, G., & Bushman, B. J. (2015). Origins of narcissism in children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(12), 3659–3662.
– Prof. Sam Vaknin video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEp-54xtqjo
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