The Cognitive Perspective

As with many other personality disorders, the cognitive style and defensive needs of narcissists merge almost seamlessly, always operating to support their sense of grandiosity. Narcissists play fast and loose with reality, altering and recomposing facts extemporaneously to reinforce their pet notions, a style Millon (1990) termed expansive. Some leaders of third-world governments or extremist political movements, for example, may mix dreams of omnipotence with paranoid trends (Miliora, 1995). Likewise, on a smaller scale, the association between narcissism and abuse of power by grandiose charismatic types within organizations is well known (Sankowsky, 1995); reality is refashioned as needed to retain followers and preserve a special status.

Whereas normal persons have realistic goals that balance their own needs with those of others, narcissists project themselves into an idealized future featuring unbounded fantasies of success and admiration. Their imagination is often so vivid that the future may seem to lack any dimension of contingency. Instead, fantasy is experienced with a compelling intensity that rivals reality itself, as with Leonardo, who "knows" his destiny holds immeasurable success. The power, ability, and glory of the self become a spectacle to be played and replayed repeatedly in the imagination. And because the narcissist provides both actor and applause, the applause is always a standing ovation, and the plot never becomes worn or tiresome, however often it is repeated. Those who admire the narcissist often make their own contribution, as did Gerald's mother, who has always told him he will do "something important," and Chase's parents, who insisted he become the "boy wonder." Interestingly, but not terribly unusual for intelligent, creative narcissists, we find with Chase that fantasy has actually been harnessed for an adaptive purposeā€”his writing.

By substituting fantasy for reality, narcissists reinforce their sense of omnipotence and justify their arrogance in the real world. Commoners become kings, and kings become gods. For the compensating narcissist, imagination provides a means of both protecting the underlying vulnerable self and warding off shame. In effect, were it not for the presence of a grandiose self, these individuals would resemble the avoidant personality, who feels shamed because of the pathetic and defective person they believe themselves to be. In contrast, with Millon's earlier biopsychosocial (1969, 1981) and contemporary evolutionary (Millon, 1990; Millon & Davis, 1996) conceptions of the narcissistic pattern, fantasy serves to exhibit the self for its own pleasure. Compensation is not required, and fantasy functions more to extend the indulgence of early caretakers than to defeat some obnoxious inadequacy lurking at the edge of conscious awareness.

The use of fantasy is not limited to the future but also extends into the past. We have noted the continuity between cognition and defense and have already remarked in our discussion of the psychodynamic perspective that narcissists rationalize and reconstruct. As cognitive theorists emphasize, there is no objective reality that the mind records and remembers. Instead, overlying sensation and perception is a layer of interpretation consisting of individualized constructs (Kelly, 1955), that is, personal concepts about ourselves, others, and the surrounding world. Although the significance of objective events is open to discussion, most of the time we share a consensual reality with those close to us, and we can at least agree on the events the past contains. In contrast, narcissists write personal fables. They revise their personal history to amplify objective successes and excuse, minimize, or transform failures in an effort to protect their own vulnerable self-esteem or reinforce their current positions. They remember the past as they would have wanted it to occur, not as it actually happened. Such reconstructions might not be called lies, because they often shift the emphasis of events or aspects of the situation. The future provides the narcissist an opportunity for glory, and the reconstruction of the past provides the continuity through which fantasies of brilliance or success can be given a substantial basis.

Many narcissists make the past and present much more hostile to their ambitions than it really was or is. In so doing, the individual feeling and experiencing personal failures has a means of deflecting personal responsibility. They may contemptuously assert, for example, that years of their life have been lost to the ignorance of others, who failed to recognize the true merits of their ideas or achievements or inadvertently stood in their way out of narrow-minded conventionalism or lack of courage to change. On the other hand, those experiencing personal triumph may then magnify their success still further by creating scenarios in which only omniscience or omnipotence could possibly overcome the trials and tribulations set forth before the conquering hero. Either way this is directed, it is an example of the narcissistic pattern's expansive cognitive style serving to execute a reversal of depressive realism, operating in the service of self-inflation rather than self-criticism. Gerald certainly comes to mind here. According to his assertions, he has been forced to work with "cretins" all his life, and their incompetence constantly delays the implementation of his brilliant ideas. If he does succeed, he will not only feel justified and vindicated but also want to advertise the ignorance of others to the world, making himself that much more impressive because of his victory.

Excessive use of fantasy also contributes to lack of empathy for others. While immersed in their reveries, narcissists focus their mind on a vague time in the future, at a point where their aspirations have already been realized. Achievement here is not a process or a personal growth experience. Questions about how their fantasies are to be logically and tangibly realized get in the way of feeling the glory. Worse, such detail work is incongruent with their self-image as synthesizers of information, visionaries, or strategists attuned to the big picture. Again, Gerald is a good example. He doesn't stop to think how his changes might affect others. He has no appreciation of how the particular cogs of the business come together from the ground up, instead seeing only the big picture painted in his own mind.

After the big decisions are made, the rest is merely grunt work, to be delegated to some toiling troglodyte whose job is not to question why, but only to effect the narcissistic will. As mere mortals, rather than original thinkers, such individuals work behind the scenes and inevitably receive little or no credit for the final production. Nevertheless, they are held responsible when things go wrong. Because narcissists refuse to involve themselves in the actual work of pulling off their objectives, they typically fail to realize the magnitude of what is required of their subordinates. When their workers fail to do the impossible, it is not that narcissists have overreached what is realistic but that the talent of their underlings is lacking. By confusing wish and reality and refusing to break goals into subgoals, narcissists act as if their will alone were sufficient to alter reality and bring their goals into being. For narcissists, what has been delegated has already been accomplished, an attitude that both controls and pressures those who work with them. Ultimately, this is why Gerald's coworkers resent him.

In many ways, the cognitive style of the narcissist is opposite that of the compulsive. Whereas the narcissist can't see the trees for the forest, the compulsive can't see the forest for the trees. Narcissists fail to fill in the details and instead paint the future with broad, confident, impressionistic strokes. In contrast, compulsives are plagued by detail; they meticulously hunt down every piece of missing information and eventually get lost in the indecision that results from trying to predict all possible outcomes for every possible action. The narcissist plunges ahead as if there were no barriers to what might be achieved but somehow forgets the logistics and mechanics of the actual work involved. In contrast, the compulsive frets endlessly about every small item, to the point that the overall purpose of the work is lost. The fantasies of the narcissist are wishes that focus on bringing about a future in which the self succeeds and is thus glorious and admired. In contrast, the fantasies of the compulsive are fears that focus on preventing a future in which the self errs and is thus contemptible and condemned. Both seek perfection but embrace only half of the equation. The narcissist is too proactive and ambitious; the compulsive, too preventative and cautious. Contrast the case of the indecisive dean or the hypercritical graduate assistant (Cases 7.2 and 7.3) with the long-suffering Einstein or the Romeo resident (Cases 10.1 and 10.2).

Writing in Beck et al. (1990), Denise Davis notes that the desire of narcissists to be unique encourages a number of cognitive distortions. First, narcissists are prone to di-chotomous appraisals of themselves and others. Particularly during periods of stress, narcissists vacillate between an all-good and an all-bad image of the self. Sometimes, they see themselves as worthy and omnipotent; at other times, however, reality breaks through and they see themselves as worthless and powerless. Their opinion of others may also vacillate, depending on their perceived level of gratitude or loyalty. Narcissists with paranoid trends, for example, usually believe that others have become envious of their position or ability. Such individuals may see their friends, family, and coworkers as completely loyal and trustworthy on one occasion but as possibly having secretly conspired with the enemy on the next. This is especially likely where the narcissist has constructed a house of cards on the edge of collapse, perhaps some entrepreneurial or quasi-legal misadventure.

Second, Davis notes that narcissists often take notice of small differences between themselves and others. Again, their purpose is the justification of self-esteem. Because narcissists naturally eclipse all others, they cannot afford to be too similar to those around them, as this jeopardizes their special status. To support a sense of superiority they secretly doubt, narcissists search for differences and then build on these differences as a means of preserving their unique status. Whatever it is that stands out about the narcissist is amplified and reconstructed as objective evidence of his or her exceptional stature. The cognitive view is thus not too different from the psychodynamic perspective, which holds that narcissists idealize others but are ready to find fault with them.

The cognitive contents, the fundamental beliefs of the narcissistic personality, are easily inferred on the basis of their behaviors and traits. Core beliefs are those held by the individual as timeless truths. For example, because narcissists act arrogant and dismissive, we can safely assume they possess a strong belief in their own superiority. Beck et al. (1990, pp. 50-51) list their core beliefs as including, "Since I am special, I deserve special dispensations, privileges, and prerogatives," "I'm superior to others and they should acknowledge this," and "I'm above the rules."

Whereas core beliefs are universal and eternal, conditional beliefs express possibilities contingent on certain assumptions. For the narcissist, Beck et al. (1990, pp. 50-51) list examples such as, "If others don't recognize my special status, they should be punished," and "If I am to maintain my superior status, I should expect others' subservience." In addition, Beck lists, "Strive at all times to insist upon or demonstrate your superiority." Such statements crystallize the assumptions through which the narcissist approaches and interacts with the surrounding interpersonal world. Many others could be added to capture additional dimensions of the narcissistic personality not mentioned by Beck. Thus, "If I am not perfect, I am nothing," might be listed as a conditional belief for the compensating narcissist, as might, "If I get involved in working out my plans at too great a level of detail, I will fail."

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Responses

  • sebastian
    How narcisiit play the ignorance card?
    9 months ago

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