Narcissistic children blush when they do not receive the praise they think they deserve. They feel depreciated but are unwilling to admit this feeling to others, perhaps to hide their vulnerabilities. 'It shows just how much they are attached to their grandiose image', said UvA developmental psychologist Eddie Brummelman. The results of the study, which he conducted with fellow researchers Milica Nikolic and Susan Bögels, were published in the scientific journal Psychophysiology.
Narcissists have deep-seated feelings of grandiosity and self-importance. Narcissism is a normal personality trait that can emerge around the age of seven, when children are capable of making global evaluations of the self. Children with narcissistic traits feel superior to others, believe that they are entitled to privileges, and crave admiration. Brummelman: 'Consequently, it is not surprising that they expect to be showered with extremely positive praise, such as "You did incredibly well!”. We were curious what would happen when narcissistic children do not receive the praise they think they deserve'.
Brummelman and his colleagues studied what blushing reveals about the emotional states of narcissistic children. Narcissistic children have deep-seated feelings of grandiosity and self-importance. The researchers hypothesised that narcissistic children are so consumed by their sense of grandiosity that even modest praise can make them feel depreciated. Because narcissistic children may not admit this feeling to others, the researchers measured their physiological blushing: the involuntary reddening of the face, which occurs when people are afraid of making a negative impression on others. Unlike other expressions of emotion, blushing cannot be faked.
The researchers invited more than 100 children between the ages of seven and 12 (and their parents) to the laboratory. First, the children filled in a questionnaire about their narcissistic personality traits; next, they took the stage to sing a song. Afterwards, they received inflated praise (‘You sang incredibly well!’), most praise (‘You sang well!’), or no praise for their performance. Meanwhile, Brummelman and his colleagues recorded the children's blushing using photoplethysmography (a technique for measuring the volume of blood in the vessels in the skin) and temperature sensing. Afterwards, the children were asked how much they thought they had blushed.
As expected, narcissistic children – unlike non-narcissistic children – blushed when they received modest praise. In particular, they showed an elevated blood volume pulse (rapid changes in blood volume with each heartbeat). ‘What stood out was that narcissistic children denied having blushed. The more they had actually blushed, the more fiercely they denied having blushed. It seems that they were trying to hide their vulnerabilities', said Brummelman.
An important question for follow-up research is how we can help narcissistic children acknowledge and regulate their feelings more effectively. Interventions such as mindfulness could help narcissistic children acknowledge their negative feelings non-judgmentally, so that they can better understand and regulate these feelings. Recent research by Brummelman and Bögels, together with their UvA colleagues Anna Ridderinkhof and Esther de Bruin, suggests that mindfulness interventions must be long lasting and focused on teaching self-compassion in order to be effective for narcissists.
Eddie Brummelman, Milica Nikolić, Susan M. Bögels: ‘What’s in a blush? Physiological blushing reveals narcissistic children’s social-evaluative concerns’, in Psychophysiology , 6 June 2018. DOI: 10.1111/psyp.13201
The findings are in line with the Research Priority Area Yield of UvA’s Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, which conducts research into the bioecology of human development. The research was funded by the Vici grant (No. 453-09-001, NWO) awarded to Bögels and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant (No. 705217, as part of the EU's Horizon 2020 programme) awarded to Brummelman.