Facebook: Where Narcissists Connect?

Facebook can be used to spot narcissism, a new study says.

September 25, 2008, 4:37 PM

Sept. 26, 2008 — -- Some Facebook members don't even have 100 friends. Scott Bradley once made that many in a day.

The recent college graduate's personal page boasts 2,100 friends, thousands of wall posts, dozens of homemade videos and links to eight personal Web sites.

In addition to a personal blog, a quote blog and a networking advice blog, he also maintains a YouTube channel and a Twitter account.

Bradley says that he's a "social media evangelist."

But the findings of a new University of Georgia psychology study suggest that he might fit the profile of a narcissist.

Study Says Narcissism Can Be Detected on Facebook

"Simply put, narcissists are people who think they're pretty great. ... They think they're more attractive, more intelligent, more unique and entitled to special treatment," said Lauren Buffardi, a University of Georgia graduate student and lead author of a study that will be published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin next month.

"They're well-liked upon initial meetings, but have more difficulty maintaining warm and intimate relationships," she said.

By surveying 130 Facebook users, analyzing their pages and asking untrained strangers to assess the users' pages, Buffardi and associate professor W. Keith Campbell found that the number of Facebook friends and wall posts that people have on their profile pages correlates with narcissism.

For people with narcissistic qualities, Buffardi said, social networking sites are effective vehicles of self-promotion. Online, they can assemble armies of casual friends, choose the photos in which they look most attractive and, through quotes and comments about themselves, create a compelling personal narrative.

As social networking sites gain traction among greater swaths of the population -- Facebook now has more than 100 million members -- psychologists are becoming increasingly interested in how personality traits are expressed on the Internet. This study was one of the first attempts to achieve that.

"These sites, like MySpace and Facebook, are becoming vastly popular. Lots of individuals are posting information about themselves and some psychologists have wanted to determine how narcissism manifests itself on Facebook," Buffardi said, adding that her study focused on narcissism as a trait, not a clinical disorder.

People identified as narcissistic in this study may have inflated views of themselves, she said. But they don't necessarily need to seek therapy for what can be a severe personality disorder.

Buffardi and Campbell were particularly interested in narcissism because, while it may find expression online, it can hinder the creation of healthy relationships offline.

Wendy Behary, a narcissism expert and the author of "Disarming the Narcissist," told ABCNews.com that Facebook allows narcissists to remain disconnected from true intimacy and maintain a lack of accountability. They may look like they have a ton of friends, but they're actually affiliates, or awestruck followers, she said.

"At the core of most people who are narcissistic, underneath they often feel inadequate, lonely [and] a sense of shame because they haven't learned the skills to connect with someone in a real way," she said. "Facebook allows them to stay in hiding."

In addition to finding that people who score higher on narcissism personality tests tend to have more friends and wall posts on Facebook, the study also noted that they chose more glamorous photographs.

Observers also found that the more narcissistic Facebook members posted less entertaining quotes, even though they tend to be charismatic and witty in real life. Buffardi cautioned, however, that this might be because the observers wouldn't be able to grasp the context of the quotes.

Social Media as a Self-Promotional Tool

The University of Georgia study did not identify a benchmark number that separates the narcissists from the non-narcissists. Buffardi said they used a continuous measure of narcissism.

But, as someone who has an unusually high number of Facebook friends and wall posts, Bradley could fit Buffardi and Campbell's profile of a narcissist.

But he challenges the validity of the study.

Like many Facebook users, Bradley joined the social networking site his freshman year of college to keep track of new friends and keep in touch with old ones.

At first, it was a place to connect with fellow baseball team members and other freshmen he met in his dorm.

But, during his sophomore year, after back injuries kept him from playing baseball with the college team, he said his entrepreneurial spirit kicked in.

Unable to find people who matched his interest in marketing and entrepreneurship on campus, he turned to Facebook.

"I would say, personally, I use social networking sites, primarily Facebook and YouTube, to meet like-minded people that I can't meet every day," he said. "If you want to call that narcissism so be it, but I don't think it is."

Bradley said it's the urge to connect with other people and leverage the power of social networks that drives his Facebook activity.

"Social media is popping up and taking the Web by storm," he said. "I'm passionate about social networks being used to make great change."

But he also acknowledged that the networks of people he has assembled give him a sense of power.

"I walk around every day knowing that I can reach them with one click of a button," he said. "That does feel powerful."

But it's not just Facebook members with the most friends who may enjoy this sense of power.

Mark Leary, a psychologist at Duke University, said that while Facebook doesn't necessarily encourage narcissism, it is an avenue that allows a normal person to behave in a narcissistic way.

"I think the nature of Facebook is such that people do things to promote themselves," he said. "It's a self-presentational vehicle. It's a little bit like advertising. ... We expect ads to be self-promoting. Now the rules of advertising apply to ordinary human beings."

Dr. Samuel Lopez De Victoria, a Miami-based psychotherapist, also said that the Internet supports self-promotion.

"I think public forums like Facebook and MySpace have the potential for encouraging narcissism in most of us," he said.

And, he continued, as long as it's not extreme, that's not necessarily a bad thing. There are certain qualities connected with narcissism -- such as self-assurance and confidence -- that society encourages.

"If you don't have a teeny bit of narcissism, you have a low self-image," Lopez De Victoria said.

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