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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Where’s the ‘I’ in narcissism?


An undergraduate student takes a selfie. Unlike the use of personal pronouns like “I,” research has shown a connection between men who frequently take selfies and narcissistic traits.

Your boss, roommate or relative who always talks about “me, myself and I” might not be a narcissist. Research by UA psychology researchers Matthias Mehl and Angela Carey has shown that first person pronoun use is unrelated to narcissism.

Mehl, an associate professor of psychology, and Carey, a third-year psychology graduate student, have proven through a study with over 4,000 subjects that the use of first person pronouns, labeled I-talk, is not related to narcissism. Narcissism is a personality disorder where individuals have an inflated view of themselves and are prone to grandiose behaviors.

Previously, researchers and laypeople intuitively believed that I-talk and narcissism were related. This belief was supported by a study published by Robert Raskin and Robert Shaw in 1988 that stated there was a correlation between I-talk and narcissism. However, the sample size of Raskin and Shaw’s study was merely 48 compared to Carey’s sample size of over 4,000 participants.

“On a methodological level, our study stands out in that we made a big effort to consolidate data across several labs,” Mehl said. “We did so because we wanted to get the most accurate and generalizable effect estimate possible.”

By combining data from multiple labs, Carey and Mehl had a larger sample size than previous studies. Having a large sample can make a study more definitive by reducing random fluctuations; Mehl said that having the larger sample could help settle the question of I-talk and narcissism. 

“It was a complex, but certainly also fun, process,” Mehl said.

To collect that much data, the study required collaboration not only across universities but also oceans. Carey and Mehl worked with researchers from universities in Germany, Georgia, Texas and California.

The collaborators used five different narcissism measures to determine narcissistic tendencies. The study was standardized across all five measures to account for each of them.

Participants in the study were primarily college students in introductory psychology classes and participants’ language samples were analyzed in different contexts.

“Some of the studies asked [participants] to describe themselves to a group,” Carey said. “Some of them required the participant to be alone and to write in a stream of consciousness manner, which is, ‘Just write anything that comes to your mind.’ So they really did vary a lot, which is why we thought it was a great opportunity to break them apart into context with the idea that narcissists, perhaps, maybe they’ll use I-talk maybe more in a private setting than a public setting or a private versus a public or with others versus alone.”

The study has wide implications for the future of research on narcissism.

“I-talk seems to be so simple, and it’s intuitive as a marker for narcissism,” Carey said. “And now that that’s not there, the question that everyone seems to be asking is, ‘Well, if it’s not I-talk, what is it? Is there something else in language?’ So we’re currently conducting some follow up analyses and we’ll hopefully get the answers to our questions.”


Follow Connie Tran on Twitter.

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