Is Narcissism Genetic? The Role of Genetics in Narcissistic Personality Disorder
If someone in your family has been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder or displays narcissistic tendencies, you may wonder if the condition is genetic. In this article, we review its genetic etiology.
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
September 11, 2023
Table of Contents
Everyone knows someone who thinks a little too highly of themselves and appreciates extra attention. But when a narcissistic personality begins to interfere with an individual’s ability to carry out a normal life, it can fall into the territory of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)—a personality disorder marked by an exaggerated sense of self-importance, the need for admiration, a lack of empathy, and more.
In addition to disrupting relationships and day-to-day life, an NPD diagnosis can raise questions for family members (just like any mental health or physical health diagnosis). Namely, family members of someone diagnosed with NPD may wonder: Can narcissism be passed down genetically? And genetics aside, what are the other causes of narcissism? Plus, how is NPD diagnosed, and what are the therapies available for the disorder? In this piece, we’ll review these questions and more, getting into the genetic etiology of narcissism and reviewing the different symptoms and treatments for the disorder.
Is narcissism genetic?
In short: Possibly. Several studies from across the world have demonstrated that narcissism is, at least partly, genetic—in fact, according to a couple of studies, the risk of inheriting narcissism is over 50% in some cases.
Narcissism, like other conditions under the behavioral genetics umbrella, is often studied using twins. Identical twins share 100% of their DNA, whereas fraternal twins share 50% of their DNA. If twins, either identical or fraternal, are raised in the same house by the same parents, then researchers can assume that environmental influences are similar and would not cause a trait in one child only. Keeping this in mind, if a trait is shared in identical twins (which happens more frequently than in fraternal twins) and the environment is controlled, researchers can then hypothesize that the trait in question has more of a genetic basis.
As an example, reading disabilities like dyslexia have a strong genetic component. Therefore, we are more likely to see dyslexia in both individuals who are in a set of identical twins as compared to two individuals who are fraternal twins. If both identical twins in question live at home with the same set of parents, we can assume that parental influences such as early reading structural support did not create an outcome in one child that was not seen in the other. This same logic is applied in studies of narcissism.
Let’s review three twin studies related to narcissism:
- One of the earliest and most cited research studies on twins relating to personality traits was published in 1996 by a team of researchers from Canada. The team assessed 483 volunteer twin pairs, 236 being identical and 247 being fraternal. Each individual was asked to complete a questionnaire at home alone. The questionnaire called the Differential Questionnaire (DAPP-DQ), had 560 questions that asked about a person’s personality. In this study, by comparing the fraternal and identical twins, narcissism got a heritability score of 53%. This means that researchers believed that genetics accounted for 53% of narcissism in these individuals.
- A large study in Norway involving over 3,000 sets of twins examining personality disorders and their genetic basis was published in 2008. All 10 personality disorders listed in the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition (DSM-IV)—the manual used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental health conditions—were included. In this study, modeling of the twin data led researchers to believe that about 33% of narcissism disorder has a genetic basis, while the rest was caused by environmental influence.
- In 2007, a study examining participants from the United States and Canada studied the genetic component of the “Dark Triad,” a group of three personality traits, including narcissism, Machiavellianism, and sub-clinical psychopathy, in 139 pairs of twins. After looking at identical and fraternal twins, researchers determined that the genetic effect on narcissism was 59%.
These studies reveal that there is likely a genetic component to narcissism, but it’s unclear exactly how big or small that genetic effect is—an outcome that’s consistent with other studies on personality disorders, which are notoriously hard to quantify scientifically. While the findings of the NPD studies are statistically significant (especially given the number of participants involved), the results are still hard to interpret because the studies use different metrics (different questionnaires and different mathematical regressions to interpret the data). In order to more definitively determine the genetic etiology of NPD, there need to be more studies on this topic that more closely replicate each other’s numbers.
If I have a parent with narcissistic personality disorder, will I have it too?
In short: Not necessarily. While narcissism can be attributed in part to genetics, it is difficult to assess how big of a role genetics plays, and this is seen by the range of numbers reported by the studies above.
We do not yet have a specific number or percentage we can point to in determining how important genetics are in the diagnosis of NPD. Further research into this field, even looking into specific genes related to narcissism, is underway and is needed to better understand the genetic etiology of NPD.
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What are the other causes of narcissism?
So if you are the child of someone with NPD or have a family member who exhibits narcissistic tendencies, you may still be wondering: Other than genetics, what other factors can cause narcissism? The other possible causes of narcissism include environmental influences, like how someone was parented, as well as their neurobiology, meaning how they are neurologically hardwired. Keep reading to learn more about these factors, which may be responsible for the development of NPD.
Environmental influences: Parenting and child narcissism
The following parenting characteristics have been shown in studies to be associated with forms of narcissism, specifically child narcissism:
- Parenting that is characterized by indulgence, allowing children to do what they want without direction or rules
- Permissive parenting, where parents are very attentive to the needs and wants of their child but demand very little (like obedience) in return
- Parental overvaluation, believing their child is more special or entitled than others
- Parental coldness, seen more associated with vulnerable narcissism described above
- Overprotective parenting, resulting in motivation based on rewarding outcomes
Neurobiological influences: Neurobiology and narcissism
Some peoples’ brains and bodies (their neurobiology) might be wired in a way that makes them more susceptible to the development of personality disorders. Although research into this field is limited, the following characteristics regarding narcissists provide valuable insight into possible neurobiological influences of NPD.
- Individuals with narcissistic tendencies may have differences in their sympathetic nervous system, often known as the “fight or flight” response, as well as the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system responsible for involuntary processes like breathing and digestion.
- People with NPD show greater cardiac reactivity. For example, these individuals may have high elevations in blood pressure or heart rate after rejection, and this is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
- Further studies into reward system pathways and whether certain parts of the brain are highlighted in NPD may also prove useful in better understanding this condition in the future.
Genetic influences of narcissism
Environmental influences of narcissism
Neurobiological influences of narcissism
Several studies from across the world have demonstrated that narcissism is, at least partly, genetic. According to a couple of studies, the risk of inheriting narcissism is over 50% in some cases.
Some parenting characteristics have been linked to various forms of narcissism in children, including indulgence, permissiveness, parental overvaluation, parental coldness, and overprotectiveness.
Certain peoples’ brains and bodies (their neurobiology) might be wired in a way that makes them more susceptible to developing personality disorders, including narcissistic personality disorder. Potential neurobiological factors include certain aspects of our nervous system and hearts, as well as specific parts of the brain linked to reward systems.
How is narcissistic personality disorder diagnosed?
In order to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, someone must meet certain criteria from the DSM-5—the most recent update of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental health conditions. According to the DSM-5, NPD is defined as “A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts.” People who meet at least five of the symptoms from the DSM-5 criteria below may be diagnosed with NPD:
- Is “grandiose,” having inflated self-importance and feeling superior to others, often embellishing their talents or achievements
- Often fantasizes about things like power, success, and beauty
- Feels like they are one-of-a-kind and that only other special or high-power people can understand them
- Needs constant admiration
- Unreasonably feels entitled to special treatment
- Exploits others and takes advantage of them for their own benefit
- Is not empathetic and doesn’t consider other people’s needs or emotions
- Gets jealous of other people and thinks other people are jealous of them
- Is arrogant and egotistical
Are there different types of narcissism?
Narcissism is usually broken down into two different subtypes, each of which falls under the umbrella of NPD. The two different types of narcissism are as follows:
- Grandiose narcissists showcase publicly the signs of narcissism. They constantly seek the attention of others, are obviously self-absorbed, and can be aggressive and exploitative.
- Vulnerable narcissists still have a sense of grandiosity but may keep this inside of them. These individuals may be jealous of others, hypersensitive to criticism, and compare themselves to others frequently.
Get support for NPD with Charlie Health
If someone you know displays a lot of the aforementioned narcissistic traits or has been diagnosed with NPD, Charlie Health is here to help. Often, people with narcissistic traits or NPD do not believe that they have a problem and refuse to seek help.
However, if you are interested in taking an initial step to learn more about personality disorders, including narcissism, Charlie Health has trained professionals who are experts in personality disorders — including how they manifest in children, teenagers, and young adults. Our virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) combines group sessions with individual and family therapy to support young people dealing with complex mental health conditions, including NPD. Fill out this short form to get started today.