Why subclinical narcissists have a competitive advantage

New research shows narcissists aren't smarter than the average person, but they have a secret weapon that helps them succeed: mental toughness.

We might not like narcissists, they’re often full of themselves and difficult to deal with, but new research shows they may be better suited to deal with adversity than many others. A study carried out at Queen’s University Belfast has shown that narcissists who are considered 'subclinical'—at a level that is less observable and severe—may benefit from their heightened sense of self.


Narcissists are usually considered to be maladapted and lacking vital social survival skills. The Queen’s University study posits that narcissism, commonly considered one of the dark triad personality traits, may provide a different set of tools to narcissists, improving their ability to cope with adversity which can help them perform better academically, professionally, and in other achievement-based settings.

The study raises some important questions and perhaps more importantly sheds a light on factors that help develop individuals’ mental toughness, giving a once-maligned mental diagnosis hope of redemption.

The link between narcissism and mental toughness

The research, led by Dr. Kostas Papageorgiou and carried out in conjunction with several other research institutions, focused on the academic performance of several high-school-aged teenagers in Italy. Researchers used a variety of established tests to measure for subclinical narcissism and mental toughness, searching for any sort of correlation. Once these tests were completed, the researchers factored in the results of a variety of academic exams and test scores that would help them identify any patterns based on their initial findings.

The tests were eye-opening for a few reasons. For one, students who were rated highly on the test for subclinical narcissism also exhibited behaviors and qualities that are normally associated with strong mental toughness. According to Dr. Papageorgiou in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, “Being confident in your own abilities is one of the key signs of grandiose narcissism and is also at the core of mental toughness.”


High school students work on a 4-hour philosophy dissertation. Those with mental toughness may be more motivated when faced with challenges. (Photo: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Examining the results, the team of researchers found that students who rated higher on the subclinical narcissism indicators also performed better. One key lesson taken away by Papageorgiou and his team is that while students who scored high on narcissism aren’t demonstrably smarter than their counterparts, they are more confident in their abilities, which leads them to better performance.

Many of the qualities that are considered negative in narcissistic personalities are also crucial components of mental toughness. According to Papageorgiou in an interview with Bustle, “People who score high on subclinical narcissism may be at an advantage… because their heightened sense of self-worth may mean they are more motivated, assertive, and successful in certain contexts."

This heightened sense of self-worth translates into a variety of factors that many psychologists agree form the core of mental toughness. For instance, researchers have noted that people with high mental toughness view challenges and threats as opportunities and believe they have the faculties to succeed at them, no matter what. Similarly, subclinical narcissists may have a deep belief that they are superior to any challenge and can easily succeed. While this does not make them smarter or more capable, it does give them the confidence to be better at specific tasks. The result of the study is possibly the beginning of a paradigm shift in how narcissism is viewed and diagnosed in the future. Moreover, it could lead to many “narcissistic” behaviors being reevaluated in a new light.

What we can learn from narcissists

Narcissists aren't more competent or more prone to success than others. Instead, the study examined narcissists' mental toughness and aims to understand how it helps them achieve success. Using these core concepts, we can apply them to our own lives. One of the first areas to work on involves changing how you perceive new challenges, threats, and stressful situations. Learning to re-conceptualize challenges to as opportunities for growth and personal improvement is a vital step towards improving your overall mental toughness.

Moreover, mental toughness helps people brush off rejection, loss, and failure more easily. Narcissists tend to be persistent even in the face of failure because of their heightened self-confidence and sense of self. While this can be harmful when taken to extremes, the ability to bounce back, understanding that rejection takes nothing away from your personal self-worth are vital for development.

Finally, the study also found that narcissism is not inevitable, but rather a combination of nature and nurture. Simply having a tendency towards the behavior isn’t bad but understanding it can help you. By focusing on improving those qualities that are positive and working on minimizing the negative aspects that accompany them, it’s possible for people to lead high power careers and full lives without falling into a pattern of narcissism.

Here's how former Navy SEAL David Goggins honed his mental toughness, going from a 300lb kid with a very tough upbringing to an ultra-endurance athlete:

America’s education system is centuries old. Can we build something better?

The Lumina Foundation lays out steps for increasing access to quality post-secondary education credentials.

Sponsored by Lumina Foundation
  • America's post-high school education landscape was not created with the modern student in mind. Today, clear and flexible pathways are necessary to help individuals access education that can help them lead a better life.
  • Elizabeth Garlow explains the Lumina Foundation's strategy to create a post-secondary education system that works for all students. This includes credential recognition, affordability, a more competency-based system, and quality assurance.
  • Systemic historic factors have contributed to inequality in the education system. Lumina aims to close those gaps in educational attainment.
  • In 2019, Lumina Foundation and Big Think teamed up to create the Lumina Prize, a search to find the most innovative and scalable ideas in post-secondary education. You can see the winners of the Lumina Prize here – congratulations to PeerForward and Greater Commons!

First solar roadway in France turned out to be a 'total disaster'

French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.

Image source: Charly Triballeau / AFP / Getty Images
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What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
  • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.