Watching Herman Cain’s categorical and unequivocal rejection of sexual harassment claims by Sharon Bialek and Karen Kraushaar at his press conference today, a thought that had been forming within me for some time crystallized: this guy suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). I’m not a psychiatrist but I’ve had substantial reason to study this affliction — once on a personal basis, when fate threw me in daily contact with someone who was under treatment for it, and once when I wrote a screenplay about a real life character who had been clinically diagnosed with NPD, and in the process spoke to a number of experts who helped me better understand this character, and the disease.
Why do I think Herman Cain is possibly afflicted with NPD? It was an accumulation of statements, a manner of speaking, physical traits, and finally his performance today in which he categorically rejected any and all claims against him as “baseless”; said categorically that he had never in his life engaged in “inappropriate behavior” at any time; repeatedly referred to himself in the third person; and at no point showed one discernable ounce of empathy for any victim nor any sensitivity whatsoever for the issue of sexual harassment.
What are the signs of NPD?
David Thomas in Narcissism, Behind the Mask, suggests that narcissists typically display most, sometimes all, of the following traits:
- An obvious self-focus in interpersonal exchanges
- Problems in sustaining satisfying relationships
- A lack of psychological awareness (see insight in psychology and psychiatry, egosyntonic)
- Difficulty with empathy
- Problems distinguishing the self from others (see narcissism and boundaries)
- Hypersensitivity to any insults or imagined insults (see criticism and narcissists, narcissistic rage and narcissistic injury)
- Vulnerability to shame rather than guilt
- Haughty body language
- Flattery towards people who admire and affirm them (narcissistic supply)
- Detesting those who do not admire them (narcissistic abuse)
- Using other people without considering the cost of doing so
- Pretending to be more important than they really are
- Bragging (subtly but persistently) and exaggerating their achievements
- Claiming to be an “expert” at many things
- Inability to view the world from the perspective of other people
- Denial of remorse and gratitude
Deep desire to be at the center of things is served by extreme self-confidence, a combination that makes narcissists attractive and even charming. Buoyed by a coterie of admiring friends and associates—protected by the armor of positive self-regard—someone with a mild-to-moderate case of narcissism can float through life feeling pretty good about himself. Since they feel entitled to special treatment, they are easily offended, and readily harbor grudges. Yet narcissists are often very popular—at least in the short term.
The beauty of being a narcissist is that even when disaster stares you in the face, you feel neither doubt nor remorse. In a study, researchers asked a pair of participants to undertake a task that was rigged to fail. Most people tend to protect their partner, sharing either the credit or the blame. “But the narcissists would say, ‘It’s totally the other person’s fault.’ They’re completely willing to step on someone,” says narcissism researcher Keith Campbell, associate professor of social psychology at the University of Georgia.
Narcissists, the third type, are independent and not easily impressed. They are the innovators, driven in business to gain power and glory. Productive narcissists are experts in their industries, but they go beyond it. They also pose the critical questions. They want to learn everything about everything that affects the company and its products. Unlike erotics, they want to be admired, not loved. And unlike obsessives, they are not troubled by a punishing superego, so they are able to be very aggressive in pursuit of their goals. Of all the personality types, narcissists run the greatest risk of isolating themselves at the moment of success. And because of their independence and aggressiveness, they are constantly looking out for enemies, sometimes degenerating into paranoia when they are under extreme stress.
Maccoby makes the point that narcissitic leaders may have great vision; have charisma; can attract loyal followers — all positives if balanced by empathy, introspection, a willingness to listen, and other traits that balance out the narcissistic drive. But a more pure narcissist, while he may have charisma, vision, and drive –is also extremely sensitive to criticism (check), is a poor listener, lacks empathy or ability to empathize, and is driven by an intense desire to compete.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. My prediction — Cain’s hubris as expressed through NPD, is going to bring him down. By categorically dismissing his accusers he is unifying them, driving them to come out and defend themselves, and pretty soon he’s going to be faced with at least four women in front of a microphone, each giving very specific allegations, each undercutting his categorical rejection, and it will be very clear this isn’t just “he said-she said”, but rather “he said/they said” with enough voices on the “they” side to drown out Cain’s credibility. And if it does play out this way, it will have been his innate narcissism that brought about his fall.