5 Tests Which Reveal a Malignant Narcissist’s or Psychopath’s True Colors, Based on Research

By Shahida Arabi, M.A.

We could all benefit from learning how to better identify malignant narcissistic and psychopathic traits in people, before we get involved in relationships, friendships, or workplaces that harm us.  A recent meta-analysis of over 400 studies revealed that narcissism is associated with all forms of aggression, including both reactive aggression and proactive (unprovoked, premeditated) aggression (Kjærvik & Bushman, 2021). A wealth of research has also supported the fact that psychopathic traits are associated with cold-blooded, instrumental violence to meet one’s agendas (e.g. Glenn & Raine, 2009). 

Based on research conducted on narcissism and psychopathy, as well as accounts from thousands of individuals involved in relationships with people high in these traits, there are five simple “tests” you can use to assess harmful behaviors in someone new you’re getting to know or even someone you’ve known for quite some time.

While none of these on their own are necessarily indicative of any full-fledged disorder or any mental health diagnosis, if these behaviors are frequent, harmful, intense and show up in tandem, it is a good sign you need to detach and protect yourself. 

Keep in mind that more covertly aggressive manipulators can hide these behaviors for a while before you’re sufficiently invested in a relationship with them, using techniques such as love bombing to hook you. However, these can still be helpful to weed out potentially in your social circle, relationships, friendships, and business partnerships over time. 

Here are five tests you can use to test for narcissistic or psychopathic traits in an individual:

1) See how they react to your success.

Research indicates an association between malicious envy and the Dark Triad traits – narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism (Lange et al., 2016; Lange et al., 2017). While occasional jealousy and envy can be normal human emotions, narcissistic and psychopathic individuals escalate into sabotaging, stalking, harassing and belittling the individual that is their target. According to former FBI agent Joe Navarro, warning signs of narcissism can include a pathological sense of envy and competition. In his book Dangerous Personalities, he lists the following red flags:

“One senses {the narcissist} wants to destroy or spoil the fortunes of those he envies or is in competition with.

At work, habitually competes with peers for attention or praise and devalues them to garner favor with those in authority.

Enjoys putting others down so that she feels better about herself.

Is disinterested in knowing more about you and lacks normal curiosity in others.

Has refused to look at or recognize a proud accomplishment of yours or fails to acknowledge pain and suffering of others.”

Rather than feeling happy for others’ success, is jealous or petty and begrudges their success.”

When meeting someone new, share something you’re proud of and observe how they react. Do they shut you down and turn the attention back to themselves? Do they covertly belittle or minimize your accomplishment, attempting to detract from your sense of achievement? Do they extend congratulations or treat what you share with indifference and a haughty attitude of, “So what?” Is there a mismatch between their nonverbal behavior and their words? For example, do they pretend to be happy for you, even while their eyes are seething with anger – only to later sabotage you? These are tell-tale signs you may be dealing with someone on the spectrum of narcissism. Normal, healthy people do not try to diminish what gives you joy or pride in life. They are able to set any jealousy or envy they have aside and more often than not, feel happy for your success.

2) Observe their reactions to times when you are suffering.

Perhaps one of the most defining traits of narcissism is a core lack of empathy. Research also indicates that both narcissistic and psychopathic individuals experience positive emotions when seeing sad faces (Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012). When you are in need or in extreme distress, a narcissist will usually exacerbate your pain or even abandon you. This is very common when in a relationship with a sadistic narcissist. 

As an author and researcher who has corresponded with thousands of survivors of narcissistic partners, friends, family members, and co-workers, I’ve heard countless stories from survivors who were abandoned by their narcissistic partners during the loss of a loved one, a major surgery, after childbirth, or even during a life-threatening illness.

To test a narcissistic individual, ask them for a favor or see how they respond when you are in crisis. How do they react when you most need them to comfort you? Do they condescendingly treat you with indifference? Do they discard you without a word or subject you to the silent treatment? There are some narcissists who will be able to fake empathy for a short period of time, but usually, they revert back to their callous, cold, and abusive ways.

3) Throw out a personal disclosure. Do they use it as ammunition?

Healthy, empathic people will respect when you tell them something in confidence. Malignant narcissists or psychopathic individuals will use anything and everything you tell them against you, including your insecurities and deepest traumas. They will tap into your greatest fears and make a mockery out of them in order to further gaslight you into believing you are the problem (Stern, 2018). They have no limits as to what they will use – even if it inflicts enormous pain.

As Dr. Robert Hare, author of Without Conscience writes, “The psychopath carries out his evaluation of a situation—what he will get out of it and at what cost—without the usual anxieties, doubts, and concerns about being humiliated, causing pain, sabotaging future plans, in short, the infinite possibilities that people of conscience consider when deliberating possible actions.”

If you want to test any kind of potential toxicity in someone, pretend to tell them something that’s important to you. In reality, this will be a trap which will act as bait – a red herring. Tell them something insignificant – a small fear, insecurity, or disappointing experience – and see if they use it against you later on as a put-down, as an insult, as a form of gaslighting to discredit you, or as a verbal assault disguised as a “joke.”

Some narcissistic individuals will even go out of their way to spread your personal information to others as gossip or slander. This will provide a clue as to how they treat your suffering in the future. If they make fun of, degrade and gaslight you using this disclosure, you know everything you need to know about the character of this person.

4) Set a boundary.

Boundaries are kryptonite to a narcissist, especially one who wants to fast-forward the relationship or disrespect you. According to manipulation expert Dr. George Simon, “Aggressive personalities don’t like anyone pushing them to do what they don’t want to do or stopping them from doing what they want to do. “No” is never an answer they accept.”

Setting a boundary causes a narcissistic injury in toxic people and in some cases, might even result in aggression or violence (Bushman & Thomaes, 2011). Watch what happens when you set a boundary with a narcissist (e.g. Please don’t call me after midnight). Do they respect your wishes and back off? Or do they persist even more with an excessive sense of entitlement? Perhaps they pretend to understand your boundary but violate it time and time again anyway. Their reaction to your boundaries can reveal their true manipulative intentions.

5) Express or assert yourself – and see how they respond.

Expressing dissatisfaction (even politely and respectfully) to a narcissistic individual agitates them greatly. This is due to what researchers call “narcissistic rage,” (Theberge & Dominick, 2022). Some narcissistic individuals can treat every perceived slight or criticism as a life-or-death threat and work to extinguish it with unprecedented vindictiveness. See what happens when you (authentically) disagree with a narcissist’s perspective or even give them warranted feedback in a healthy way (e.g. I don’t think the waiter was being mean at all, I feel you may have been a bit aggressive with him).

A malignant narcissist will see even warranted feedback as a challenge to their perceived sense of superiority and will likely lash out in verbal abuse (ex. You’re an idiot if you think the waiter wasn’t mean!), gaslighting (ex. You have no idea what you’re talking about, you’re insane!), or diversion tactics and accusations (ex. You’re only on his side because you were flirting with him!). More covertly aggressive narcissists may be able to hide their rage but punish you later – for example, bringing up this incident in a future argument and using it to debase you.

The Big Picture

Use any of these five tests to detect whether or not someone you know may have malignant narcissistic traits that are harmful to you and detach accordingly. Remember, regardless of whether or not they are a full-fledged narcissist or psychopath, they can still be harmful to your mental health and well-being depending on the intensity of these behaviors and their willingness to change. The higher they are on the narcissistic spectrum, the more likely they can engage in these behaviors with malice, entitlement, and a lack of empathy. It’s important for you to make a safety plan and slow down before you invest in a toxic relationship. Your boundaries and self-care are paramount.

An earlier version of this article was first written on July 31, 2019. © Copyright 2019 Shahida Arabi. All rights reserved. 


About the Author

Shahida Arabi, MA holds graduate degrees in psychology and sociology from Columbia University and Harvard University. She is the bestselling author of Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare, which has been a #1 Amazon Bestseller for 12 consecutive months since its release. She is also the author of The Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide to Dealing with Toxic People: Reclaiming Your Power from Narcissists and Other Manipulators, published by New Harbinger Publications and available in all major bookstores. You can check out her blog, Self-Care Haven, for topics related to mindfulness, mental health, narcissistic abuse, and recovery from emotional trauma, like her page on Facebook, and follow her on Instagram.


Interested in learning more about narcissistic abuse? Order my #1 Amazon bestselling book on narcissistic abuse, Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself or my latest book available in all major bookstores, The Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide to Dealing With Toxic People: Reclaiming Your Power from Narcissists and Other Manipulators.

Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, NOOK, and other major online retailers. It is available in paperback, as an e-book, and as an Audible book.

References

Bushman, B. J., & Thomaes, S. (2011). When the narcissistic ego deflates, narcissistic aggression inflates. In W. K. Campbell, & J. D. Miller (Eds.), The handbook of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder (pp. 319–329). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Glenn, A. L., & Raine, A. (2009). Psychopathy and instrumental aggression: Evolutionary, neurobiological, and legal perspectives. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry,32(4), 253-258. doi:10.1016/j.ijlp.2009.04.002 

Hare, R. (1999). Without Conscience. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Kjærvik, S. L., & Bushman, B. J. (2021). The link between narcissism and aggression: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000323

Lange, J., Paulhus, D. L., & Crusius, J. (2017). Elucidating the Dark Side of Envy: Distinctive Links of Benign and Malicious Envy With Dark Personalities. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,44(4), 601-614. doi:10.1177/0146167217746340

Lange, J., Crusius, J., & Hagemeyer, B. (2016). The Evil Queen’s Dilemma: Linking Narcissistic 

Admiration and Rivalry to Benign and Malicious Envy. European Journal of Personality, 30(2), 168-188.

Navarro, J., & Poynter, T. S. (2017). Dangerous personalities: An FBI profiler shows how to identify and protect yourself from harmful people. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.

Simon, G. K. (2016). In sheep’s clothing: Understanding and dealing with manipulative people. Marion, MI: Parkhurst Brothers,.

Stern, R., & Wolf, N. (2018). The gaslight effect: How to spot and survive the hidden manipulation others use to control your life. New York, NY: Harmony Books.

Theberge, D., & Gamache, D. (2022). An Appraisal of Narcissistic Rage Through Path Modeling. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 8862605221084746.

Wai, M., & Tiliopoulos, N. (2012). The affective and cognitive empathic nature of the dark triad of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 52(7), 794-799.

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