A Review of 437 Studies Shows Narcissism and Aggression Are Significantly Related – Including Proactive, Unprovoked Aggression

Written by Shahida Arabi, M.A.

Many people who’ve encountered a narcissist in the workplace, romantic relationships, friendships, and family units wonder whether the exploitative and manipulative behaviors they’ve experienced are deliberate. Does the narcissist know what they’re doing, and the fact that they’re harming others?

A 2021 meta-analytic review of 437 independent studies consisting of 123,043 participants by researchers Kjærvik & Bushman revealed that narcissism had a significant relationship with both aggression and violence. This relationship was significant for conditions where there was some sort of perceived “provocation,” such as a person giving them a negative evaluation which could threaten their ego, reputation, or grandiose self-image.

However, this link between aggression and narcissism remained significant even in conditions where there was no provocation at all and held true for all forms of aggression including both reactive (reacting to something) and proactive (premeditated) aggression.

This means that even if a narcissist hasn’t received any criticism from anyone, they can still engage in aggression proactively. The researchers defined proactive aggression as incentivized acts of aggression to obtain “money, status, power, reputation, revenge, {and} prestige.”

Forms of aggression narcissists engaged in included:

  • physical aggression – hitting, kicking, slapping or other violent acts
  • verbal aggression – using words to abuse, taunt, mock, and demean you
  • direct aggression – aggression that is instigated in your presence
  • indirect aggression – aggression that occurs even when you are absent, such as the spreading of rumors or gossip to slander you through smear campaigns
  • displaced aggression – aggression that may be intended for someone else but is instead projected onto an innocent person, such as a bystander or a loved one that becomes the punching bag for the narcissist
  • in real-life or online aggression (including cyberbullying)

The link between aggression and narcissism was also true for both vulnerable (covert) narcissism and grandiose (overt) narcissism, which suggests that regardless of whether a narcissist appears more shy, introverted and fearful (like a vulnerable narcissist) or they appear outwardly pompous, self-aggrandizing and self-confident (like a grandiose narcissist), both types of narcissists can violate others.

It also applied to both males and females and for both “normal” and “pathological” narcissism, so even if the person you’re dealing with doesn’t meet the criteria for the full-fledged personality disorder, they can still engage in aggression against you.

Unprovoked Aggression: What Does it Look Like?

This meta-analysis reveals what many individuals who’ve encountered narcissistic people have experienced. It showed that narcissists can also react proactively by instigating aggressive behaviors against someone they wish to demean – such as belittling someone they envy, engaging in sabotaging behaviors to remove competition, finding an excuse to rage at someone or “retaliate” against someone for surpassing them, and using them as an emotional punching bag as a way to feel more powerful and in control. They can also engage in aggression to obtain something, like profit.

It is true some narcissists also frequently engage in reactive aggression and may also fly into narcissistic rage as a reaction to a perceived slight or “narcissistic injury,” such as a person who criticizes them or their behaviors (which may very well be a warranted criticism, depending on the circumstances).

That does not necessarily mean the victim actually deliberately “provoked” the narcissist, but that the narcissist perceived it as provocative and might have a hypersensitivity that does not accurately respond to the world around them. If you’ve been violated by a narcissist, whether through reactive aggression or proactive aggression, it’s important not to blame yourself.

If you are dealing with someone with narcissistic tendencies and it is affecting your well-being, it is important to detach and implement, rather than just verbalize healthy boundaries (verbalizing it to the narcissist may simply cause them to trespass them sadistically), and make a safety plan to exit the relationship or context that’s harming you.

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.

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