It's often said that you spend your college experience trying to ditch the friends you make in your first week. Now researchers have explained the phenomenon: Your first-week drinking buddies are probably horrible narcissists.
In a pioneering study into the impact of narcissism on social networks, researchers led by Anna Czarna of Jagiellonian Universitylooked at 170 first-year college students in Poland, divided into study groups of around 20. Prior to the experiment, all participants were assessed for psychological traits including narcissism and emotional intelligence. During their first week, freshmen were asked to name the people they liked most in their group, and were then asked again three months later.
While narcissists initially scored highly on popularity ratings—meaning that their peers were drawn to them as potential friends—over time they faced difficulty in sustaining these relationships. Meanwhile, those with high emotional intelligence didn't initially draw many new friends, but built up their social networks gradually. By the three-month mark, emotionally intelligent freshmen were more popular than their narcissistic fellow students.
Narcissists often present as confident and charismatic individuals, which means they can make a favorable impression on first meeting. They do well at speed dating; job interviewers love them; they've even more popular on Twitter. Over time, however, it seems that narcissists out themselves as the self-absorbed, emotionally immature braggarts they really are. Meanwhile, emotionally intelligent people are like the proverbial tortoise: Slow and steady, they will eventually win people over with their ability to recognize the emotions of others and respond accordingly.
"Narcissism is detrimental for finding new friends," confirms Philip Leifeld, a researcher at the University of Glasgow who co-authored the study. "On first impression, narcissists are successful in finding friends, but over time the pattern is reversed. The less narcissistic you are, the better you are at finding friends. And the reverse pattern is true for emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence doesn't initially help you to be identified as a potential friend, but over months people will appreciate the personality trait and seek out your friendship."
I ask Leifeld about how the study worked in practice. "There's a scale called the narcissistic personality inventory which was developed by scientists in the 1970s. We adapted it for the study, and from asking these different questions we constructed the narcissism measure."
Popularity is more difficult to assess, Leiifeld explains. "We asked the students who would they regard as a friend or a potential friend. Once we had the data on incoming friendship nominations, we applied a statistical model to test which people had more of a certain attribute such as narcissism or emotional intelligence."
Much has been written about the impact of narcissism in our society: From politics to, those with narcissistic leadership traits often achieve considerable professional success. But fewer people have looked at how narcissists fare in informal, social settings.
"In my view," Leifeld says, "the temporal pattern for narcissism and emotional intelligence, and the fact they go in opposite directions over time, is the really interesting finding. It shows us how the dynamics of friendships operate in new groups."
If you feel sorry for the narcissists—friendless and alone, with no one to toast their success at their graduation parties—spare a thought for the real losers in this scenario: Those with low narcissism and low emotional intelligence scores. "Being in the lowest 10 percent of both [scores] at the same time makes you relatively unpopular."
The practical real-world implications of Leifeld's findings? "Here in the UK, semesters have just started and people are constantly searching for the right people to connect with—who's good to study with, who's good to hang out with. For people who are uncertain about who to befriend, the study can provide some guidance: look for specific personality traits."
In other words, if someone appears egotistical, haughty of self-important, they may well be a narcissist. So think carefully when choosing your friends, and never agree to be roommates with someone unless you've sussed out whether they're a narcissist.