A new study may explain what motivates the ‘self-focused nature of social media’ – and people who constantly post selfies on Instagram.

From surveys of nearly 300 people, US psychologists found that narcissistic behaviour is linked to what they call ‘vulnerable narcissism’.

Vulnerable narcissism can manifest itself as self-promoting behaviours – such as constant selfies – but is due to low self-esteem and extreme sensitivity to criticism, the researchers say.

According to the experts, from New York University, narcissism is ‘not self-love’ driven by an inflated sense of one’s self, but ‘self-loathing in disguise’.

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Narcissism has been ‘fundamentally misunderstood’, they claim.

‘For a long time, it was unclear why narcissists engage in unpleasant behaviours, such as self-congratulation, as it actually makes others think less of them,’ said study author Professor Pascal Wallisch at New York University’s Department of Psychology.

‘This has become quite prevalent in the age of social media – a behaviour that’s been coined “flexing”.

‘Our work reveals that these narcissists are not grandiose, but rather insecure, and this is how they seem to cope with their insecurities.’

People with narcissism can suffer from narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) – a condition where people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a need for excessive attention and admiration and a tell tale lack of empathy for others.

The researchers say ‘narcissism’ can be split into two subtypes – ‘grandiose’ narcissism and ‘vulnerable’ narcissism.

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These two subtypes essentially explain the emotional and mental processes that are driving behaviours seen as narcissistic.

The researchers say: ‘Vulnerable narcissism [is] characterised by low self-esteem, anxiety about attachments and extreme sensitivity to criticism.

‘Vulnerable narcissism is associated with low self-esteem, life-satisfaction, and interdependent self-construct.

‘Grandiose narcissism… manifests as high self-esteem, self-aggrandisement and self-importance.

‘[It’s] associated with high self-esteem and life-satisfaction and an independent self-construction.

Another related affliction, psychopathy, is also characterised by a grandiose sense of self.

An individual with psychopathy displays ‘amoral and antisocial behaviour’ and ‘a lack of ability to love or establish meaningful personal relationships’, according to a 2017 paper.

‘Grandiose narcissism seems to resemble psychopathy in many respects,’ the NYU team say.

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The psychologists sought to refine the understanding of how these conditions relate, by creating a ‘performative self-elevation index’ (FLEX) that captures ‘genuinely narcissistic behaviour’.

For the purposes of this study, FLEX can be seen as essentially a proxy of how likely one is to post lots of selfies on social media.

For the study, researchers used data from 270 participants – 60 per cent female and 40 percent male, and with an average age of 20– who were recruited for a survey.

FLEX, as well as the two types of narcissism and psychopathy, were calculated for each participant, based on their rankings of how true or false a series of statements were.

FLEX was shown to be made up of four components – impression management (‘I am likely to show off if I get the chance’), the need for social validation (‘It matters that I am seen at important events”), self-elevation (‘I have exquisite taste’), and social dominance (‘I like knowing more than other people’).

Overall, the results showed high correlations between FLEX and narcissism – but not with psychopathy.

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For example, the need for social validation (a FLEX metric) correlated with the reported tendency to engage in performative self-elevation (a characteristic of vulnerable narcissism).

By contrast, measures of psychopathy, such as elevated levels of self-esteem, didn’t really correlate with vulnerable narcissism, implying a lack of insecurity.

These findings suggest that genuine narcissists are insecure and are best described by the vulnerable narcissism subtype.

Whereas grandiose narcissism might be better understood as a manifestation of psychopathy.

‘The results suggest that narcissism is better understood as a compensatory adaptation to overcome and cover up low self-worth,’ said study author Mary Kowalchyk, formerly an NYU graduate student and now at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

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‘Narcissists are insecure, and they cope with these insecurities by flexing.

‘This makes others like them less in the long run, thus further aggravating their insecurities, which then leads to a vicious cycle of flexing behaviours.’

The study has been published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.