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A Note About Narcissism
and Genetics
Copyright © 2009 by Richard A. Grossman, Ph.D.  ·  All Rights reserved  ·  E-Mail: ragrossman@voicelessness.com
Genetics significantly influences personality.  In fact, genetic factors account for 50% of the variation in many personality traits.  Where the other 50% comes from is uncertain, and at this moment, contentiously debated.  (You may be familiar with the controversial book by Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, that suggests that parents matter little except in providing the right peer group and helping kids fit into this group.)

The only study I am aware of that examined genetics and narcissism suggested that 64% of the variation was accounted for by genetics (Livesley WJ, Jang KL, Jackson DN and Vernon PA, Am J Psychiatry 1993 150(12):1826-1831).  Of course, studies using other measures of narcissism are necessary in order to confirm or modify this figure.   Nevertheless, narcissism and narcissistic responses to stress and trauma likely have significant genetic bases.

Does this mean people with a particular genetic makeup are doomed to be narcissistic?   Clearly the answer is no.  Something else is at play—otherwise 100% of the trait variation would be accounted for by genetics.   Perhaps, a predisposition towards narcissism is in place from birth, but a trigger or particular kind of environment is needed to set the disorder in motion. Alternatively, a positive environment may prevent narcissism from taking hold in those who are predisposed.  In either case, it is my belief that “voice,” (the sense of interpersonal agency that develops in childhood) and voicelessness are important influences.  If our children experience voicelessness during childhood, the risk of narcissism (for those predisposed), depression, and anxiety rise commensurately later in life.   However, if we can find a way to give our children “voice” and the implicit respect that goes with it, we can lessen the chance of a generalized narcissistic response to people and the world at large.

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