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The Charlie Sheen Debacle: Why Are Narcissists So Charismatic (At First)?

Author: Susan Cain

 The Charlie Sheen Debacle: Why Are Narcissists So Charismatic (At First)?

In today’s post, I’m going to veer away from the usual introversion/extroversion axis, to talk about a different but equally fascinating phenomenon: narcissism.

The latest Charlie Sheen mess (in which the astronomically paid TV actor with a history of domestic violence ranted on syndicated radio against everyone from his boss to Thomas Jefferson) has to make you wonder: why are we so fascinated by narcissistic jerks? Even if a person has acting talent and a nice square jaw, shouldn’t we be able to see through his grandiosity and contempt for others, and automatically find him unworthy of attention?

Here’s one answer, based on a set of studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and reported on by Scott Barry Kaufman in his wonderful blog, Beautiful Minds:

We watch people like Charlie Sheen BECAUSE they are narcissistic, not in spite of it.

The first study asked groups of students to work together in a series of 2.5 hour sessions. By the seventh session, the narcissistic students were rated by their classmates as less agreeable than others, less well-adjusted, less warm, and more arrogant. But in the original meeting, these same students had been rated as MORE agreeable and better adjusted.

This was the Charlie Sheen phenomenon, and just what you’d predict: narcissists are popular at first; only later do they get into trouble interpersonally. Narcissists have high levels of self-importance, grandiosity, and superiority to others; they famously have trouble with long-term relationships.

So then why are they so popular at first? A second study set out to answer this question. This time, 73 college freshmen who had never met each other took turns standing up in front of the room and introducing themselves.  Then they evaluated how likable each speaker was and how much they’d like to get to know the speaker better.

The researchers found, as expected, that the most narcissistic students (those who had scored high on a narcissism questionnaire) tended to be better liked.  Not only that, but the type of narcissism that was most predictive of popularity was the most malignant kind. It turns out that there are many different kinds of narcissism, some of them more benign than others. On the more harmless end of the spectrum are narcissists who seek out leadership roles. On the most corrosive end are those who enjoy manipulating and exploiting people.

It was the manipulators and exploiters who were the most popular upon introducing themselves!

This is very strange when you think about it, but the explanation is pretty straightforward. Narcissistic exploiters tend to have four attractive characteristics that are on blatant display when you first meet them.


  • dress neatly and flashily
  • have charming facial expressions
  • have self-assured body language
  • are verbally witty and find interesting and colorful ways to introduce themselves

In fact, the research suggests that if you meet someone at a cocktail party who has all four of these qualities, s/he is more likely than not to be a narcissistic manipulator!

What on earth are we supposed to do with this information? Kaufman suggests, with his tongue only partly in cheek, that we train ourselves to seek the company of people who have the opposite of these qualities when you first meet them:

“My message to all those who are sick of being duped by narcissists, assholes, chauvinistics, etc. is to change the script entirely. Girls, next time you go to a club, …give the guy a chance who approaches you and isn’t smooth at all but seems like he is genuinely interested in you. Give those a chance who don’t at first display all four super attractive qualities and see if after talking to them for a little while and you’ve given them a chance to open up a bit, if they start to naturally turn on the qualities you are seeking in a potential mate/friend…The appeal of the bad boy, the allure of the narcissist, the attraction of the jerk, etc. etc. is such a re-ocurring theme across humanity that I’m happy to see some real empirical research finally shedding some light on these issues.”

I have another idea. I think that good guys and gals might also consider borrowing a page from the narcissistic playbook. It’s not that hard to dress neatly and flashily, at least some of the time. You can also practice your charming facial expressions in the mirror, and develop self-assured body language (according to the studies, this is partly a matter of standing up straight and standing in a manner that is “dominant” rather than “withdrawn.”)

This all sounds very exhausting. And this time it’s my tongue that’s partly in cheek. But as of this writing, Sheen just broke a world record by accumulating 2 million followers on Twitter over the weekend. And do we really want to cede the playing field to the Charlie Sheens of the world?

How about you?  Are there any pronounced narcissists in your life? How do you recognize them, and how do you deal with them?


  1. Luna on 08.03.2011 at 08:53 (Reply)

    Narcissists are also masters at making people think they are always right. I recently read an article re;Charlie Sheen which is very odd for me because my interest in celebrities and all things Hollywood or celebrity related is less than zero one of his cohorts was defending his behaviour explaining that he was just angry. I would challenge anyone to see if they could get a non narcissist to behave as Charlie Sheen has when they are angry. Healthy individuals with normal egos when angry don’t lash out so violently and explosively. I have dealt with a couple of such people in my life and their ability to manipulate a situation so that everyone around them is catering to their every need is astounding. When relationships blow up in their faces which they often do they know how to do damage control and know how to mimic appropriate behaviour well enough to fool people into coming back into their web until their next blow up which is absolutely assured simply because they can’t help themselves. When things don’t go their way they explode. They believe in their hearts though the blow up was the fault of the other party who deserved it. Things you will never hear them say I was wrong, I am sorry and it was my fault. If they do say it they really don’t mean it, they can’t because they simply lack empathy. They can act sympathetic but true empathy is not the same thing. The only way to deal with one of these people is to accept that they see the world relationally. Everything is about them, they believe you are the one with the problem but don’t get sucked into that, never but never get into an argument with them. Decide on your level of interaction with them. Also never take what they say for face value, they are not lying. They honestly see things as they are telling them, they just see things from a very different perspective than most and above all for your own sanity don’t judge them it just makes you angry and ugly inside. You also have to accept that the narcissistic person in your life will always think you have done them wrong no matter how much you have done for them so you just have to teach yourself to not worry about it. If you don’t have to have them in your life do not if it is a parent or other family member so you think you have to remind yourself that the problem is not yours and they will just move on to someone else if they can’t get what they want from you.

    1. Susan Cain on 08.03.2011 at 22:25 (Reply)

      Wow you just packed a lot of incredible advice into one comment, Luna! Have you ever read Judith Orloff’s stuff? I suspect you’d like it.

  2. Jeff on 08.03.2011 at 09:07 (Reply)

    Are there any pronounced narcissists in your life?

    These days, everyone has pronounced narcissists in their lives. Sadly, the world and especially this country (USA) are filled with them. It’s like there’s a narcissism industrial complex pumping them out.

    A very sad state of affairs.

  3. Catherine on 08.03.2011 at 11:36 (Reply)

    For whatever reason, this article took me right back to college-specifically the “rush” for sororities. Ugh…not the best memories for me. I went into the whole process completely naive. I entered the whole process assuming that I wouldn’t get bids to the most popular sororities, but wouldn’t have trouble getting into one of the middle-tier ones either (ew… what does that even mean?). I was pretty popular in high school, not in the Hollywood movie way, but in the sense that I had lots of friends and people genuinely liked me (I was lucky in that I went to a very non-cliquey high school). But nope, I was cut in the first round by most of the houses. It was such a blow to my ego, I ended up dropping out.

    Anyway, the point is not lack of first impression skills. I was actually reminded of rush because of one of the girls I entered the process with. She also went to my high school, and we traveled in the same circles. We were friends, and brought closer by going to the same university. But I remember when I first met her in 9th grade, I just thought she was the most wonderful person in the world. Being around her was invigorating. She was so fun and interesting and charming. While we did stay friends, that halo that surrounded her definitely faded. I quickly realized that she wasn’t the most dependable friend, could be flakey, and it was often just plain draining to be around her. Fast forward to rush-> Of course, she was courted by all the most popular sororities. I remember thinking, “Why is she so much more popular than me??” and finally realizing that she’s just one of those people that makes an incredible first impression. And not surprisingly, she couldn’t keep it up. I noticed that within a year she was kind of on the outskirts of her chosen sorority.

    To be clear, this girl was no Charlie Sheen. While I do suspect she must have some level of narcissism, I wouldn’t accuse her of being on the exploiter/manipulator side of the spectrum.

    I just realized how obnoxiously long this comment is. Sorry for blathering on so much about my own aha moment. :) I will say that I like your advice-even if it is tongue in cheek-about practicing some narcissistic skills. I’d like people to recognize my value more readily; can’t hurt to make it easier for them.

    1. Susan Cain on 08.03.2011 at 22:24 (Reply)

      Never apologize for long comments! I love to hear stories like yours and I bet other readers do too.

      I wonder what became of your friend later in life.

  4. Luna on 09.03.2011 at 10:35 (Reply)

    Sorry dispensing advice is really annoying I know! But regrettably these toxic people are so hard to spot until you have enmeshed yourself in their lives and then when you try to extricate yourself from them they make you feel like you are the nut job hurting them. When they are angry the damage they inflict is sometimes unreal. I also think too many self-centered people who just need a good kick in the pants are labelled narcissistic. The term gets thrown around all the time. As you observed it is an actual personality disorder as opposed to spoiled bratism. So the true narcissist slips under the wire. It is hard to tell which is which unless you have really dealt with a true blue one. With the term being used so randomly it easy for them to shrug off people flagging their inappropriate behaviour and those who have not had one in their life do not understand how destructive a force they are. And no but I will google Judith Orloff.

  5. Mary on 10.03.2011 at 10:20 (Reply)

    I recently divorced a narcissist after 20 years of dysfunctional marriage.

  6. Kim on 14.03.2011 at 19:14 (Reply)

    The book, Malignant Self Love, exposed the narcissists in my life and helped me to understand the role I played as an inverted narcissist. It was painful to learn that I was manipulated like a puppet on a string, but it shattered my unhealthy approach towards relationships with narcissists!

  7. Vallin on 15.04.2011 at 08:52 (Reply)

    The Narcissist in my life: “I’m talkin’ ’bout the man in the mir-ror…” But I’m a nice narcissist!

  8. John M. on 27.06.2011 at 16:17 (Reply)

    I just came up with the perfect definition of a narcissist:

    Whereas a friend is someone you like more and more the better you get to know

    A narcissist is someone you like less and less the better you get to know them

    What do you think?

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1. There’s a word for “people who are in their heads too much”: thinkers.

2. Our culture rightly admires risk-takers, but we need our “heed-takers” more than ever.

3. Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.

4. Texting is popular because in an overly extroverted society, everyone craves asynchronyous, non-F2F communication.

5. We teach kids in group classrooms not because this is the best way to learn but because it’s cost-efficient, and what else would we do with the children while all the grown-ups are at work? If your child prefers to work autonomously and socialize one-on-one, there’s nothing wrong with her; she just happens not to fit the model.

6. The next generation of quiet kids can and should be raised to know their own strength.

7. Sometimes it helps to be a pretend-extrovert. There’s always time to be quiet later.

8. But in the long run, staying true to your temperament is the key to finding work you love and work that matters.

9. Everyone shines, given the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight, for others, a lamplit desk.

10. Rule of thumb for networking events: one genuine new relationship is worth a fistful of business cards.

11. It’s OK to cross the street to avoid making small talk.

12. “Quiet leadership” is not an oxymoron.

13. The universal longing for heaven is not about immortality so much as the wish for a world in which everyone is always kind.

14. If the task of the first half of life is to put yourself out there, the task of the second half is to make sense of where you’ve been.

15. Love is essential, gregariousness is optional.

16.“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” – Gandhi