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Grandiosity as Cognitive Bias (Kruger-Dunning Effect)

Uploaded 8/21/2016, approx. 7 minute read

My name is Sam Vaknin, and I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited.

Grandiosity is often considered to be a kind of primordial force, a little like magma within a volcano, something that is a force of nature, out of control, out of anyone's control, including the narcissist. It's kind of a driving impetus, kind of the fuel in the narcissist's engine.

But reality might be, and usually is, much more nuanced. What is grandiosity?

Grandiosity is an inflated self-image. It is a divorce between reality and self-perception, and this, a gulf between the narcissist, real life, real accomplishments, real talents, real skills, real everything, and his perception of his accomplishments, talents, skills and everything else. This gulf, this abyss between reality and fantasy, provides us with a clue as to the nature of grandiosity.

In my view, grandiosity is not a primary force, but it is kind of a derivative phenomenon. It can be conceived as a set, a group of cognitive biases constructed on a foundation or an edifice of cognitive deficits. And these cognitive deficits emanate from a profoundly flawed reality test. That's a very fancy way of saying that the narcissist simply perceives reality wrongly. He doesn't have the tools to interpret properly events, situations, circumstances, social cues, body language, communicated messages from other people, and so on and so forth. Obviously, he lacks empathy, which makes it impossible for him to put himself in other people's shoes and to anticipate their reactions, their needs, hopes, fears, priorities, and preferences.

The narcissist, as I have repeatedly kept saying, is an alien. He is an extraterrestrial in the most profound sense of the word. He is a piece of artificial intelligence. He looks human, he acts human, he has emotional resonance tables that allow him to imitate empathy and to imitate emotions, and to behave as though he is one of us, or one of you. But he is not. His reality test is flawed.

Constantly, his cognition, his thought processes are defective. They are deficient, cognitive deficits, and this creates, in turn, cognitive biases, misinterpretation, or misperception of information about himself and about others.


Consider, for example, omniscience, the narcissist's tendency to believe that he knows everything, that he is a genius, that there is nothing beyond his remit and his ability to grasp and to analyze properly.

He considered himself the authority, not an authority, but the authority, and not on a single subject, but on every conceivable subject, and many inconceivable subjects.

The narcissist is considering himself godlike, endowed with total knowledge, unlimited information, big data kind of thing. So what is omniscience? What does it rely on?

Well, it relies on a cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a kind of bias where people overestimate themselves and sometimes overestimate others.

Consider a dumb person, stupid person. Dunning effect simply means that dumb people, stupid people, are too dumb and too stupid to realize that they are dumb and stupid. I repeat, dumb people, stupid people, are too dumb and stupid to realize that they are dumb and stupid.

Consequently, they do not consider themselves dumb and stupid. They consider themselves intelligent and analytical. They consider themselves well informed, knowledgeable. They consider themselves sometimes geniuses.

But in reality, they are dumb and stupid. They just don't know it. Not only they don't know it, they are incapable in principle of knowing it.

And this is the cognitive bias. Narcissists are deluded about the true level of their abilities, knowledge and skills.

But they tend to sustain this delusion also by devaluing and underestimating others.

So they have classic Dunning-Kruger where they overestimate themselves and are not capable of self-awareness. That is classic Dunning-Kruger.

Plus, they devalue and underestimate other people, which makes them superior by comparison. So they feel absolutely superior and also superior by comparison.

And again, the example of omniscient, the all-knowing narcissist. The narcissist often pretends to know everything in every field of human knowledge and the endeavor.

The narcissist lies and prevaricates to avoid the exposure of his ignorance. He is not adverse to confabulations and outright lies.

Narcissist resorts to numerous subterfuges to support his god-like omniscience.

Where the narcissist's knowledge fails him, which happens very often because he doesn't know much usually, the narcissist faints, fakes authority, superiority. He quotes from non-existent sources. He embeds friends of truth in a canvas of falsehoods. He transforms himself into an artist of intellectual trusty digitization. Slate of hand. Slate of hand.

This is the core innocence of narcissism.

Here you see me, here you don't.

As the narcissist gets older, this invidious quality may recede or rather metamorphose. He may now claim more confined expertise or more refined expertise. He becomes more mellow in his claims, more realistic. He may no longer be ashamed to admit his ignorance and his need to learn things outside the fields of his real or self-imputed self-proclaimed expertise. It's all true. As he grows older, he grows mellower.

The condition ameliorates when it comes to omniscience.

But this apparent improvement is really an optical illusion because within his territory, the narcissist is still as fiercely defensive and as possessive as ever.

So many narcissists, for example, are avowed autodidants, self-taught. They are unwilling to subject their knowledge and insights to peer scrutiny or for that matter to any scrutiny.

The narcissist keeps reinventing himself. He keeps adding new fields of knowledge as he goes alone.

This creaking intellectual annexation is a roundabout way of reverting to his erstwhile image as the erudite renaissance man.

So let me explain.

As the narcissist grows older, he is willing to admit that there are some fields in which he is not an expert.

But as he excludes these fields in which he admits that he is not an expert, he adds double the number of other fields in which he claims to be an expert.

So he gives away or gives out one of these areas of knowledge and he adds another five.

And he also becomes more fiercely protective of his claim that he is a genius expert, renaissance man, jack of all trades, in the fields that he has annexed, in the fields that he has declared himself to be an expert in.

So in his youth, he might claim to be an expert of everything. In old age, he might claim to be an expert of only two or three hundred fields of human knowledge, but he will be much more fiercely protective of this claim.

He will insist that he is knowledgeable. The narcissist believes that he does not need to refer to reality as the lost arbiter. He only has to tap his own superior innate intelligence in order to derive universally applicable and invariable rules.

The narcissist doesn't believe that he has to observe reality, measure reality, conduct experiments. He believes that all he has to do is use his superior super genius intellect to understand the world. All knowledge is innate inside him. He just has to access it.

As opposed to other people who believe that they have to refer to reality to gain, to derive and to extract real knowledge.

Regardless of the paucity of his own experience and knowledge, the narcissist wants himself to be a supreme authority on almost every issue and topic.

Indeed, the narcissist is emotionally invested, he is a text, he is emotionally invested in his self-imputed omniscience and in his infallibility. He regards any challenge to these as narcissistic injury, which threatens to undermine the very foundations of his precariously balanced personality.

Challenge the narcissist, disagree with him, criticize him, demand to know his credentials, look into his claims and you become the enemy, he rages and is out to devalue and if possible exterminate, eliminate you and everyone around you and everyone who supports you.

Black and white, splitting, you are with me or against me, you are against me, you are gone, you are dead, you are with me, you are also gone and dead, but at least you have become a part of me.

Omniscience, one of the types of grandiosity which most clearly exemplifies, demonstrates the fact that grandiosity is a cognitive deficit based on a lack of proper understanding and grasp of reality, which generates a cognitive bias.

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Narcissist's Shame and Guilt

The grandiosity gap is the difference between self-image and reality, causing feelings of guilt and shame in narcissists. Narcissistic shame is the pervasive feeling of worthlessness experienced by the narcissist due to the absence or deficiency of narcissistic supply. The narcissist adopts primitive psychological defense mechanisms to counter this shame, such as addictive or impulsive behaviors. Guilt is an objectively determinable philosophical entity, while shame is the outcome of avoidable outcomes.


Narcissist: Your Pain is his Healing, Your Crucifixion - His Resurrection

Narcissists need their victims to suffer to regulate their own emotions and feel a sense of control. They keep a mental ledger of positive and negative behaviors, with negative behaviors weighing more heavily. Narcissists need counterfactual statements to maintain their delusion of being special and superior. The grandiosity gap is the major vulnerability of the narcissist, and they are often in denial about their limitations and failures.


Narcissist's Psychological Defense Mechanisms

The psyche is a battlefield between instinctual urges and drives, the id, the constraints imposed by reality on the gratification of his impulses, ego, and the norms of society, the superego. Narcissism is a defense mechanism, and narcissists have a monopoly of other defense mechanisms. There are dozens of defense mechanisms, including acting out, denial, devaluation, displacement, dissociation, fantasy, idealization, isolation of affect, omnipotence, projection, projective identification, rationalization, cognitive dissonance, reaction formation, repression, splitting, sublimation, and undoing. All these defense mechanisms operate within the narcissist.


Narcissist's False Self vs. True Self: Soul-snatching

The narcissist's life is a spectacle, with free access to all, constantly on display. The narcissist flaunts a false self to solicit narcissistic supply, attention, and admiration from his audience. The false self is an adaptive reaction to pathological circumstances, but its dynamics make it predominate. The false self is far more important to the narcissist than his dilapidated, dysfunctional, shameful true self.


Narcissist: Confabulations, Lies

Confabulation is a common human trait, but the distinction between reality and fantasy is never lost. However, the narcissist's very self is a piece of fiction, concocted to fend off hurt and pain and to nurture the narcissist's grandiosity. The narcissist fails in his reality test and is unable to distinguish the actual from the imagined, the real from the fantasized. The narcissist's countenance, no disagreement, no alternative points of view, no criticism. To him, his confabulation is reality.


Old-age Narcissist

Narcissists age without grace, unable to accept their fallibility and mortality. They suffer from mental progeria, aging prematurely and finding themselves in a time warp. The longer they live, the more average they become, and the wider the gulf between their pretensions and accomplishments. Few narcissists save for rainy days, and those who succeed in their vocation end up bitterly alone, having squandered the love of family, offspring, and mates.


Narcissists: Achievers and Failures

Narcissists are either compulsively driven overachievers or chronic underachieving wastrels. The disparity between the accomplishments of the narcissist and his grandiose fantasies and inflated self-image is what is called the grandiosity gap. It is a staggering abyss and in the long run, it is insupportable and unsustainable. The narcissist's false self is so unrealistic and his expectations of himself are so way out there, his superego is so sadistic, these inner voices that criticize him, that there is nothing the narcissist can do to extricate himself from the Kafkaesque trial that is his life.


Narcissistic Grandiosity Bubbles

Grandiosity bubbles are a rare event in the life of a narcissist. They involve the creation of an imagined, self-aggrandizing narrative that the narcissist weaves around elements of his real life. The narcissist modifies his behavior to conform to the newly adopted roles and gradually morphs into the fabricated character he has created. The deflation of a grandiosity bubble is met with relief by the narcissist, who views it as an experiment at being someone else for a while.


Shame, Guilt, Codependents, Narcissists, and Normal Folks

Shame motivates normal people and those suffering from cluster B personality disorders, but it motivates them differently. Shame constitutes a threat to normal people's true self, and it constitutes a threat to the false self of narcissism. There are two varieties of shame when we talk about narcissists in effect. There is narcissistic shame, which is the narcissist's experience of the grandiosity gap and its affective correlate. The greater the conflict between grandiosity and reality, the bigger the gap and the greater the narcissist's feelings of shame and guilt.

Transcripts Copyright © Sam Vaknin 2010-2024, under license to William DeGraaf
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