UGA researchers found a strong connection between pathological narcissism and sexual assault perpetration in a recently published study.
The survey of 234 male university students, mostly in their first and second years of college, found that almost 20 percent of college men have committed some kind of sexual assault, and 4 percent have committed rape. The study was published in the journal Violence Against Women.
People who demonstrate characteristics of pathological narcissism have difficulties when it comes to relating to others, said the study’s lead author Emily Mouilso, a clinical assistant professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences’ psychology department.
Non-pathological narcissism, on the other hand, can be somewhat beneficial because it manifests in high self-esteem and makes it easier for people to shake off failures, study co-author Karen Calhoun said, explaining that it’s what some researchers call the “healthy” form of narcissism.
“As we predicted, the aspects of narcissism that we thought would be related were (related)—the lack of empathy, the entitlement aspects of narcissism,” Mouilso said.
What surprised them was the link between vulnerable narcissism and rape perpetration.
Vulnerable narcissists express high levels of self-esteem but are actually very insecure, Mouilso said.
The study found that men with vulnerable narcissistic traits were more likely to use alcohol or other date-rape drugs to incapacitate their victims.
Calhoun, a professor emerita in the psychology department, said that finding is especially concerning given the prevalence of drinking on college campuses.
In the field, there are two generally accepted pathways that lead to rape perpetration: promiscuity and hostile masculinity.
Mouilso explained that people can be high or low on factors in both of those tracks, but if a person has both of them together, it makes that person much more likely to perpetrate a sexual assault.
Narcissists feel a sense of entitlement to anything they want, something that makes it easier for them to rationalize their aggressive and sometimes illegal behaviors, Mouilso said.
Many previous studies have used incarcerated sex offenders as their sample pool, which makes it more difficult to generalize results to other populations. Mouilso and Calhoun’s sample of college men is fairly representative of large Southeastern university male populations.
Often the view of college men tends to be an old-fashioned, “boys will be boys” attitude when it comes to acts of sexual aggression, Mouilso said.
“I just don’t think that that’s accurate,” Mouilso said, “so this research helps to shed light on some of the commonalities in the personality profile between men who end up in prison and men who are walking around because they haven’t been caught.”
The idea that most sexual assault perpetrators are strangers who grab women in dark alleyways isn’t accurate, Mouilso said.
“It’s less likely to be a stranger who jumps out of the bush,” she said. “It’s more likely to be someone you know like the guy sitting next to you in your intro psych class.”