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How do you spot a narcissist? Just ask them

New study shows that the 10-second 'Single Item Narcissism Scale' is just as effective at spotting narcissists as a 15-minute, 40 question survey

Narcissism might be the go-to insult for the social media age, but how do we spot real narcissists in the wild? (That’s the one to three per cent of the population that don’t just like taking the odd selfie but are dangerously entitled, dishonest, aggressive and self-obsessed.) Well, it turns out the simplest way is to just ask them.

A new study published in the journal PLOS One claims that when it comes to diagnosing clinical cases of narcissism the fastest method might be to pose the following question: “To what extent do you agree with this statement: I am a narcissist.’ (Note: The word ‘narcissist’ means egotistical, self-focused, and vain.)”

Researchers administered this ten second test to 2,200 volunteers and found that the results were about the same as the traditional method – a venerable 40-question survey known as the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.

(This 15-minute questionnaire – which you can take here if you’re curious – is what’s known as a ‘forced choice’ test where participants have to choose between two contradictory statements to attain a ‘narcissism rank’ from the lowest, zero, up to forty).  

The reason that this new method (dubbed SINS or the Single Item Narcissism Scale) is so effective is that narcissists have such a high opinion of themselves that they’ll happily admit to having a trait that they think makes them great.

Echo and Narcissus painted in 1903 by John William Waterhouse. Narcissus is the beautiful youth who fell in love with his own reflection in Ovid and for whom the disorder is named.

"They think they deserve special treatment and they don’t try to hide that from others,” said Brad Bushman, a co-author on the paper and Ohio State University professor in communication and psychology.

“This is in line with prior research finding that high narcissism scorers (on the NPI) were aware that they were more arrogant, condescending, argumentative, critical, and prone to bragging than low scorers,” wrote the authors.

Bushman and his colleagues found that people who scored themselves highly on SINS test (they could rank themselves between 0 and 7) also tested positively for a whole bunch of traits associated with the disorder including a preference for non-social rewards and a difficulty in empathising with other or sustaining relationships.

The team admit that there are certainly limitations to the single question test but that it could still prove useful for studies in which speed is an issue (those online for example, or large, comprehensive surveys). For the rest of us though, it might provide a handy guide to weaning out the narcissists in our midst. Unless, of course, you already know you are one.