What Causes Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

Written by:Meaghan Rice, PsyD., LPC

Published On: August 17, 2022

Medically reviewed by: Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

Reviewed On: August 17, 2022

Updated On: August 2, 2023


Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a complex mental health condition that’s associated with extreme self-involvement, a need for excessive admiration, and a lack of empathy.

Although we don’t know exactly what causes NPD, experts have studied a number of external factors that are believed to play a role in someone developing this condition.

Read on to learn everything we know about the causes of narcissistic personality disorder, risk factors, and more.

What Research Says

What causes narcissistic personality disorder? The truth is, NPD doesn’t have a confirmed cause, but multiple potential factors have been identified. It’s likely that it’s not just one single thing that causes NPD. Rather, researchers believe that people might develop NPD as the result of a combination of factors. 

“Nobody really knows what causes NPD, but it’s said to be a combination of both nature and nurture. The nature aspect says that someone is born with a predisposition to need more validation, reinforcement, and support. But, when combined with an environment that either provides excessive praise or trauma and/or abuse, the outcome can be quite devastating.”

Doctor of Psychology (PsyD.), Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) Meaghan Rice

4 Possible Causes of Narcissistic Personality Disorder

It’s widely accepted that multiple causes can play a role in whether or not someone develops NPD in their lifetime. The following 4 aspects are considered the most likely contributors.

1. Genetics

Studies suggest that common personality traits linked to NPD—like entitlement and grandiosity—can be inherited. Genetics may also contribute to the type of narcissistic personality disorder someone might develop. Parents with NPD won’t definitely pass these traits on to their children, but their narcissistic personality disorder diagnosis could increase the risk of children developing it.

It’s also likely that some people are genetically predisposed to NPD. While they may not go on to develop narcissistic traits, they might be at increased risk for NPD if they’re exposed to certain risk factors.

2. Parenting

A wide range of parental behaviors have been linked in some studies to narcissistic personality disorder. While some parenting practices, such as neglect, maltreatment, and abuse, are actively harmful, other behaviors may come from parents who actually do have good intentions.

For example, over-protectiveness was shown in some studies to increase the risk for both grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. There’s also a correlation between narcissistic personality disorder and parental overvaluation or leniency. Children who receive disproportionate levels of praise for accomplishments, or who aren’t given boundaries, are more likely to show traits linked with NPD later in life.

Parenting influences children in many ways, but it’s important to note that there’s no single parenting style that can cause NPD. Thus, while certain parenting practices are linked to higher levels of narcissism, it’s clear that parental behaviors aren’t always what causes narcissistic personality disorder.

3. Environmental

The environment that a person grows up in — that is, their culture and upbringing — might also lead to NPD. Maltreatment during childhood appears to potentially increase the risk for NPD in early adulthood. Studies also suggest that narcissistic traits might be more common in individualistic cultures.

Parenting is a big part of a child’s environment, but other childhood experiences can also play a role in the likelihood of someone later developing NPD, too. For example, some people who experience high levels of bullying during childhood might be more likely to show narcissistic traits, particularly if the abuse continued for a long period of time. Excessive criticism from parents can increase the risk for NPD, but it’s been determined that criticism from other authority figures, like teachers, can have a similar effect.

“With a predisposition to need more from caregivers, individuals who suffer from NPD tend to be reared in environments where they’re constantly reinforced for everything (without rules, boundaries, or structure), or traumatized, or abused at an early age and left without the ability to process their environmental deficits.”

Doctor of Psychology (PsyD.), Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) Meaghan Rice

4. Biology

Recent research has identified biological factors that may play a role in the development of NPD. Studies have found that people with NPD have elevated levels of oxidative stress, a molecular imbalance that can strain the body.

Brain scans show that people with NPD have less gray matter in the parts of the brain that are associated with empathy. Neuroscientists have also found a link between NPD and variations in prefrontal brain structure. More research must be done, but in the future, it might be possible to detect narcissistic personality traits just by looking at someone’s brain.

Some researchers believe that appearance or physical attributes might even contribute to NPD. Athletic abilities, physical attractiveness, and strength are all associated with higher levels of narcissism. Appearance is, after all, one of many things that are believed to shape someone’s personality.

Risk Factors of Narcissistic Personality Disorder

There are a range of factors that could potentially increase the risk of NPD. For instance, men are more likely to be diagnosed with NPD than women, suggesting that males might have an increased risk for the mental health condition. While research has linked NPD to certain parenting styles, experiences, and cultures, these factors aren’t consistent across all people with NPD.

Evidence suggests that narcissistic personality disorder doesn’t have a single cause. Instead, it’s likely that NPD is caused by a combination of factors. As an example, someone who’s genetically or biologically predisposed to narcissistic traits may be more likely to develop NPD if they’re also exposed to different risk factors.

Ultimately, even though experts have identified these risk factors, we simply don’t know what causes narcissistic personality disorder. It’s true that some risk factors can be avoided, but there’s no guaranteed way to prevent the condition. That said, despite us not knowing the causes and having a clear understanding that there’s no cure, people with NPD can improve their symptoms through long-term narcissistic personality disorder treatment.

Understanding More About Narcissistic Personality Disorder

It’s not unusual for people to display narcissistic traits from time to time. After all, most of us boast about accomplishments or behave inconsiderately occasionally. However, for people with NPD, narcissism can control every aspect of their life, from their personalities to their interpersonal relationships.

Research suggests that there are probably many additional factors that can contribute to the condition, and it’s likely that we’ll learn more about the condition and narcissistic personality disorder symptoms over time.

The Importance of Treatment

For now, the most important thing to keep in mind is that narcissistic personality disorder treatment is essential. Left untreated, NPD can lead to great life challenges, including difficulties forming healthy relationships, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, anxiety, and disordered eating.

Thankfully, if you or a loved one has NPD, professional care can have a positive impact. Psychotherapy and other treatments help teach people with NPD to manage their condition and correct negative behaviors.

It’s common for people with personality disorders like NPD to avoid treatment. While research shows that people with NPD generally have some awareness of their narcissistic behaviors, they may not believe that anything is wrong with them. Thankfully, with encouragement and support, many people with narcissistic personality disorder can be persuaded to seek treatment that will improve their quality of life. When it comes to treating narcissistic personality disorder, forms of talk therapy for narcissistic personality disorder, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, in conjunction with narcissistic personality disorder medication are considered most effective in treating the condition.

If you’re looking for help or support in dealing with narcissistic personality disorder, Talkspace makes it easy. Our online therapy platform means you can get the help you need at your convenience, from the comfort of wherever you are. Reach out today to learn more about how Talkspace can change your life for the better.

See References

Meaghan Rice, PsyD., LPC

Meaghan Rice is a mental health consultant specializing in professionals who are looking to close the gap between where they are and where they envision themselves being. With a decade of experience in the mental health field, working in a variety of different capacities, Dr. Rice has found her niche amidst the therapist, consultant, and trainer roles.

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