The Smarter Path: How Intelligent Narcissists Gain Status

Intelligent and accomplished narcissists seem to gain status and recognition differently than those lacking smarts and success. While classic narcissistic behaviors like arrogance, entitlement, and haughtiness persist, recent research reveals smarter narcissists are less likely to tear others down to promote themselves. How does their intellectual capacity shape their status-seeking strategies?

Psychologists break narcissistic status-seeking down into two main approaches: admiration and rivalry.

The admiration strategy centers on self-promotion – exaggerating accomplishments, showing off knowledge, taking credit, and demanding respect. It’s centered on elevating the self.

Rivalry, in contrast, focuses on devaluing others through criticism, insults, undermining competitors, and aggressive reactions to perceived threats.

Newly published research suggests a narcissist’s intelligence level determines how much they rely on the self-focused admiration strategy versus attacking rivals. The smarter narcissists stick more to enhancing themselves, while less intelligent ones default to cutting others down. It highlights how intellectual capabilities fundamentally shift how status is sought.

Let’s examine why higher intelligence promotes self-enhancement over devaluation in narcissists and what this means for understanding narcissism.

Narcissistic Admiration vs. Rivalry

To understand the link between intelligence and status-seeking in narcissists, it’s important to first grasp the two main strategies narcissists employ:

Narcissistic Admiration: This approach centers on promoting the self through charm, boasting, taking credit, and playing up confidence and elite qualifications. The goal is to make the self look outstanding.

Narcissistic Rivalry: This strategy seeks to undermine rivals through criticism, spreading rumors, socially excluding others, and getting aggressive when status is challenged. Tearing others down is the focus.

In a nutshell, admiration is about inflating the self, while rivalry is about deflating competitors. Smarter narcissists tend to stick to the self-focused admiration tactics.

Why Intelligence Changes Narcissists’ Status-Seeking

Three key factors lead more intelligent narcissists to favor admiration over rivalry as a status strategy:

  • They’re more accomplished and successful.
  • They’re aware of the social consequences of rivalry.
  • Their intellect helps them strategically mimic socially desirable behaviors.

Essentially, smarter narcissists have achieved greater legitimate success, understand aggressive rivalry will backfire, and can disguise their self-absorption more easily.

Their accomplishments mean they may not feel as threatened by rivals. They don’t need to resort to cutting others down to inflate their self-view. And they rely on their measurable success for status and praise.

The Study on Intelligence and Narcissistic Strategies

A 2023 study published in Personality and Individual Differences directly analyzed how intelligence correlates with narcissistic admiration versus rivalry1. Here’s a brief overview:

  • 422 participants completed narcissism measures and intelligence tests.
  • Results showed higher IQ scores were associated with less rivalry and more admiration behaviors.
  • The drop-off in rivalry occurred around IQ levels of 115-120 (higher than average intelligence).
  • Narcissistic admiration and rivalry were still positively correlated overall.

The findings confirm that genuine intellectual ability reduces the tendency of narcissists to tear others down to gain status. Their intelligence allows for more self-promotion.

Examples of Intelligent Narcissists

Many highly successful celebrities exhibit narcissistic traits but rely primarily on self-promotion rather than attacking peers:

  • Kanye West plays up his genius, but rarely directly insults other artists.
  • Elon Musk boasts about his companies more than criticizing competitors.
  • Influencers on social media focus on showing off desirability rather than taking down rivals.

Likewise, politically ambitious narcissists with high IQs use their intellect to charm voters rather than demean opponents. They do still make calculating moves behind the scenes but avoid public rivalry behaviors that would backfire.

Even if not overtly attacking others, their self-focus and manipulation should not be confused with selflessness or compassion. Their smarter status-seeking is still in service of their ego.


New insights reveal narcissists with higher intelligence are less likely to tear down their rivals to gain status. Their intellectual capabilities allow them to recognize that boosting themselves is more effective than public deprecation of competitors.

However, their self-absorption and underlying motivations remain unchanged. Understanding these nuances allows us to see how narcissism manifests in those gifted with greater cognitive resources.

  1. Gignac, Gilles E., and Marcin Zajenkowski. “Intelligent grandiose narcissists are less likely to exhibit narcissistic rivalry.” Personality and Individual Differences 209 (2023): 112212. ↩︎

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