Is a cheater a narcissist

The Relotius case: the psychology of impostors and vulnerable narcissists

Are you a con man? If you say no now, you are not being honest. We all lie, all the time. Lies are part of life, and quite a few fall into the category of imposture. But are lies and impostures part of the job? And what characterizes the notorious lie, the constant piling up?

What fascinates me most about the Claas Relotius case is the question of why. Why does this young, friendly talent, popular in the editorial staff of SPIEGEL and beyond, need to forge stories? Why did he evidently cheat readers and collect donations on his private account? Why didn't anyone notice any of this? Or rather, why did no one follow the clues?

I want to think about psychological answers here. I just think this case says more about how systems and human brains work than about the reporter. What happened happened because of an interaction between the psychology of individuals, the psychology of journalism, and the psychology of a film-seeking society that each of us represents. Nothing of it is separable from the other. And that's why we're all a little bit Relotius, Felix Krulls of the modern age.

Truth is a liar's invention

Relotius perfected the art of deconstructing experiences in favor of a good, film-ready story. So he made conscious what the brain is constantly doing unconsciously: It reinterprets situations and enriches them with fantasy - without realizing that it is fantasy. This is normal, the memory researcher Elisabeth Loftus has become famous for her studies. Today, among others, Julia Shaw researches the truth that does not exist in our heads and which Heinz von Förster brought into the realm of myths with "Truth is the invention of a liar". As a coach, I would say: Any truth is allowed as long as it serves people. This is the principle of narrative coaching: When I tell my past anew, it is more important that I can connect with it emotionally than that it is true. Sometimes it's just the new "framing" that turns you into a hero where you previously saw yourself victim as victim or loser. But journalists, that is their profession, are not allowed to work like this, otherwise they will be in the wrong job. They are not storytellers.

The need for approval and the short path to narcissism

Decisive for the judgment (and also the condemnation) is the motive from which one does something. Relotius (de) constructed out of a fear of failure, so one reads. So he claims what may or may not be true. The psychological view of a possible motive structure underlying such behavior suggests a strong need for recognition by others and status. With a need for external recognition, self-confidence is fed by the response of the peer group to which one wants to belong. One strives for admiration. You want to be better and you are skillful enough to know that in certain circles that is best achieved through a credible humility show.

Narcissistic self-love and narcissism through to narcissistic personality disorder are then not far, limits are only artificially set by the American standard DSM-V, the ICD-10 only knows narcissism under other personality disorders. Those in need of recognition and narcissists alternate in their inner position between megalomania and self-insecurity. So you are safe and unsafe at the same time. Because of the strong criminal energy in this case, the thought of vulnerable narcissism occurs to me. This differs fundamentally from the grandiose narcissist in terms of external impact. The latter can be recognized by the fact that he stumbles around and doesn't listen, and rarely makes eye contact. The vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, look friendly, listen and look for harmonious relationships. You look charming, maybe even incredibly amiable.

Narcissists recognize 1: criticism is poison

What the narcissist - whether the grandiose or the vulnerable - can tolerate least is criticism. The vulnerable narcissist avoids it completely, through perfectionism that does not allow mistakes. The best way to recognize him is by dealing with criticism, knowing full well that a certain art of acting belongs to the picture. After criticism, the vulnerable narcissist will defend himself, but rather not go into himself, but rather update his own arts in order to be successful again. While the grandiose narcissist carelessly pushes criticism aside and does not even listen, the doubts of others gnaw at him and want to be eliminated immediately and by all means.

His proven willingness to perform makes the narcissist an insecure overachiever (here blog post) and thus a favorite in performance-oriented environments. He is happy to adapt to what is required, for example the criteria of the reporter prize juries. He watches exactly what he has to do in order to be successful. He does not redesign systems, but exploits them.

If you are dealing with very charming, very charismatic and extremely friendly people, observe how they deal with (justified) criticism and failures. Observe the facial expressions, gestures, the answers and especially the behavior afterwards. How deep does someone go into self-reflection? A narcissist knows no depth, he does not reflect on himself. The statement by Relotius that he is sick and is now looking for help (read in the ZEIT) is therefore not really to be classified. It could be real self-reflection, but also a defense mechanism and show.

A real narcissist, i.e. someone with a narcissistic personality disorder (defined according to DSM V) would rather not seek help. Or ensnare the psychologist and “pretend”. A real narcissist smiles when he can trick the therapist. But of course only to his buddies or secretly and for himself.

Narcissists recognize 2: They need charging points

The narcissistic motive is the desire to compensate for the inner emptiness. Narcissists do not have a core of their own, they are filled by others. That's why you charge yourself with others like at a charging station. Without this station they are nothing. This is how you recognize narcissists at ahe lacking his own demeanor. They don't have any principles to orientate themselves by. As intellectual as they are and act, their moral development (according to Kohlberg, see table, from “Mindshift, published 3/2019 on Campus) is at a low level. You are closest to yourself - this is the ego mode in the ego development model, which I have uploaded a video of here. For them, others are an object, not a subject. Chances are they have other dark sides too. Scientists around Prof. Dr. Morten Moshagen recently determined a so-called D-factor (d for dark) and showed that problematic personality traits always correlate strongly with one another. The center of the dark personality is always an oversized egoism. Here you can determine your own dark factor.

From narcissism to imposture

It is a short way from narcissistic motive to imposture. Those who thirst for admiration and are also underdeveloped in their moral development do not lie out of necessity or to hurt others, but for their own benefit. This can certainly be associated with fear of failure. Lies and lies are therefore to be distinguished primarily by the underlying motives. Our legal system also makes use of this principle. Murder for base motives is different from manslaughter in affect. I remember the case of a woman who forged her grade school certificate because the only way she could get a job cleaning the house to support her family. This differs from the little educated citizen who forges his diploma in order to get a place at university. Moral development moderates narcissism and keeps it in check. That's why you have to encourage them.

It is not far from vulnerable narcissism to impostor syndrome, also known as impostor syndrome. "Impostor syndrome are strikingly similar to the behaviors of those who score high on a particularly paradoxical flavor of narcissism: vulnerable narcissism", writes the blog "Scientific American" in this post. The syndrome correlates with vulnerable narcissism with r = .72. I've translated the scale from the linked post here so that you can check out for yourself.

Test your impersonation tendency

  • Sometimes I fear that I will be discovered for who I really am.
  • I tend to feel like a fake.
  • I am afraid that people important to me will find out that I am not as capable as they think I am.
  • Sometimes I fear that others might find out how much knowledge or skills I really lack.
  • In some situations I feel like a great deceiver; that means that I don't feel as real as the others think I do.

While grandiose narcissism tends to affect extroverted personalities, the vulnerable is more specific for introverts. The findings for impostor syndrome are accordingly: “Impostor feelings are shown to be associated with such characteristics as introversion, trait anxiety, a need to look smart to others, a propensity to shame, and a conflictual and nonsupportive family background” the authors Langford, Joe, Clance, Pauline Rosein a 2017 study of the syndrome.

Above-average motivation is often associated with an above-average need for recognition

The impostor syndrome predominantly affects particularly high-performing people. The reason for this is that an above-average will to perform is often associated with an above-average need for recognition. Therefore, neither narcissism nor the impostor syndrome should be demonized: our economy benefits significantly from these people. Yes, I suspect that without these people the systems would no longer work like this.

The impostor syndrome is also specific for people who have an external attribution style, i.e. who attribute their performance more to the circumstances and less to their own intelligence or performance. This is more characteristic of women than men. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes first described the impostor phenomenon in 1978 - based on their observations in groups of women who minimized their own performance even though they were exceptionally successful.

People who achieve above average always deviate from the social norm. They are more intelligent and / or have above-average needs and motives as well as properties. Often, or perhaps always, this has to do with overcompensation. We as a society benefit from the “madness” of others, which we define ourselves. Anyone who indulges in things beyond measure is never completely normal.

Curiosity is the healthier driver

There are two main drivers for above-average performance: The search for recognition and curiosity. The search for recognition is dangerous. Anyone who strives exclusively for recognition by others submits to their criteria. Relotius was showered with awards for its film reports. But a report is not a film - and the truth is often less dramatic than the human brain, which is shaped more by emotions than reason. Which is why I've always been of the opinion that journalism cannot be commercial, but has an educational mandate.

The other big driver is curiosity. Curiosity, as shown by the genius Albert Einstein among others, is probably the healthier driver for people themselves and probably also for humanity. Without them we still lived in the Stone Age. When curiosity is only moderately paired with the search for recognition, sustainable achievements result. Curiosity also drives the development of the brain. Those who learn to be curious will stay that way and ask for more and more food.

Moral education moderates negative narcissism

The moral development according to Kohlberg moderates how achievements show up and what is really behind them. Someone who can not only think intellectually but also deeply feel the categorical imperative according to Kant and thus a higher principle can have a narcissistic character, but will act out this more positively for society. He also most likely won't become a cheater. Such a person cannot have an inner emptiness. The fact that he can shape principles also requires a certain education. And by that I mean education as understood by the Swiss philosopher Peter Bieri: the ability to question things. This was shown by the reporter Juan Moreno, who ultimately uncovered the scandal. When reading Relotius articles, he had a feeling of annoyance early on. If more people had such early disturbances and articulated them, the world would get better - I am convinced.

Moral education is personality development. We should start promoting these small and subtle differences in education and training. We should train as many people as possible to question performance. Then we will not only get better journalists, but also more valuable managers. And people anyway.

If you are interested in a deeper understanding of these topics, I cordially invite you to my psychology basics workshop.

Svenja Hofert is a management consultant, columnist and author of more than 30 non-fiction and specialist books, which have appeared in up to seven editions. Her current work is called "Mindshift. Make yourself fit for the working world of tomorrow" and was published by Campus in 2019. Hofert deals with the changes in the world of work due to digital transformation. In doing so, she connects different worlds and often opens up surprising perspectives. Hofert founded various companies, most recently in 2015 the Teamworks GTQ Society for Team Development and Qualification GmbH in Hamburg. Teamworks GTQ advises organizations and offers an open workshop program as well as the unique TeamworksPLUS® training in cooperation with a chair at the University of Lüneburg. Born in Cologne, she has a Magister Artium and a Master of Science in business psychology. Booking |