Zlatan Krizan, assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State University, said his research reveals most narcissists, because of their inflated sense of superiority, are not likely to feel envy.
"They really buy into their own fantasy. If you think you're the greatest, it makes sense that you wouldn't envy others because everybody is beneath you, so there's nothing to envy. It's really the vulnerability that predicts envy and it predicts it very, very strongly," Krizan said.
The study disputes existing theories that suggest envy is a core characteristic for those who are self-absorbed, arrogant and exploitive.
Krizan said his work helps to better define the different dimensions of narcissism - what psychologists refer to as grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. Those who are more vulnerable show stronger feelings of envy.
Krizan and Omesh Johar, a graduate student at Iowa State, surveyed nearly 200 undergraduate students and more than 150 adults to identify their feelings of envy and the frequency. Those identified as vulnerable had low self-esteem, were often distraught, anxious and depressed.
"These individuals still think they're special, entitled, and they want to be great, but they just can't do it. As a result they're vulnerable, their self-esteem fluctuates a lot, they tend to be self-conscious and not very proactive, but passive, shy, and introverted," Krizan said.
When the feeling of envy is added to the mix, Krizan said it can be a potentially dangerous combination. Though vulnerable narcissists are not as overt in their behavior, they may be more prone to unexpected outbursts of aggression.
This becomes a concern when that anger turns to violence. Krizan said the Columbine school shooting in 1999 is an example in which narcissism and envy were possible motivating factors.
It is important to note that there is always a combination of factors that contribute to the violence in these extreme cases. However, Krizan said understanding how envy and narcissism are related will help in the diagnosis and definition of narcissistic personality disorder and its antisocial consequences.
The study was published in the Journal of Personality.