Psychology has been consistently plagued by concept creep. What’s concept creep? It’s pretty much what it sounds like. Concept creep occurs when a concept that originally meant something very specific later comes to encompass a much broader set of unrelated, or only loosely related, phenomena.
And when psychological terms hit the mainstream, concept creep is nigh inevitable — as folks latch onto a label for a phenomenon and start applying it willy-hilly. Now, some of these applications are apt. But a lot of them aren’t.
One of the labels that has befallen this fate in recent years is narcissism. There are actually pretty specific criteria for narcissistic traits, behavior, and of course the full blown personality disorder. However, it’s fashionable now for lay folks to label anyone that behaves like a jerk a “narcissist,” where many times the person in question is actually showing a pattern of behavior more consistent with other cluster B disorders (i.e., antisocial, borderline, histrionic). Or they’re just being kind of jerky and inconsiderate — but in a way that’s divorced from anything that’s really beyond the diagnostic pale. Because just because someone’s annoying or acting in a hurtful way, it doesn’t make them disordered.
However, there is a very telling behavior called overclaiming that is highly correlated with narcissism. Now if someone overclaims, does that mean they’re necessarily a narcissist? Nah. But overclaiming is something that narcissists do a lot.
What Is Overclaiming?
Okay, so what’s overclaiming? Simply put, overclaiming is when someone claims to have knowledge that’s impossible to have. A clear way this can manifest is someone saying that they’re familiar with something that doesn’t even exist.
A narcissist considers themselves an expert on everything, basically — and yes, this extends to made-up things.
In studies that included fictitious items, narcissistic individuals consistently overclaim, claiming knowledge and familiarity with concepts that were fabricated for the purpose of the experiment.
Again, just because someone overclaims, it doesn’t mean that they’re a narcissist. It’s possible that they are having an honest memory error, mixing up the fabricated concept with something else that they are familiar with.
But it’s something to keep in mind: If someone you’re meeting talks down to you about an area in which you have actual expertise (and they do not, in spite of their arrogant attitude), and you make up a concept that doesn’t exist in that arena and they not only do not correct you or admit that they’ve never heard it but start being arrogant about their knowledge of this invented entity, well… you’re likely in the presence of an overclaimer.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.