Identifying and Handling the Narcissistic Witness

According to current research in psychology narcissism is on the rise. The increase in narcissistic traits has serious ramifications for how we handle voir dire, depositions, and witnesses at trial. The very nature of narcissism will alter and even negate current effective trial strategies and techniques. Appealing to feelings and having the jury live the story your client are mute to narcissism.  

Researchers and authors like Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Josh Foster, University of South Alabama and Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, the author of Generation Me, and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic are raising some poignant questions and sobering facts.

Josh Foster and Jean M. Twenge indicated that, as of 2008, 10% of society exhibits narcissistic traits. Their research further demonstrates that changing societal values is fueling this evolution. For example, in 1977 the most common value portrayed in television was the social contract, while in 2007 narcissism was the most commonly portrayed value. Furthermore, from 2002 to 2007 scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) increased twice as fast as compared to scores recorded from 1982 to 2006. These NPI scores do not indicate an increase in diagnoses of narcissistic personality disorder; the research indicates an increase in narcissistic traits, which is more worrying.

In response, Lītigāre developed the following article to assist trial lawyers with the inevitable fact that we will be seeing more narcissistic traits in our witness and juries. This article will cover a detailed description of the narcissistic personality (NP) including a short discussion about what causes NP. Tips and techniques for identifying and handling this type of personality in deposition and trial are also introduced. A more in-depth discussion on effects of NP and litigation is on our You Tube channel, Litigare Consulting (video embedded at end of article) . Some recommended readings are also available at the end of this article.

The Narcissistic Personality:

We are dealing with two personality types when we talk about NP. There are witnesses who present with narcissistic traits, which we see most often, and those who are truly narcissists. In trial and deposition these two personalities will be dealt with in somewhat different manners. For ease in this article we will use NP to refer to individuals with narcissistic personality disorders and those with narcissistic traits. As always, we suggest that you use trial consultants who have extensive clinical psychological backgrounds in the assessment and treatment of personality disorders and extensive personality analysis skills. Litigare is just one of the national trial consulting firms who offer consultants with that type of experience. Whoever you choose it is very important to ensure your consultant has this training. 

The following are just some of the traits of a narcissistic witness:

  • Presents as having high levels of self-esteem (in reality their esteem is very low);
  • Grandiosity (an excellent weapon against the narcissist);
  • Self-focused and self-important (NP individuals believe that they are more important, more attractive and intelligent than everyone);
  • A deep and unavoidable need for admiration that is very different than a desire to be liked; 
  • Typically the narcissist is in a leadership situation where they believe that they can astound, impress, and amaze others. This process is done to dominate those around him/her.
  • They set up situations where it is very hard to suffer any consequences because they have either taken full control of their environment by projecting superiority or the threat of harsh consequences;
  • They are very sexually popular;
  • Are often in high paying leadership and expert positions;
  • Tend to be manipulative;
  • Initially present as endearing to others (this cannot be hidden indefinitely);
  • They subtly and overtly utilize techniques to gain superiority;
  • Not concerned about how others view them yet have a pathological need for the adoration of others.

A conversation with the narcissist, in general terms, will feel like a person attempting to gain your admiration while truly not giving a shit about what you think about them. This is a very subtle process that the narcissist has honed and is commonly missed. The narcissist tends to be very successful at this because they are after one thing, power and control of the situation. Their goal is that that those around them will love and admire them. This is the sole goal of the narcissist when interacting with the jury.

Causes of NP:

The causes for narcissism provide us valuable insights into this type of personality, which is essential for trial strategies.

According to Dr. Mark Zimmerman author of “Interview Guide for Evaluating DSM-IV Psychiatric Disorders and Mental Status Examination” the Narcissistic Personality Disorder is “A persuasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration and lack of empathy…and present in a verity of contexts…”. This little pocket book is an essential tool in the arsenal for the trial lawyer working on any case that involves mental health.

Early psychological theorists like Freud posited that indiscriminate parental praise coupled with coldness and rejection causes the narcissistic personality. Recent research conducted by Lorna Otway and Vivian Vignoles appears to corroborate this early hypothesis. Their research also indicated that narcissistic traits of the research participants were both overt and covert demonstrating the need for a trained professional to assist the trial lawyer in identifying the trait.

It also appears that gender does not affect how narcissism is developed, yet there is some evidence that gender influences covert versus overt narcissism in women.

The Personality Assessment:

Whoever your consultant is, make sure they have the clinical knowledge and experience to correctly identify the narcissist and provide for you the techniques to handle them appropriately in deposition and court. We are talking about human beings and all we are attempting to do is to safely expose an aspect of their personality to uncover the truth. We are not out to harm or hurt. Just because someone has Ph.D. or an MA in psychology, sociology or other behavioral science behind their name does not mean they know what they are doing or have experience with the narcissistic personality. The narcissist can be cunning and seductive. Previous and extended experience in the clinical arena is essential. There are a group of trial consultants nationally, including Lītigāre, who have this experience. 

Handling the Narcissist in Deposition and Trial:

A vulnerable self-concept is at the heart of the narcissist and that is how we handle them in deposition and in trial. The following is a sample of some trait weaknesses of the narcissist:

  • An expectation that that others see them as superior;
  • A strong sense of being perfect and rejecting facts to the contrary;
  • They demand and need favorable treatment and become furious if this does not occur;
  • Arrogant, patronizing, and showing open disdain for others.

When utilized appropriately with your psychologically trained consultant, these and other attributes can be woven into highly effective strategies for deposition and trial.

     In Deposition

There is a partnership between the lawyer and the psychologically trained consultant to identify the narcissist during deposition. Here are a few examples of the questions that Zimmerman uses to help identify NP characteristics. The questions have been slightly altered so they are paraphrased (your psychologically trained consultant can help you alter the questions to better fit the parameters of deposition): Of course a proper foundation must be set before introducing these questions.

1.      You see yourself as someone who has accomplished great things in … field that sets you apart from your equals? Tell me about them.

2.      How do your colleagues view you? Do you have a sense of your reputation? Do you know how your colleagues perceive you?

In my experience there are the common objections to these questions and the other questions we use to explore the narcissistic tendencies of a witness. The most common objection is that the question "calls for speculation." It is a deposition; in most jurisdictions we are allowed to ask witnesses to speculate especially if they are experts or have responded that they are and expert in their field, like a doctor. We have specific techniques that we employ during these moments of objections.

Identifying NP or narcissistic tendencies is not always in the verbiage from the respondent; it is in their subtle behavioral responses which are often more accurate and telling. It is important to have your consultant, who is trained in behavioral analysis, to evaluate the behavioral responses to these questions.

      In Trial

Because of the grandiosity, projected self-esteem and increased self-importance, and a pathological need for admiration, the narcissist will become enraged and even threatening when their self-perceived brilliance and superior knowledge are challenged. Case in point, in a recent trial a very savvy and seasoned trial lawyer utilized a personality assessment developed by Litigare to assist in a cross examination of a doctor with narcissistic tendencies. As this trial lawyer skillfully cornered this witness and brought the facts forward, the witness saw this as a challenge to his superiority. The defendant turned to the jury with an arm out stretched toward the plaintiff and claimed in a voice of defiance and outrage that the plaintiff had self-inflicted the disabling wounds after this doctor expertly ruled out any injury. The defendant went further to insinuate rather overtly that the entire trial was an elaborate scam specifically designed to sully the doctor’s reputation. This is an answer that only comes from narcissistic tendencies, specifically grandiosity.   

Attempting to trap the narcissist through social sanctions does not work; the NP individual views him/herself above the rules. Shakespeare provides a great example of this when Henry V leans in to kiss his soon to be bride Kate. She shies away and exclaims that it is not the fashion to kiss like that in France. Henry, with a paternalistic look and tone simply states “…dear Kate, we are makers of fashion.”

Recommended Readings

  • Interview Guide for Evaluating DSM-IV Psychiatric Disorders
  • Generation Me
  • The Narcissism Epidemic

The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement
By Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell