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Could you spot a vulnerable narcissist? Here’s how.

Within the “Dark Triad” of personality traits, narcissism exists on a confidence spectrum.
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach / Big Think; Wikimedia Commons
Key Takeaways
  • In her book, Fool Me Once: Scams, Stories, and Secrets from the Trillion-Dollar Fraud Industry, author and forensic accounting expert Kelly Richmond Pope outlines the character traits of “intentional perps” who commit fraud.
  • Intentional perps may display distinct types of arrogance and narcissism.
  • Typically, narcissists who commit corporate fraud are “grandiose” rather than “vulnerable.”
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Fool Me Once: Scams, Stories, and Secrets from the Trillion-Dollar Fraud Industry by Kelly Richmond Pope. Copyright 2023 Kelly Richmond Pope. All rights reserved.

Intentional perps set out to commit fraud. They’re on a mission to enrich themselves at all costs. They rationalize why they can break the law, and that’s largely because they don’t believe the rules apply to them. If they’re not causing physical harm to anyone, the thinking goes, what’s the big deal? Intentional perps marinate over time. They’re not born; they’re made. Environment and circumstance allow them to commit their misdeeds.

Intentional perps are the most threatening category of perpetrators, and the most destructive. They’re everywhere, in every industry; they blend well with others because they possess the traits we value so much in this culture. They’re highly intelligent, confident risk-takers who work well with people. Though you may think you know them, you really don’t. They push boundaries and are often rewarded for doing so. What makes them so powerful is that they’re usually fully and totally in charge. 

Intentional perps think they’re smarter than others — and they often do have superior skill sets. They’ll do anything to get ahead. They’re dangerously arrogant and entitled, and it’s their arrogance that makes them think they can get away with things that other people can’t. 

Movies are made about intentional perps; TV shows about them clog the airwaves. In the Netflix series Ozark, for example, financial adviser Marty Byrde has secretly been working for years as a money launderer for the second-largest drug cartel in Mexico. The series highlights how a cash-based business can be susceptible to money laundering by illegitimate businesses. Marty and his business partner Bruce Liddell are both intentional perps. 

Most of us are arrogant to some degree. If you’re successful, you have to have some degree of arrogance. But intentional perps take it to another level. Because they’re so charming, people tend to like them, often opening doors for them that might be closed to the rest of us. 

Grandiose narcissism is the traditional corporate form of narcissism that we see every day.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota identified three kinds of arrogance: individual, comparative, and antagonistic. Individual arrogance is when a person has a heightened sense of their own traits, abilities, or accomplishments. Comparative arrogance is when a person has an inflated ranking of their abilities compared with other people. Antagonistic arrogance, which is considered to be the worst type, is found in people who enjoy denigrating others based on an assumption of superiority. 

Intentional perps fluctuate among these varying levels of arrogance depending on the severity of the crime. 

Arrogance is also a component of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), a clinical diagnosis in the DSM-5, the diagnostic bible of mental disorders. Along with psychopathy and Machiavellianism, narcissism is one of three characteristics in the “Dark Triad” of personality traits, a term used in a Journal of Research in Personality article published in 2002.

Also known as arrogant narcissists, people with NPD tend to be obsessed with achievement and success. They have an enormous sense of entitlement. They’re charming and often successful, but they desperately crave validation. They’re very smart about a range of subjects and highly articulate. They’re charismatic and appealing. And they’ll pull the rug right from under you and then run away with it. 

Most of us are narcissistic as well as arrogant. Narcissism has a negative connotation, but like everything, narcissism exists on a spectrum. Narcissism is a mental health diagnosis with a lot of variations. There are vulnerable narcissists — that is, people with fragile self-esteem — and, on the other end, grandiose narcissists, who have inordinately high confidence and a great sense of superiority. 

Grandiose narcissists need to be admired. They have an inflated sense of self and think they should receive special dispensations simply because they’re so wonderful. They often appear conceited or arrogant. Overall, these narcissists are more assertive and extroverted than their counterparts with standard NPD. In my experience, intentional perps typically exhibit traits of grandiose narcissism. 

Grandiose narcissism is the traditional corporate form of narcissism that we see every day: those who have it are driven, dedicated, focused. While they may be exploitative and aggressive, I think this manifestation is more of the “good type.” 

Typical grandiose narcissists have super-high confidence and self-esteem. They, too, are entitled, and they’re quick to anger and are often volatile. Vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, are much more introverted and less charismatic than their grandiose compatriots.


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