What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

A recent Associated Press story noted that Christian Longo, who killed his wife and three children in 2001, claimed to suffer from narcissistic personality disorder during his sentencing hearing. What is NPD, and is it an effective criminal defense?

As the disorder’s name suggests, an NPD sufferer believes he or she is the greatest thing since sliced bread. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists nine telltale signs, including unrealistic fantasies of living a more glamorous life, a desperate craving for admiration, and a complete lack of empathy for others. Psychiatrists believe that these tendencies are often rooted in childhood insecurity.

Whatever the cause may be, people with NPD basically can’t help acting like selfish jerks. They lie incessantly about their accomplishments, treat friends and family like peons, and feel entitled to jet-set lifestyles regardless of their true talents, wealth, or education. There are about 1 million Americans whose self-centeredness is severe enough to merit a diagnosis of NPD; the condition is often exacerbated by depression, substance abuse, or other co-existent mental maladies, like paranoid personality disorder or borderline personality disorder.

The most severe cases of NPD can lead to violence, especially when the sufferer is rejected or feels his or her fantasy life is threatened. Prosecutors argued, for example, that Longo killed his family because he felt they were an impediment to the life of privilege that he believed he deserved. People with NPD also tend to be excessively impulsive and less able to consider how their actions might affect others.

That doesn’t mean, however, that NPD is necessarily a useful defense. When it is mentioned in the courtroom, it’s often during the penalty phase, as in Longo’s case. The defense hope is that the psychiatric evidence will mitigate the crime’s circumstances and thus convince a judge to impose a more lenient sentence. There are no national statistics that track the effectiveness of this strategy, though anecdotal evidence suggests that NPD rarely, if ever, leads to a sentence reduction. NPD certainly didn’t help mitigate Longo’s punishment; he was condemned to die.

Nor have lawyers had much luck in using NPD alone to build insanity defenses. Even the most hardcore of narcissists knows the difference between right and wrong and is in touch with reality. Last fall, for example, a South Dakota man named Kenneth Leon Martin was tried for killing an off-duty police officer. Defense lawyers argued that Martin’s NPD led him to fantasize that—like a superpowerful version of the faith healers he’d seen on television—he could raise his victim from the dead. But Martin was convicted; the jury was convinced by a prosecution psychiatrist that the murderer, despite his disorder, was well aware that shooting an unarmed man was wrong.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Elyn Saks of the University of Southern California Law School.