IN my first year of secondary school, I remember doing a lot of daydreaming about how to be popular. Educated in an all-girls school, where high-achieving and socially confident pupils were not exactly thin on the ground, there was no place for the unique marinade of self-doubt that I sloshed around in during early adolescence. Consequently, I found myself on the peripheries of the in-crowd, with default membership to an “odds’n’sods” group of girls, whose primary function was as audience to the natural-born divas who had VIP passes to the inner sanctum of popularity.

I misspent much of my time staring out the classroom window, trying to crack the popularity code but never managing to hit the right combination. What I didn’t understand was that being popular is not the same as being liked. Had I known then that the most popular people (at least, on first meeting) are more likely to be narcissists, maybe I’d have been less keen on joining the club.

Research by psychologists at University of Mainz has identified four main attributes associated with popularity: attractiveness, self-assured behaviour, interpersonal warmth, and humour. While ticking all four boxes doesn’t guarantee popularity, it does make it more likely – for a while, at least. There’s a sting in the tail: popularity achieved through narcissistic manipulation is very short-lived. Conversely, in newly published research by Cornell University, if you are popular because you are a likeable, positive extrovert with a robust sense of morality and empathy for others, it is likely that your popularity will endure and that you will be perceived as trustworthy by others.

It’s helpful if you can spot a narcissist because you will be less likely to be exploited by them. The trouble is, narcissists can be very charismatic. They’re all smoke and mirrors and it’s hard not to be dazzled by their reflection as they bathe you in their egotistical, self-absorbed light. Narcissists gain popularity because they are funny, engaging story tellers, seem like natural leaders and are not hampered by self-doubt. They never cringe because they talked too much when they were at that party last night. A narcissist is much more likely to think that nobody, except him (or her), had anything interesting to say for themselves.

Driven by a deep, unrelenting need for admiration and an inflated sense of superiority and entitlement, narcissists will tie themselves in knots to make a good first impression in order to elicit the admiration that is the lifeblood of their ever-hungry egos. In conversation, narcissists are focused on one thing: maintaining power. If the discussion veers away from them, they will skilfully redirect it back to themselves. And if other people insist on talking and stealing the limelight, the narcissist will glaze over to indicate their disinterest (in the hope of unnerving and silencing their rival).

Life is a marathon popularity contest, where the prize is adoration. Like all addicts, they are always on the move to source their next fix. As the shelf-life of their popularity is relatively short (according to research it takes about seven weeks of regular contact before others begin to dislike their social manipulation and self-centredness), the narcissist forges on to conquer other groups or individuals with their manipulative charm, thus reaffirming their popularity. Interestingly, research shows that narcissists do have insight into the fact that, although popular, they are not liked; but they don’t care, preferring the top perch on the social status hierarchy to enduring likeability.

Being liked and building solid, lasting relationships with others is for mere mortals. Collaboration is to the narcissist what garlic or a crucifix is to the vampire. That’s why they’re successful, not just in the popularity hierarchy, but also as leaders of governments, institutions and businesses. And, of course, celebrity. Think of Kanye West. His self-aggrandisement actually works well for him and is the engine of his wealth. He’s popular but would you like him if you were stuck in the pub with him, week after week? Probably not.

Although they are unable to return the favour, narcissists are deserving of our empathy and compassion. Deep down, a true narcissist will feel profoundly empty. Nothing, except admiration, really hits the spot for them. They can neither give, nor receive unconditional love because, sadly, they probably never experienced it in their formative years from their parents. It might look like fun, but being a committed narcissist is really hard work and there’s no such thing as “just chilling with your mates”. Instead, like hungry ghosts, they are forever on the lookout for their next bite at popularity.