"Long before it's in the papers"
January 28, 2015


Study: narcissists tend to lead, but not better

Oct. 8, 2008
Courtesy Ohio State University
and World Science staff

When a group lacks a lead­er, you can of­ten count on a nar­cis­sist to take charge, new re­search sug­gests. Nar­cis­sism is a trait in which peo­ple are self-cen­tered, ex­ag­ger­ate their abil­i­ties, and lack em­pa­thy.

Sci­en­tists con­duct­ing the new stud­ies found that peo­ple who score high in nar­cis­sism tend to take con­trol of lead­erless groups.

Narcissism is so called after Nar­cis­sus, a myth­i­cal Greek char­ac­ter who fell in love with his own re­flec­tion. Above, Nar­cis­sus by Ca­ra­vag­gio (c. 1597.)

“Not only did nar­cis­sists rate them­selves as lead­ers, which you would ex­pect, but oth­er group mem­bers al­so saw them as the peo­ple who really run the group,” said psy­cholo­g­ist Amy Bru­nell of Ohio State Uni­ver­s­ity at New­ark, lead au­thor of the re­search. 

The find­ings are to ap­pear in an up­com­ing is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy Bul­le­tin.

The re­search­ers found si­m­i­lar re­sults in two stud­ies in­volv­ing col­lege stu­dents, and one in­volv­ing busi­ness man­agers in an MBA pro­gram. And while nar­cis­sists are more likely to be­come lead­ers, one ex­pe­ri­ment found that nar­cis­sists don’t per­form any bet­ter than oth­ers in a lead­ership role, Bru­nell and col­leagues said.

A first study by Bru­nell’s group in­volved 432 col­lege stu­dents. They all com­plet­ed as­sess­ments meas­ur­ing var­i­ous per­son­al­ity traits. They were then put in groups of four, and told to pre­tend they were a com­mit­tee of of­fi­cers of the stu­dent un­ion, and they had to elect next year’s di­rec­tor. Each per­son in a group was giv­en a pro­file of a dif­fer­ent can­di­date, and each was to ar­gue for that can­di­date.

Af­ter the discussi­on, they vot­ed on the di­rec­tor, and then com­plet­ed a questi­onnaire eval­u­at­ing the lead­ership of them­selves and the oth­er group mem­bers.

Re­sults showed that stu­dents who scored high­er on one dimensi­on of nar­cis­sism—the de­sire for pow­er—were more likely to say they wanted to lead the group, were more likely to say they did lead the group discussi­on, and were more likely to be viewed as lead­ers by the oth­er group mem­bers.

“De­sire for pow­er is what really drives nar­cis­sists to seek lead­ership positi­ons,” Brunell said.

In a sec­ond ex­pe­ri­ment, 408 stu­dents were again put in groups of four. They were told to ima­gine they were ship­wrecked on an un­in­hab­it­ed is­land and had to choose which 15 sal­vage­a­ble items they should take ashore to best help them sur­vive. Af­ter a group discussi­on, those who scored high­est on the pow­er dimensi­on of nar­cis­sism again showed the most de­sire to lead the discussi­on, rat­ed them­selves as lead­ers, and were viewed as the lead­ers.

This study al­so in­ves­t­i­gated how well the nar­cis­sists did as lead­ers. Re­search­ers looked at the lists, pre­pared by each in­di­vid­ual and group, of the 15 chosen items. They com­pared the lists to one pre­pared by an ex­pert who has taught sur­viv­al skills to the U.S mil­i­tary. Nar­cis­sists did no bet­ter than oth­ers on choos­ing the most use­ful items, Bru­nell’s team said. And groups that over­all scored high­est on nar­cis­sism did no bet­ter than oth­er groups.

A third study in­volved 153 busi­ness man­agers en­rolled in an ex­ec­u­tive MBA pro­gram at a large south­east­ern uni­ver­s­ity. The man­agers were al­so put in groups of four and told to as­sume the role of a school board de­cid­ing how to al­lo­cate a large fi­nan­cial contributi­on from a ficti­onal company.

Two trained ob­servers – pro­fes­sors or doc­tor­al stu­dents in in­dus­t­ri­al and or­gan­izati­onal psy­chology – ob­served the groups and rat­ed how much of a lead­ership role each par­ti­ci­pant as­sumed in their groups. Re­sults showed that the stu­dents rat­ed high­est in nar­cis­sism were most likely to be iden­ti­fied as emerg­ing lead­ers by the ex­pert ob­servers, the re­search­ers found.

“Even trained ob­servers saw nar­cis­sistic peo­ple as the nat­u­ral lead­ers,” Bru­nell said. “In additi­on, this study showed that nar­cis­sism plays a role in lead­ership among real-world man­agers.”

Brunell said the stud­ies took in­to ac­count oth­er fac­tors – such as gen­der and per­son­al­ity traits like high self-es­teem and extraversi­on – that may re­late to lead­ership de­vel­op­ment. But even when these fac­tors were tak­en in­to ac­count, nar­cis­sism still played a key role.

It’s im­por­tant not to con­fuse nar­cis­sism with high self-es­teem, she said.

“A per­son with high self-es­teem is con­fi­dent and charm­ing, but they al­so have a car­ing com­po­nen­t,” Bru­nell ex­plained. “Nar­cis­sists have an in­flat­ed view of their tal­ents and abil­i­ties and are all about them­selves.”

Brunell said the re­sults may apply to many ar­eas of life, from the pres­i­den­tial race to Wall Street. “Many peo­ple have ob­served that it takes a nar­cis­sistic per­son to run for pres­ident of the Un­ited States,” she said. “I would be sur­prised if any of the can­di­dates who have run weren’t high­er than av­er­age in nar­cis­sism.”

The same is true for the lead­ers of Wall Street firms that have made and lost milli­ons in the past few years, she added. “There have been a lot of stud­ies that have found nar­cis­sistic lead­ers tend to have vol­a­tile and risky decisi­on-making per­formance,” she said. That does­n’t mean all the trou­bles in Wash­ing­ton or Wall Street can be blamed on nar­cis­sistic lead­ers, she added. “There’s a lot more be­hind the trou­bles of gov­ern­ment and busi­ness than the per­son­al­i­ties of their lead­ers.”

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When a group lacks a leader, you can often count on a narcissist to take charge, new research suggests. Narcissism is a trait in which people are self-centered, exaggerate their talents and abilities, and lack empathy. Scientists conducting the new studies found that people who score high in narcissism tend to take control of leaderless groups. “Not only did narcissists rate themselves as leaders, which you would expect, but other group members also saw them as the people who really run the group,” said psychologist Amy Brunell of Ohio State University at Newark, lead author of the research. The findings are to appear in an upcoming issue of the research journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Narcissists, by definition, are self-centered and overconfident. The researchers found similar results in two studies involving college students, and one involving business managers in an MBA program. And while narcissists are more likely to become leaders, one experiment found that narcissists don’t perform any better than others in that leadership role, Brunell and colleagues said. A first study by Brunell’s group involved 432 college students. They all completed assessments measuring various personality traits. They were then put in groups of four, and told to pretend they were a committee of officers of the student union, and they had to elect next year’s director. Each person in a group was given a profile of a different candidate, and each was to argue for their particular candidate. After the discussion, they voted on the director, and then completed a questionnaire evaluating the leadership of themselves and the other group members. Results showed that students who scored higher on one dimension of narcissism—the desire for power—were more likely to say they wanted to lead the group, were more likely to say they did lead the group discussion, and were more likely to be viewed as leaders by the other group members. “Desire for power is what really drives narcissists to seek leadership positions,” Brunell said. In a second experiment, 408 students were put in groups of four and given a scenario in which they imagined they were shipwrecked on an uninhabited island and had to choose which 15 salvageable items that the group should take ashore which will best help them survive. After a group discussion, those who scored highest on the power dimension of narcissism again showed the most desire to lead the group discussion, rated themselves as leaders, and were viewed by other group members as the leaders. This study also investigated how well the narcissists did as leaders. Researchers looked at the lists, prepared by each individual and group, of the 15 items that they thought would help them survive. They compared their lists to one prepared by an expert who has taught survival skills to the U.S military. Results showed that narcissists did no better than others on choosing the most useful items, Brunell’s team said. And groups that overall scored highest on narcissism did no better than other groups. A third study involved 153 business managers enrolled in an executive MBA program at a large southeastern university. The managers were also put in groups of four and told to assume the role of a school board deciding how to allocate a large financial contribution from a fictional company. Two trained observers – professors or doctoral students in industrial and organizational psychology – observed the groups and rated how much of a leadership role each participant assumed in their groups. Results showed that the students rated highest in narcissism were most likely to be identified as emerging leaders by the expert observers, the researchers found. “Even trained observers saw narcissistic people as the natural leaders,” Brunell said. “In addition, this study showed that narcissism plays a role in leadership among real-world managers.” Brunell said the studies took into account other factors – such as gender and personality traits like high self-esteem and extraversion – that may relate to leadership development. But even when these factors were taken into account, narcissism still played a key role. It’s important not to confuse narcissism with high self-esteem, she said. “A person with high self-esteem is confident and charming, but they also have a caring component,” Brunell explained. “Narcissists have an inflated view of their talents and abilities and are all about themselves.” Brunell said she believes the results apply to many areas of life, from the politics of the presidential race to Wall Street. “Many people have observed that it takes a narcissistic person to run for president of the United States,” she said. “I would be surprised if any of the candidates who have run weren’t higher than average in narcissism.” The same is true for the leaders of Wall Street firms that have made and lost millions of dollars in the past few years, she added. “There have been a lot of studies that have found narcissistic leaders tend to have volatile and risky decision-making performance and can be ineffective and potentially destructive leaders,” she said. That doesn’t mean all the troubles in Washington or Wall Street can be blamed on narcissistic leaders, she added. “There’s a lot more behind the troubles of government and business than the personalities of their leaders.”