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Is Narcissism Good for Business?

17 September 2010 3:03 pm
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Nick White

Look at me! A narcissist's ideas may appear creative, but they're probably not.

Narcissists, new experiments show, are great at convincing others that their ideas are creative even though they're just average. Still, groups with a handful of narcissists come up with better ideas than those with none, suggesting that self-love contributes to real-world success.

Narcissism and creativity seem to go hand in hand. Creative people often appear self-important, hungry for attention, and unconcerned with others' ideas and opinions— all traits narcissists share. Think of Pablo Picasso, famous for his iconoclastic paintings but infamous for declaring, "I am God." Like Picasso, narcissists often rise to positions of importance in art, business, and other endeavors, suggesting that they have ability and ideas that others do not.

But do they really? Psychologists Jack Goncalo and Sharon Kim of Cornell University and Francis Flynn of Stanford University paired up 76 college students and asked one person to develop and pitch a concept for a movie to the other. The ideas were not stellar; one of the more creative, Goncalo says, involved a mafia family run by a young woman. But when pitched by the most narcissistic students (as evaluated by a 16-item questionnaire called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory), the ideas impressed the person evaluating the pitch roughly 50% more than did those from the least narcissistic pitchers. (The researchers judged the response to the ideas by how strongly the evaluator agreed with statements such as "it is unlikely that anyone has come up with a movie idea like this before.")

But two independent raters were not so easily wowed. Having only seen the movie pitches in written form, they found the narcissists' ideas to be about as creative as proposals from non-narcissists. The difference, the researchers say, was in the pitch itself: narcissists were more enthusiastic, witty, and charming—all traits, according to past research, that people associate with creativity.

To find out if narcissism might still be a boon to businesses, Goncalo, Flynn, and Kim divided 292 other students into teams of four and asked them to draw up proposals to improve the performance of real businesses and other organizations. Teams made up of three or four narcissists came up with incremental proposals and failed to generate and discuss many ideas, but so did teams with no narcissists. The teams that generated the most ideas were half narcissist, the researchers will report this November in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Goncalo says he's not sure why this particular group makeup generates the most ideas, but it could be because narcissists can help get ideas on the table. If there are too many of them, however, there may be too many egos in the room, preventing anything from getting done.

The research "addresses a very important topic in a clever and sound way," writes psychologist W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia, Athens in an e-mail. Ideally, he says, businesses could focus on the narcissistic traits that work and leave the less desirable traits behind. Self-promotion, for example, is a valuable skill, but it benefits everyone to realize how much it can distort perceptions of quality.

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