October 07, 2008
Narcissists Natural Leaders?

People are willing to take orders from the self-absorbed.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – When a group is without a leader, you can often count on a narcissist to take charge, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that people who score high in narcissism tend to take control of leaderless groups. Narcissism is a trait in which people are self-centered, exaggerate their talents and abilities, and lack empathy for others.

“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 Amy Brunell, lead author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University at Newark.

What I wonder: Did narcissism evolve as a leadership trait? Do groups do better with a leader? Therefore did genes for narcissism get selected for to occur at low frequency so that groups will have some but not too many leaders?

Narcissists with a desire for power were more likely to become leaders of groups.

The first study involved 432 undergraduate students. They all completed assessments which measured various personality traits, including narcissism. They were then put in groups of four, and told to assume they were a committee of senior officers of the student union, and their task was to elect next year’s director. Each person in a group was given a profile of a different candidate for the position, and each was to argue for their particular candidate.

Following 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.

The other dimension of narcissism – the desire for attention – was not as strongly related to leadership roles in the groups.

So will future parents choose to give their offspring genes that code for desire for power and narcissism? Will future generations compete harder for leadership positions?

But do narcissists really make better leaders? Student groups were asked to imagine themselves shipwrecked on an uninhabited island with the ability to choose among items needed for survival. The groups led by narcissists did not make any better decisions.

This study went further, though, by seeing how well the narcissists performed 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 selecting the items that would best help them survive. In addition, groups that overall scored highest on narcissism did no better than other groups on the task.

We need ways to select reluctant but talented people for leadership positions.

Update: My question: Are members of the US Congress, the British and Australian Parliaments, and other major elected figures more or less narcissistic on average than CEOs of large corporations? Does selection for business leaders do a better job of filtering out narcissists than elections do?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 October 07 11:40 PM  Brain Society

Brock said at October 8, 2008 8:23 AM:

We need a Draft for Congress. As in, people are nominated for Congress by their neighbors and get drafted. Like jury duty. Anyone who volunteers (or can be shown to have asked someone else to nominate him) is automatically disqualified. Once they're elected all of their assets are seized and not released until their term of service is over.

Peter said at October 8, 2008 10:42 AM:

What would really help with this would be a way to tell for sure when people are lying. Rotten people use lies to convince others they are qualified to lead. It seems like the technology for this may be just around the corner.

Reality Czech said at October 8, 2008 12:33 PM:

That would not help with people who believe whatever they're saying at the time. Testing only for conscious falsehoods would not be sufficient.

Bob Badour said at October 8, 2008 9:49 PM:


We need to do better than detect lying. Incompetent people really believe they are competent because they lack the competence to evaluate their own performance. When they say they are qualified for the job, they are not lying; they are simply mistaken.

See: Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.

Joan of Argghh! said at October 9, 2008 7:36 AM:

Narcissism. That would explain my appeal. Hmmm...

JD said at October 9, 2008 7:40 AM:

"We need ways to select reluctant but talented people for leadership positions"

Talented people are often reluctant to lead b/c they dont see a value in leading a particular situation. Take the study of undergraduate students as a perfect example. No doubt there were some talented undergrads who are not naturally self-aggrandizing in the group, and this situation didn't sufficiently motivate them to use their abilities. It's simpler to let the loud guy take charge, and there is no benefit in challenging him. Take those same kids and put them in a more important situation in which the need for leadership was obvious, and you might see their cream rise to the top. Unfortunately, by the time most kids get into such a situation, they have not sufficiently developed the skills to implement their ideas in a leadership role, so they may never reach their potential.
We should say "We need ways to ensure that talented non-narcissists self-select for leadership positions". The only way to do that is to provide them early-on with opportunities in non-trivial situations and prevent the narcissists from always taking control.

Assistant Village Idiot said at October 9, 2008 7:45 AM:

The study measures only short-term groups, in which less-narcissistic members are willing to let someone lead because the social cost of challenging the leader is high, and the payoff low. In Tavistock analysis, it is a predictable phenomenon that someone will challenge the group leadership pretty soon.

Leadership by lot is called "sortition," BTW, and has been used on a small scale by democracies throughout history. I like it.

Max said at October 9, 2008 7:47 AM:

Pick the first 535 names in the phonebook. Done. Ya got yerself a congress at least as good as the current mess. William Buckley nailed it years ago.

geokstr said at October 9, 2008 7:57 AM:

I've worked in management positions at some very large companies for decades, and have known many corporate executives who fit this profile. They never even made an attempt to learn what was required to succeed at their current position because they spent 24/7 politicking for their next promotion. As a consequence, even though they had no real accomplishments, they moved right up the ladder, while extremely competent peers who excelled at their jobs did not.

Which is why I like Sarah Palin so much.

Both Obama and Biden have never held real jobs (unless you consider a couple years in a leftwing law firm for Obama as a real job). Both have been running for one office or another their entire lives, honing their skills with that in mind. Campaigning is the end in itself for them, and all they are really good at. Searching for real accomplisments by either man is a fruitless task.

There is no indication that Palin, by contrast, was ever that interested in politics per se, but was at each step drawn into successively higher positions by a perceived need that something had to be done to make things better, and trying to do so. From PTA to mayor to head of the energy commission to governor, she was drawn into the fray rather than seeking it out. Then in each position, she devoted herself to actually fulfilling the responsibilities of the position, even if corrupt members of her own party stood in the way, which probably explains her high ratings in Alaska.

Is it any wonder she is not as polished or skillful at playing the media as McCain, Obama or Biden? That she does not have the same debating or rhetorical skills? Those are not inherited traits, but learned through constant repitition and practice.

Andrew Garland said at October 9, 2008 7:59 AM:

Of course narcissists want to lead, along with those other few that have real insight into what to do. Politicians are not the brightest bulbs, but they have tremendous self confidence and the ability to do almost anything in order to gain support, without worrying much about contradictions, the truth, or whether they will be charged with crimes.

The question is, why do people follow a "leader" with so little evaluation and skepticism?

Narcissism has been selected as a valuable trait, and also herd following. In our distant, evolutionary past, some small number of tribes survived because they were absolutely cohesive in following their tribal leaders. A good strategy or an accident, those traits are with us today. Most people are hard wired to follow a leader, just as a few are hard-wired to have the confidence to lead.

In the past, the path to wealth was purely political and military. Today, the smartest narcissists go into business, which has a much higher probability of paying off. This leaves the dimmer narcissists to enter the lottery of politics, far outnumbering the smart narcissists in politics.

Government attracts people who want to lead, and most don't mind using a little coercion or half-truth to have their way. This is particularly apparent on the left, where a failure to be elected is considered a sign of ignorance among the people and a conspiracy of those "in power". They ask "Why don't they recognize my insight and greatness?"

Idealogues begin with argument and reason. When that isn't effective enough, they follow with lies and emotion. They accuse the unconvinced of being too dumb to see the light. Next is winning elected power, which justifies a few untruths in order to do so much good.

See also my post at EasyOpinions - Leading the People

gs said at October 9, 2008 8:22 AM:

From the article:

"And while narcissists are more likely to become leaders, results of one of the studies suggests that, once in power, narcissists don’t perform any better than others in that leadership role."

I assume that if narcissist leaders underperformed, the article would have said so.

In other words, a leader's narcissism or lack thereof is uncorrelated with performance. The null hypothesis holds. The group incurs neither a penalty nor a benefit for acceding to a narcissist's desire for power.

But wait, OSU's Prof. Brunell speaks: "“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."

There have been a lot of studies that have found... Apparently yours isn't one of them...?

...narcissistic leaders tend to have volatile and risky decision-making performance and can be ineffective and potentially destructive leaders. Uh huh.

BlogDog said at October 9, 2008 8:49 AM:

We could devise a test for candidates: Place them equidistant between two high-quality mirrors and see what frequency they reach in swiveling their heads from one side to the other.

Those who ignore the mirrors after one look get to run for office.

thomass said at October 9, 2008 9:12 AM:

Alas the rub, narcissists think they're great but they are terrible leaders. They put a lot of energy into believing they’re wonderful but not enough into actual training on how to lead or know what they’re doing… that and their pettiness causes unnecessary in and out group politics that hamper achieving goals.

and schizoids make the best followers of narcissists.

So, if anything they are poor leaders. On the other hand, the fact that the modern west seems to create more narcissists and schizoids than in the past, this helps explain some of the totalitarian ideologies we've have to deal with in the modern age.

Mackay Rippey said at October 9, 2008 9:21 AM:


Jim said at October 9, 2008 9:50 AM:

Is there really anything surprising in this study's results as described here? Egomaniacs think of themselves as leaders, and other members of the group tend to defer to the more dominant personality. What a shocker.

And as for that last part -- "Results showed that narcissists did no better than others on selecting the items that would best help them survive." Another shocker. I mean, we would expect that the mere fact that you are a narcissist would magically gift you with better knowledge of wilderness survival techniques? I wonder how much money confiscated from taxpayers went into funding this study?

Lono said at October 9, 2008 11:12 AM:

Fortunately for you all - there are some individuals in the population (and on this blog) in which the best aspects of Narcissism and Natural Talent combine!

As leader of my local MENSA group I am more than happy to take over this dicussion for you.

And as for sarah palin - please - at best she is a self promoting idiot - please do not delude yourself that she is a "Maverick" or an "Outsider" - it just reduces the level of discourse here for us all...

Pervy Grin said at October 9, 2008 11:43 AM:

Narcissists being in charge happens in business as well as politics. It also results in people put in business leadership positions based on personal politics and cronyism, the old boys club. And look where it has gotten us--in the biggest financial crisis of our lifetime! I'm sure all those executives at the financial services companies that are imploding now thought they were doing a great job, and were in those positions because of their competance and leadership skills. How's that working out now? I see the same thing in the Big Pharma company I work at. Lots of talk, little action.

thedoctor2001 said at October 9, 2008 11:53 AM:

The results don't surprise me. What concerns me more is the sample was "432 undergraduate students." Now that's scary.

codepoke said at October 10, 2008 7:56 PM:

Oh, you have created questions in my mind. I know I'm late to the chat, but I still would love to know the answer to the synergy question.

The point of the exercise the students performed is a test of synergy. If each student were to score 60% or so individually, theoretically their combined knowledge should result in a group score of greater than 60%. In a group that can achieve synergy, that actually happens. In a group that cannot, the group score might be lower than the average score of the group.

In a functional group, the combined score is greater than the score of the best individual score.

I would be surprised to learn that the score of a high narcisist's group was much different from his or her own score. If a MENSA member is a part of a group challenge in an area of personal strength, that's a wonderful thing. If, however, that same MENSA member is confronted with a challenge greater than his personal abilities (and yes, those do exist) then he or she might find himself or herself dragging a group down with that outstanding brain and charisma.

I'd love to know the data.

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