Narcissists like to be in charge, so it stands to reason that a new study shows individuals who are overconfident about their abilities are most likely to step in as leaders, be they politicians or power brokers.
However, their initiative doesn't mean they are the best leaders. The study also found narcissists don't outperform others in leadership roles.
Narcissists tend to be egotistical types who exaggerate their talents and abilities, and lack empathy for others. The researchers stress that narcissism is not the same as high self-esteem.
"A person with high self-esteem is confident and charming, but they also have a caring component and they want to develop intimacy with others," said lead researcher Amy Brunell, a psychologist at Ohio State University at Newark. "Narcissists have an inflated view of their talents and abilities and are all about themselves. They don’t care as much about others."
She added, "It's not surprising that narcissists become leaders. They like power, they are egotistical, and they are usually charming and extraverted. But the problem is, they don't necessarily make better leaders."
The results, which will be detailed in an upcoming issue of the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, come from three studies, two with students and the other with business managers.
In one study, 432 undergraduate students completed surveys that measured various personality traits, including aspects of narcissism. Then, the students were put in groups of four and told to assume they were a committee of senior officers of the student union. Their task was to elect next year's director.
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. The narcissists were also more likely to say they did lead the group discussion and more likely to be viewed as leaders by the other group members.
Another dimension of narcissism — the desire for attention — was not as strongly linked with leadership roles in the groups.
Shipwrecked island experiment
In a similar study, more than 400 students, placed into groups of four, were told to imagine they were shipwrecked on an uninhabited island. They had to choose 15 items from the ship that would best help them survive on the island.
Individuals 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.
To rate leadership abilities, the researchers compared the 15-item lists with one prepared by an expert who has taught survival skills to the U.S. military. Turned out, narcissists did no better than their less self-centered counterparts at choosing survival items.
A third study involved more than 150 business managers enrolled in an executive MBA program at a large southeastern university. The managers were grouped in fours 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 monitored the group discussions, finding that the MBA students who rated highest in narcissism were most likely to emerge as group leaders. The results held even when other personality traits, such as self-esteem and extraversion, were taken into account.
Narcissists in society
Brunell said she believes the results apply to many parts of life, from the politics of presidential races to Wall Street.
"Many people have observed that it takes a narcissistic person to run for president of the United States," Brunell said. "I would be surprised if any of the candidates who have run weren’t higher than average in narcissism."
Wall Street traders could also have a high dose of narcissism, she suggested. "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."
Brunell does hedge though, saying that not all troubles in Washington and Wall Street can be blamed on narcissists, and of course, you can't boil everything down to personalities.