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While not creative individually, narcissists spur creativity in pairs, study finds

August 1, 2010

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz, HHaimowitz@aol.com

What will save us from narcissism run amuck? A much-praised book argues that the US is in the midst of a narcissism epidemic, and an influential business columnist last year even blamed that for the current recession, arguing that narcissism on Wall Street fueled the overconfidence that drove the economy off a cliff.
 
Is narcissism on the rise, and particularly among those intent on business careers? A new study, presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management (Montreal, Aug. 7-10) suggests that the current crop of college students are, in fact, more narcissistic than their forbears and that business majors are particularly so. A group of researchers from Appalachian State University in North Carolina (Jim Westerman, Jacqueline Bergman, Shawn M. Bergman, and Joseph P. Daly) surveyed more than 500 college undergraduates enrolled in psychology and business courses and found that the group had significantly higher levels of narcissism than college students of the past and that business students had markedly higher levels than the psychology students.
 
But a second study at the Academy meeting finds that narcissists can serve a good purpose, objectionable though they may be. The answer to a narcissist, it turns out is...another narcissist. Singly, narcissists may undermine the workings of teams, but in pairs they jog teams to heights of creativity, the research finds.
 
As the study puts it, "narcissists may be highly effective at generating novel solutions to complex problems, so long as there is at least one other narcissist in the group who can compete with him or her for attention and support of their opinions. To wit, two narcissistic heads might be better than one, because their tendency to engage in competitive dialogue benefits the group by prompting it to consider a wider range of potential solutions," conclude the study's authors, Jack A. Goncalo and Sharon H. Kim of Cornell University and Francis J. Flynn of Stanford University.
 
But, like everything else, narcissists are good only in moderation. A third narcissist in a group of four people diminishes the group's creativity, the study finds. Still, the "results suggest that to capitalize on the narcissists in our midst, we should collaborate with them and encourage them to collaborate with each other. In so doing, groups could turn what is often considered a decidedly negative trait into a valuable source of creative tension."
 
By themselves, the new research finds, narcissists have nothing special to offer the rest of the world. Contrary to common belief, "narcissists are not necessarily more creative than others, but they think they are, and they are adept at convincing others to agree with them."
 
Thus, in an experiment in which 244 college undergraduates were asked to undertake two tasks that challenged their creativity, the most narcissistic students turned out to be no more creative than others by objective measures even though they were significantly more likely to believe they were more creative. And in a second experiment, in which 76 students were paired off randomly and one was asked to propose an original movie idea for the second to evaluate, evaluators rated narcissists' ideas as significantly more creative than others', even though other raters who assessed the ideas based on presenters' written descriptions gave no edge in creativity to the narcissists. Why the difference? Analysis suggested that the student evaluators were more swayed by the greater energy of the narcissists' presentations than by any inherent creativity in their ideas.
 
It was only in a third experiment that narcissists' potential for social good came to light. In a semester-length project,  73 four-person undergraduate teams were assigned to analyze an organization in terms of its strengths and weaknesses and to propose novel but feasible solutions to a major problem they identified. At mid-semester the groups were surveyed about process -- how they went about their work --  and at term's end experts rated the extent to which proposed solutions were truly novel. When both measures were analyzed in terms of the narcissism scores of groups, it turned out that the most creative groups in process and outcome alike were those that included two narcissists.
 
In the words of the study, "On two measures of group creativity, one that focused on systematic thinking and the other on the product itself, groups with approximately two narcissistic members (out of four) outperformed groups with too many or two few."
 
Seeking to account for such an outcome, the professors observe that "group creativity depends heavily on the open expression of ideas because people may extend, combine, and improve upon the contributions made by others. Unfortunately, many good ideas remain unexpressed, leading groups to underperform compared with individuals who work alone. Competition can serve as an effective stimulant of creative ideas, because the need for superiority motivates people to express ideas they might otherwise withhold from the group discussion...Given that narcissists crave attention and recognition for their valued attributes and contributions, competition between narcissistic group members may lead the group to uncover new sources of information and new perspectives that can then be recombined to generate ideas."
 
In sum,"the same needs for recognition and power that cast a dark shadow on narcissists may position them as catalysts for creative colloquy."
 

The study, entitled "Are Two Narcissists Better than One? The Link between Narcissism, Perceived Creativity, and Creative Performance," is among several thousand research reports at the Academy of Management annual meeting, being held in Montreal from August 7th to 10th. Founded in 1936, the Academy is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has more than 19,700 members in 102 countries, including about 11,000 in the United States. This year's annual meeting will draw more than 9,000 scholars and practitioners for sessions on a host of subjects relating to business strategy, corporate organization and investment, the workplace, technology development, and other management-related topics.

Media Coverage:
BusinessWeek.com. Business School: Hotbed of Narcissism?. (Thursday, August 12, 2010).
The Globe & Mail. When Two Self-Absorbed Heads Are Better than One. (Friday, August 13, 2010).

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