Narcissism and Creativity: Intriguing and Troubling Findings

NarcissusA trio of researchers—Jack Goncalo and Sharon Kim of Cornell University, and Frank Flynn of Stanford—have done a pair of experiments on narcissism and creativity (see the description here) that are fascinating and have some disturbing implications. In both studies, they used a questionnaire called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (see the long version of it here and test yourself) to assess if people suffered—or perhaps enjoyed—this characteristic.

In the first study, students were placed in pairs and asked to pitch an ideas to their partner for a movie concept. The results: "the ideas impressed the person evaluating the pitch roughly 50% more than did those from the least narcissistic pitchers." BUT the interesting twist was when these same ideas were evaluated by two independent observers who only saw the ideas on paper, but did not see the pitches: "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."

In other words, the live pitches led people to make an attribution error, to confuse stereotypical features of creative people with creative ideas. (This explains, by the way, why creative people who come in bodies that can't pitch need someone on their team to sell their ideas: Steve Wozniak would not have succeeded without Steve Jobs' pizazz.)

The second study bugs me, and even though I don't like it, I am trying to resist rejecting it because it was done quite well. "The researchers composed 4 person teams of various numbers of narcissists: 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." Senior author Jack Goncalo speculated that this finding may have occurred 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."

As I said, I am not especially happy about the findings of this study, in part, because even if these findings do generalize to the real world, narcissists do so much damage that they still may not be worth the trouble. On the other hand, this research is consistent with more applied and qualitative writings by Michael Maccoby (see this HBR article) that suggest narcissists are high magnitude people, with strong pros and cons. Maccoby summarized this perspective brilliantly:

Leaders such as Jack Welch or George Soros are examples of productive narcissists. They are gifted and creative strategists who see the big picture and find meaning in the risky proposition of changing the world and leaving behind a legacy. Indeed, one reason we look to productive narcissists in times of great transition is that they have the audacity to push through the massive transformations that society periodically undertakes. Productive narcissists are not only risk takers willing to get the job done but also charmers who can convert the masses with their rhetoric. The danger is that narcissism can turn unproductive when, lacking self-knowledge and restraining anchors, narcissists become unrealistic dreamers. They nurture grand schemes and harbor the illusion that only circumstances or enemies block their success. This tendency toward grandiosity and distrust is the Achilles' heel of narcissism. Because of it, even brilliant narcissists can come under suspicion for self—involvement, unpredictability and—in extreme cases—paranoia.

I'd love your reaction to this research and more generally to the notion that—contrary to my biases—that narcissists may at times may be worth the trouble!

Reprinted from Work Matters

Robert I. Sutton, PhD is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. His latest book is Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best...and Survive the Worst. His previous book is The New York Times bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. Follow him at twitter.com/work_matters.

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