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How narcissists get ahead

Love him or loathe him, Trump certainly loves himself. And he’s got a lot of love to give. Putin’s press pics – hunting, fishing, riding bare-chested – would cause anybody who thought they were mortal to blush.

At a less exalted level, I’ve known a few bosses who surely spent longer in front of the mirror than was strictly necessary to shave themselves. If it seems that self-love is a prerequisite for getting to the top, it is.

Those in leadership positions are disproportionately fond of themselves: there’s even a sub-set of psychology that looks at narcissistic leadership styles, considering how it works and why it’s so prevalent.

But why should it be so? Given the trait is so repulsive, why have we ordered society so that we take orders from these people?

Do they start out humble, and become proud as they get ahead? Or do narcissistic traits give their possessors the wherewithal to make it?

An interesting answer comes from an experiment by Keith Campbell and colleagues. They gave volunteers a general knowledge quiz, asked them how confident they were of each of their answers, and allowed them to bet on the result.

They gave the test to normal people, people troubled by self-doubt and uncertainty, cautious and nervy: people like you and me. And they gave the test to wide-smiled narcissists (as assessed on a standard clinical questionnaire).

Even normal people are over-confident in their judgments and place bigger bets than they ought rationally to place. But at nowhere near the rate of the narcissists.

Even on questions where they did little better than chance they assessed their certainty at 85%, and put their money where their gobby mouth was.

Taking irrational gambles doesn’t seem a smart thing to do. Usually, you’ll lose. But occasionally you’ll win.

Playing the lottery’s irrational. On average, you’ll be richer if you put the money under your pillow. Yet if you look at the population of millionaires, there’s a disproportionate rate of lotto-fanatics. You have to be in it to win it.

So it seems to be with narcissists. They’re willing to take the risks necessary to get on: stabbing their colleagues in the back, putting their name on ballot papers, stealing credit and gambling their savings on risky ventures.

Mostly these bets fail. There’s a huge number of narcissists touching up their hair in disgrace and the dole queue. But because only those willing to make these huge gambles can reach the top, there’s also a disproportionate number of narcissists barking orders from the corner office, their mansion and the White House.

For the rest of us, this imbalance matters. Our companies, our countries and our pension funds are run by people who like gambling. People whose regard for themselves is greater than for us.

We are told that the meek shall inherit the Earth. That’s a risk that narcissists are willing to take.

Chris Paley holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge and is the author of Unthink, which has sold over 30,000 copies in English and been translated into five other languages. One magazine said it will make you ‘happier than a rabbit on a carrot farm’. If you want to be that happy, buy it here.


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