The well-known self-centered tendencies of the person with narcissistic personality traits lead them, so we are told, to make rash decisions that ignore the hard facts. Their belief that they are “special” leads these individuals to ignore the reality of a situation and figure that no matter what, they will come out ahead. As a result, people high in narcissism may engage in risky behavior such as gambling, spend money recklessly, and fail to take the more critical view that can benefit sober decision-making processes. Even though they may not live up to their own inflated expectations, they continue to see themselves as more capable and intelligent than others. We know, too, that narcissists have a vulnerable side. It’s possible that their poorly-made decisions reflect a need to overcompensate for themselves as weak, incompetent, and flawed.
However, within this general pattern, some studies in the past suggested that those high in narcissism have an uncanny ability to perform well under pressure if their performance can make them look good in front of others. Under ordinary conditions, or when their efforts will bring about little opportunity for glory, they will not be as likely to rise to the occasion, but at least in some situations, they demonstrate superior performance that matches their self-image.
In terms of decision-making, the tendency to focus on their own thoughts and feelings can lead people high in narcissism to arrive at their own judgments independent of those of others. This is the quality called “field independence” in psychology. One way to test field independence is to show people a hidden figure that’s embedded in distracting countours. People who are high in field independence can pick the figure out of its context with relative ease. Extending this to social situations, because narcissistic individuals disregard what other people think, they can show better ability to make self-reliant judgments because they're drowning out competing ideas.
Texas A&M psychologists Kaileigh Byrne and Darrell Worthy, in a 2013 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article, decided to test the idea that ordinary (i.e. non-pathological) people high in narcissism might indeed be better at making decisions that involve making independent judgments under conditions of uncertainty. Byrne and Worthy devised an odds-guessing task in which participants were rewarded for making card choices that had either a high immediate payoff (e.g. earning 80 points) or a lower immediate payoff (40 points) that, over time, would benefit them more. If they started out making choices giving high payoffs, their rewards would diminish over time. In one condition of the experiment, participants received misleading information that would have led them to bet big only to lose out in the long run.
Theoretically, we might expect that people high in narcissism, with their belief in their own superiority and luck, would go for the big rewards first. We might also imagine that they might be readily lured into making non-optimal choices by getting misleading information because they think they can overcome the odds. Adding to this, narcissists are also focused on getting the immediate success that they feel they deserve, which should also lead them to bet big.
However, in this experiment, Byrne and Worthy also thought it possible that those high in narcissism might decide to base their decisions on what they believe to be the best strategy rather than be duped by misleading information. Because they are able to make field-independent choices in which they listen to themselves and pay less attention to others, they’ll find the optimal strategy without referring to erroneous information they get from misleading feedback.
As it turned out, those high in narcissism in fact showed a far better ability to make optimal decisions in the payout predicting game especially when the right call was to disregard information that might lead them down the wrong track. Recognizing when it was better to make choices that would build over time, they were able to ignore the potentially misleading information to go for the big payout early in the game and hold out for the larger amount that would follow if they started small and built their kitties over the course of time.
The Worthy and Byrne experiment, like many in personality and social psychology, was carried out on college undergraduates. None of the participants were chosen for meeting the diagnostic criteria for narcissism; they were high on a narcissism personality test, but didn’t necessarily have pathological scores. Thus, these were high-functioning, young individuals who might even still have been emerging from their late adolescent “normal” narcissistic phase. On the other hand, there were relative differences on performance even within this non-pathological population.
Being able to sit back and make a deliberate decision that will pay off over time is not a quality we associate with narcissism. However, as shown in this experiment, people high in narcissism may have a flair for sifting through extraneous and possibly misleading information in a decision-making task. Not only are they more likely to listen to the little voice inside their own head telling them what to do, but their exaggerated sense of their own greatness causes them to feel they have more to lose when they make a mistake. They may also be more street-smart, dissecting the information that others present to them to avoid being taken for a fool.
How might you use the information from this study in your own life? For one thing, when you’re faced with a complex decision, it may benefit you to think like a narcissist (unless you do so already). Don’t trust the information that other people provide you, because it may be erroneous or misleading. Make your own internal judgments based on the way that you sift through the evidence. If you are already high on the narcissism spectrum, you’re doing this now. However, in the Worthy and Byrne experiment, participants received misleading information. If the information had been accurate, then the more narcissistic participants would have missed out on valuable data prior to making their decisions. Being able to rely on your own instincts is great, but there are many times when you need to do a careful inventory of the environment before you launch into a potential misadventure.
People high in narcissism may make correct decisions under certain circumstances, but it doesn’t always make them loveable. Imagine if you were sitting in the room with a participant whose decisions were paying off favorably, but your own decisions were ending in dismal losses. Given that people high in narcissism like to show off their superior performance, they would most likely find it difficult to contain their gloating. If you find yourself needing to let everyone else know how well you’re doing, whether it’s at work, in your real estate investments, or with the success of your children in school, you might want to consider getting more quiet enjoyment from your victories.
The good news in this study is that it shows that being narcissistic, at least within normal bounds, may have some cognitive as well as adaptive benefits. You’re not doomed to a life of badly planned decisions that will end up causing you frustration and loss. Being able to follow your own inner leads, especially when the outside world is confusing or deceptive, may allow you to make choices that bolster your true sense of inner worth.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Byrne, K. A., & Worthy, D. A. (2013). Do narcissists make better decisions? An investigation of narcissism and dynamic decision-making performance. Personality and Individual Differences, 55, 112-117. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2013.02.020