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Don’t Be Fooled by a Narcissist

How narcissists can convince you of their (undeserved) greatness.

Self-promotion, ingratiation, and other manipulative strategies are just a few of the ways that narcissists can trick the unsuspecting into thinking they’re the real deal. If you’ve ever been duped by the high-flying ways of a smooth-talking and super-confident date, job candidate, or boss, you know how easy it is to fall under such a person’s spell. 

Here’s the scenario of your first encounter with people who have these strong self-aggrandizing tendencies. They greet you with enthusiasm, flash a dashing smile your way, and appear genuinely interested in you. They may flatter you with a compliment about your appearance (“I love your shirt”!)  or, if they’re seeking a job, about your company (“I’ve always wanted to work here!”). No matter how high the stakes are, they don’t seem at all threatened or intimidated. Holding their shoulders straight and their head high, they are the picture of supreme efficiency, competence, and self-assurance. Once the conversation is rolling, you’re enchanted by the spell they bind. Your mind starts racing to the wonderful ways you’ll get along because obviously this individual is the most qualified for the position (if it’s a job interview) or best suited to be your lifelong romantic partner (if you’re meeting for a first date). You’re ready to drop all of your other prospects because you just know this person is the perfect fit.

How do ordinarily thoughtful, if not skeptical, people become so easily swayed by a single encounter? The answer is that narcissists figure out all the angles to make them appear as attractive and desirable as possible. Although narcissists aren’t typically very empathic, they have a sixth sense for what they need to do to impress an audience, even if it’s just an audience of one. Because they have learned how to manipulate and exploit other people, they’re used to bending the truth so that it matches what their listeners wish to hear.

Research on job interview performance of people high in narcissism shows how easy it is to be fooled by these tendencies of narcissists to exaggerate their attributes.  The findings from this research are soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology by University of Nebraska-Lincoln psychologist Peter Harms along with University of British Columbia collaborators Delroy L. Paulhus, Bryce G. Westlake and Stryker S. Calvez. In the first part of their study, Harms and his colleagues recorded the “job interviews” of 72 participants who varied in their degree of the personality quality of narcissism. Those high in narcissism were likely, as Harms had predicted, to show more signs of self-promotion during the interview. When challenged by their interviewers, however, the narcissists behaved in ways the researchers hadn’t predicted.  Unlike their less narcissistic counterparts, those high in narcissism were more likely to dial up their self-promotional tendencies.

Put yourself in the interviewer’s place, for the moment. You decide to give the person you’re questioning a hard time, expecting that the high stress will cause your victim to become worn down if not discouraged. Instead, the applicant rises to the bait and becomes even more grandiose than ever. Your doubts are quelled, at least temporarily, because you now are more likely than ever to believe that what you’re seeing is what you’ll get when this amazing person starts to work for you.

Part 2 of the Harms study involved having raters actually judge the apparent competence of the “interviewees.” Viewing videos of their interviews, participants awarded higher evaluations to the more narcissistic and self-promoting interviewees. A key factor in the "success" of the narcissists was the sheer volume of talk they produced. People tend to be fooled into thinking those who talk more are also more competent. The noisy wheel receives the higher competency ratings. It wasn't only that they talked more but also that the narcissists openly sang their own praises. Their wheels were both noisy and self-congratulatory.

We know that in real life, narcissists can be exploitative, become enraged when challenged, and — relevant to the job interview findings — likely to shirk job duties. So, although interviewers become snowed into thinking they’ve hired the best person for the job, they’ve potentially hired the worst possible candidate. Narcissists talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.

Although we should be careful about generalizing from a simulation study, particularly one on an undergraduate population, the findings certainly resonate with the experience that many of us have when we’ve been snowed by a narcissist’s ability to work it in a first encounter. It could be someone like the new boyfriend of your favorite relative who dazzled everyone in the room with his stories of success in everything from his athletic prowess to his climb up the career ladder. Or a potential dating partner who self-confidently brags about the many friends she has in high places. Self-possessed to the point of being charismatic, you can’t help but feel drawn to these people in your initial encounters. By the time you realize that they either don’t have the qualities they pretend to have or just don’t feel like exerting themselves, it’s too late.

People who talk their way into a position they don’t deserve can also cause great emotional pain to others. When things start to unravel, they blame everyone else, including you. It’s not that they didn’t have the ability to do the work or stay in the relationship, it’s that you’re a bad supervisor or dating partner. They don’t take responsibility for the outcome, but instead make you feel that it was your fault. If you’re not careful, you’ll start to doubt and question yourself and create unnecessary, and undeserved, misery for yourself.

There are, fortunately, relatively simple ways to prevent these damaging outcomes. Here are the 4 ways that you can fend off the ensnaring tactics of the narcissist:

  1. Learn how to spot a narcissist. Psychology Today author Scott Barry Kaufman provides a detailed analysis of how to avoid falling in love with a narcissist. Importantly, you should make sure to observe the individual in a variety of settings before you get too far into the relationship. As the Harms study showed, narcissists also tend to talk more and in ways that are higher in self-praise. If you're hearing a lot of words and most of them are self-congratulatory, the person you're evaluating may be this manipulative type of narcissist. 
  2. Watch the narcissist under pressure. As the Harms study showed, narcissists excel when more modest people cave. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions. You may be uncomfortable turning up the heat, but it’s crucial for you to see how your interviewee (or potential date or friend of a family member) reacts. Non-narcissists will respond in kind with your tough questions. They’ll most likely stumble or look like they’d rather be anywhere than in the room with you at the moment. However, if they have the qualities you’re looking for (and not those of the narcissist), they’ll regroup and come back with an appropriate, but not outlandish, answer to your questions.
  3. Gather alternative sources of data. You should not rely on only your impressions when meeting someone who you’re looking to hire, work for, or date. Find out from as many sources as you can about this person’s actual credentials. Remember that if narcissists distort the truth when they’re with you in the face-to-face situation, they’ll be even more likely to do so when they’re composing something on paper or online. You need to check out others who know this person, who’ve written recommendations, or who also work for this individual. Because you may also have become smitten with the person’s apparent qualifications based on your in-person meeting, you also need to look for disconfirming evidence. Avoid the tendency to confirm your positive impressions and take seriously any warning signs.
  4. Follow your gut instincts. If people seem too good to be true, it’s possible that they are. If something doesn’t quite ring true, you need to listen to that voice inside you that says to take it slowly. As people get older, they are usually better at sniffing out phonies, but even a pro can be led to suspend judgment.  If you’re even a tiny bit wary, it means that you need to go back to #3 above and gather more information.

Whatever else you do, don’t rush to make a decision even though you may be feeling pressured to do so. Don’t hire the person, don’t throw away your other romantic prospects, and don’t invite the person into the circle of your family or friends. Time, and second thoughts, are your best friends when you’re dealing with narcissists. Also make sure that you give careful scrutiny to the quieter and more modest people on your list. It’s competence you need to judge, not people’s ability to make a good first impression.

On the positive side, however, you can also learn some self-presentation tactics from the research conducted by Harms and his colleagues. Knowing that you’re competing against these self-promoters, you need to come out from your own perhaps overly modest shell and make sure that others know about your abilities. Being too reticent or self-critical may cost you the opportunities you seek. While still remaining true to your personality and sense of self, there’s nothing wrong with leveling the playing field. You don’t have to join the narcissists, but you can definitely beat them at their game.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012