Just How Far Will a Narcissist Go to Hide Failure?

New research shows why failure is not an option for a narcissist.

Posted Aug 01, 2017

Nestor Rizhniak/Shutterstock
Source: Nestor Rizhniak/Shutterstock

No one really likes to admit to failure, but narcissists are particularly loath to admit to their weaknesses. The grandiose bragging and self-promotion that people high in narcissism demonstrate mean that, should they not live up to their own standards of perfection, they need to come up with ways to avoid facing the truth. Perhaps you’ve played what you thought was a casual game of cards, or a friendly round of bowling, only to find that your opponent has turned it into a cutthroat competition. You agreed to play, not knowing this person all that well, but now regret that you are in a far more vicious battle than you imagined. How did things go so wrong? You may have become ensnared in the net of a highly narcissistic acquaintance, and now you vow to do anything you can to avoid it in the future.

According to Bangor (UK) University’s Stuart Beattie and colleagues (2017), there’s a reason people high in narcissism strive so hard to avoid losing. For other individuals, getting involved in a test of abilities means that you set your sights on what you think you’ll be able to accomplish. You adjust your self-efficacy—the belief you have in your ability to succeed on a given task—according to your actual accomplishments.

Here’s how your self-efficacy becomes pinned to your experiences: Perhaps you decide to go to a new exercise class at your gym. You’re usually able to follow along with the classes you’ve taken there, so you figure this one won’t be too bad. Much to your chagrin, however, you find yourself barely able to keep up; the weights are too heavy and the steps too complicated. For people high in narcissism, this would be the worst possible outcome imaginable. Humiliated in front of others, they need to come up with a coping method, and fast. As explained by the UK team, they might just ignore the facts and congratulate themselves on their outstanding performance. Or they could engage in self-handicapping, in which they might , for example, say they just didn’t try that hard. Either way, they fail to change their self-efficacy as a result of their failure to live up to their unrealistically high goals.

Thus, narcissism throws a monkey wrench into the relationship between self-efficacy and performance. However, Beattie et al. suspected that people high in narcissism might simply cover up the amount of effort they actually expend on difficult tasks. While they might say they didn’t try that hard, their racing heart and sweaty palms could belie their discounting efforts. To test these ideas, the British team created an artificial race using Gran Turismo 5 for the PlayStation 3 gaming system. Participants were hooked up to an electrocardiogram (ECG), measuring heart rate variability (HRV) as an index of effort. They received feedback on their performance throughout the trials, as their progress was displayed on a leader board. Additionally, their performance was tracked on the simulator, and they could see what their race times actually were. 

To assess perceived effort, the research team asked participants across the 10 trials to rate how much effort they put into the task, as well as their self-efficacy levels. They also completed a standard narcissistic personality questionnaire. Those high in narcissism traits, Beattie et al believed, would have high expectations for themselves and wouldn’t change their self-efficacy across trials. If they were self-handicapping, they would also downplay the amount of effort they exerted compared to what their HRV’s really revealed about how hard they were trying.

As the Bangor researchers noted, “individuals high in narcissism pay little regard to current performance standards, and … may, in part, base their future performance expectations on aspirations rather than actual past performance” (p. 208). When it comes to effort, similarly, narcissism comes into play in altering what we would normally expect to be a positive relationship between performance and the extent to which you believe you’re trying hard to win. Those high in narcissism under-reported their effort when they weren't the leaders, consistent with the idea that the failing narcissist is a self-handicapper. The true test came in their actual effort, as measured by HRV. In fact, those high in narcissism exerted themselves more than they cared to admit.

The British study was published in a journal devoted to performance psychology and, indeed, would seem to have relevance to coaching situations. The authors advise that “when one is working with an individual high in narcissism (e.g., as a coach to an athlete or a superior in the workplace), it may be beneficial to encourage them to consider all objective feedback” (p. 211). You may be thinking, "Good luck with that," but from a behavioral standpoint, such an approach has potential if you consider that the objective evidence can also include monitoring the individual’s actual effort. You may not be able to hook the person up to a machine, but you can train him or her to pay attention to internal bodily cues, such as a racing heart or feelings of anxiety.

All of this begs the question of whether people high in narcissism can in fact become able to reconcile their inflated self-images with their experiences of failure. Let’s return to that example of the group fitness class in which you were unable to keep up with your fellow participants. If you’re not particularly narcissistic, you’ll admit that you are more out of shape than you realized and you might keep going to the class until you get better. For the narcissistic individual, it’s important to acknowledge this very same fact, and either to adopt more realistic expectations for future performance, or actually work hard to reach that higher ground.

The good news about self-efficacy is that it isn’t a general personality trait, but is tied to specific performance on a specific task. Therefore, even people high in narcissism can learn to monitor and adjust their attitudes toward success and failure. Rather than needing to constantly cover for their failures, with the right kind of feedback, they may be able to take them in stride as a natural, and acceptable, part of life.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017


Beattie, S., Dempsey, C., Roberts, R., Woodman, T., & Cooke, A. (2017). The moderating role of narcissism on the reciprocal relationship between self-efficacy and performance. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 6(2), 199-214. doi:10.1037/spy0000092