The Need to Be Admired Can Make Narcissists Great Teachers
The need for admiration can surprisingly make a narcissist a great teacher.
Posted April 9, 2019
Standing up to teach in front of the classroom, whether it’s in a kindergarten or college lecture hall, takes a certain ability to be a performer. Teachers must literally be performers, especially when they are leading classes such as art or gym. If you’ve ever taken Zumba, for example, you know that good teachers are the ones who can motivate you to sway your hips and sing along to the music by drawing attention to their own exaggerated dance moves. In the elementary school classroom, the best kindergarten teachers are able to captivate their young pupils while dramatizing the pictures in a children’s book. Good college professors standing in front of 300 students don’t just read from their notes or slides but act out the examples they provide to highlight the main points of the lecture.
Good teachers must be able not just to perform, but to engage their students in the learning process, even if that learning process only involves mastering the cha-cha. If students gain the skills or knowledge that the teacher tries to impart, this reflects favorably on the teacher. High school teachers are proud when their students gain acceptance into the colleges of their choice just as music teachers feel gratified when their budding virtuosos play their recital pieces to perfection. Think back on a class that you’ve taken in which your teacher showed pleasure at your own progress. Your teacher was happy for you, but also happy to have been able to play an instrumental part in your learning.
The two facets of teaching most relevant to narcissism, then, involve having charisma so that students will pay attention, and seeing that the instruction has resulted in student improvement. As it turns out, research on narcissism identifies the desire for admiration as a distinct quality from the desire to outdo other people, or rivalry. Teachers who are jealous of students who move on to outperform them would be high on that second facet, and it’s unlikely you’d consider them to be “good.” No one wants a teacher who tries to undermine a successful student.
As reasonable as it seems to propose that the narcissistic desire for admiration would predict the ability to be a good teacher, there is no research on this precise question. Instead, University of Western Ontario’s Alex Benson and colleagues (2018) have investigated the related issue of whether people high in the narcissistic need for admiration also are more likely to affiliate with people in a group setting. Thus, good teachers would presumably have this desire as well given that they would prefer not to alienate their students. Indeed, in a casual educational setting such as a group fitness class, the teacher may very well be a member of that group.
According to Benson et al., individuals high in narcissism should wish to identify strongly with a group that they perceive as successful, which would mean they would want their own students to do well. In the words of the authors, narcissists are “highly invested in enhancing and protecting their positive self-view” (p. 2). As the Canadian authors explain, people high in narcissism “feel a poor performance reflects poorly on them personally if they identify highly with the ingroup” (p. 2). Moreover, they “resist occupying lower status positions in groups” (p. 2). Thus, people high in narcissism should wish to adopt a position of high status in their educational domain (a group in the large sense), and being a teacher puts them in that top-ranked position.
The component of narcissistic rivalry seems less relevant to teaching, as mentioned above. Indeed, people high in this quality may distance themselves from a group that is not succeeding to avoid being tainted by their poor performance. However, for teachers high in narcissism, it’s difficult to acknowledge that the students aren’t doing well because to do so reflects badly on their ability to do their job. Their only way out is to look for the first opportunity to change classes or possibly teaching venues. This way they can blame the students and not themselves.
With this background in mind, the Canadian authors proposed that people high in narcissistic admiration would identify more strongly with groups that were successful but those high in narcissistic rivalry would be more likely to abandon an unsuccessful group. The 374 undergraduate participants in this study completed a measure tapping the two dimensions of narcissistic admiration (“I am great,” “I will someday be famous”) and rivalry (“I often get annoyed when I am criticized,” “I want my rivals to fail”). Then they participated in a simulated group success or failure condition that required them to work with a virtual 3-person team to solve a mystery (determining the cause of a car accident). Although participants didn’t see their virtual team members, they got to "know" them through a set of simulated instant messages that preceded the task, including choosing a name for their group which the other “members” were programmed to agree to use. This naming component of the study provided the basis for participants to feel a sense of shared identity with the other members of the group. After the mystery-solving task was completed, participants received simulated individual and team feedback which, according to condition, either communicated success or failure. After the manipulation, participants rated their sense of shared identity with the group, as well as their desire to stay with or leave the group.
As the authors predicted, people higher in narcissistic admiration felt a stronger shared identity when their group was successful. The status of being in a successful group, in other words, helped people high in narcissistic admiration to feel better about themselves. However, when their group was unsuccessful, people high in narcissistic rivalry didn’t show a greater tendency to want to abandon their group. From this conclusion, it would appear that a teacher high in narcissism would not want to jump ship but would instead turn on the defenses to protect his or her self-esteem, perhaps by blaming circumstances outside the control of the students (e.g. the room was too hot, the class was too early in the morning, or the course material was unreasonably difficult).
It’s important to keep in mind that the findings were based on undergraduates who were placed in a somewhat artificial situation, although one that the researchers experimentally controlled. Furthermore, the researchers did not dig deeply into the motivations of the participants, and the differences, though significant, represented small effects within the larger scales used to measure the key variables of interest. Nevertheless, the idea that people high in narcissism can seek to derive personal self-esteem from their work in a group provides a novel twist in understanding how they might behave in a teaching situation.
To sum up, to be a great teacher you don’t have to be high in narcissism, but having a strong desire for admiration may inspire those who become great teachers to perform at their very best. Just as importantly, they will also work hard to make sure that their students achieve success.
Benson, A. J., Jeschke, J., Jordan, C. H., Bruner, M. W., & Arnocky, S. (2018). Will they stay or will they go? Narcissistic admiration and rivalry predict ingroup affiliation and devaluation. Journal of Personality. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12441