Technically, narcissism is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they are superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings.
And yet, university researchers point out narcissists’ innate tendency to promote themselves—in part by engaging and speaking at length—which implied confidence and expertise in job interview settings.
“This is one setting where it’s OK to say nice things about yourself and there are no ramifications. In fact, it’s expected,” said Peter Harms, assistant professor of management at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a co-author of the new study. “Simply put, those who are comfortable doing this tend to do much better than those who aren’t.”
An announcement from the university explains how researchers engaged in the two-part study examining the effectiveness of the types of behaviors that narcissists exhibit—“which would be typically seen as maladjusted”—in the narrow context of an interview.
In the first part, 72 participants were videotaped in a simulated job-applicant setting. As expected, narcissists were more likely to self-promote; however, it was when expert interviewers challenged applicants that narcissists started behaving in unexpected ways, Harms said. While normal individuals backed off of their self-promotion tactics when held accountable, narcissists actually increased their attempts to make themselves look better.
“When feeling challenged, they tend to double down,” Harms said. “It’s as if they say, ‘Oh, you’re going to challenge me? Then I’m not just great—I’m fantastic.’ And in this setting,” Harms observed, “it tended to work.” In the study’s second part, 222 raters evaluated videos of applicants with similar job skills and varying levels of narcissism.
The raters consistently awarded chronic self-promoters—who spoke quickly and at length and who used ingratiation tactics—such as smiling, gesturing, and complimenting others—with much better evaluations. Equally qualified applicants who were more modest scored lower.
“This shows that what is getting [narcissists] the win is the delivery,” Harms said. “These results show just how hard it is to effectively interview, and how fallible we can be when making interview judgments. We don’t necessarily want to hire narcissists, but might end up doing so because they come off as being self-confident and capable.”
For interviewers, the study’s findings mean they must become aware of the tactics used by narcissists, Harms said, and, if necessary, avoid selecting people who chronically use self-promotion and ingratiation, unless those behaviors are appropriate for the position.
For job seekers, meanwhile, the key takeaway from this report, according to Canada’s Globe and Mail, is that “In job interviews, the rules of normal social interaction get shifted, and people looking to get hired need to view what might be odious behavior in the rest of life as beneficial.”