Narcissists don’t learn from their mistakes, because they fail to acknowledge they made a mistake in the first place.
Researchers from Oregon State University found that narcissists don’t admit fault when they get something wrong or make a mistake, but if they make good decisions are happy to claim they knew that would be the outcome.
Understanding how narcissists work, the researchers say, could be useful in the workplace.
“This study was inspired by the fact that other researchers have found that narcissists tend to rise in organizational ranks, yet it can be problematic for companies because they also tend to make risky decisions and often perform poorly as leaders. We wanted to know why this is. We believe the research is important because, if we have a better understanding of why this is, we can hopefully do something to mitigate the negative effects,” Satoris Howes, author of the study and a researcher at OSU-Cascades with the OSU College of Business told Theravive. e
“We found that when narcissists make a decision that turns out to be a good one, they assert that they knew it all along – no doubt in their minds. When they make a decision that turns out to be a bad one, however, they claim that nobody could have made the right choice. So, getting something right is obviously because they are good decision makers, and getting something wrong is because nobody would have done it; it’s not their fault,” she said.
Narcissism is often characterised by arrogant behaviour, a sense of entitlement and an excessive need for admiration. Narcissists believe they are better than others and also more deserving than others.
In undertaking the study, Howes and colleagues conducted four versions of the same experiment using four different groups of participants. The participants included students, employees and managers who had considerable experience hiring others.
The participants took a test designed to rank their narcissism by asking them to choose between pairs of statements. Statements included things like “I think I am a special person” or “I am no better or worse than most people”.
In the first version of the experiment, the participants read the qualifications of hypothetical candidates for a job, and were asked to choose who to hire. Once the participants had selected their candidate for the job, they were informed about how the employee did. During this period, the participants were assessed to determine whether they engaged in “should counterfactual thinking” regarding whether they made the right choice.
Counterfactual thinking describes the tendency for people to create alternatives to events that have already happened. The researchers used different methods across the four experiments to investigate whether counterfactual thinking was impacted by hindsight bias, a tendency to over exaggerate in hindsight what one knew before an event occurs.
“We found that individuals higher on narcissism are less likely to think they should have done something differently, or question what they should change going forward. It seems they blindly feel like winners after success, and therefore aren’t learning from their previous decisions,” Howes said.
The researchers use the example of Donald Trump in 2004 declaring that he predicted the Iraq war “better than anybody”.
Many argue that President Donald Trump is a narcissist, and Howes says this has the potential to be very dangerous.
“If they are failing to learn from their mistakes, they are likely to keep repeating them. Taking President Trump as an example, consider his suggestions on how to fight COVID-19. He didn’t learn from his mistake of recommending hydroxychloroquine, as he later suggested chemical disinfectants could be injected as a potential treatment. Both led to serious problems,” she said.
But getting a narcissist to change their ways isn’t easy.
“Our research suggests they don’t feel they are making mistakes, so there is nothing to change. And confronting a narcissist with the idea that they are wrong will be a blow to their ego, and likely lead them to dismiss your viewpoint. So, while it could be possible, our research suggests it would likely be very difficult and perhaps improbable,” Howes said.
But people can take steps to guard against the potential negative impacts from narcissists.
“It is important to question your decisions. Ask yourself what you should have done differently, whether your decision was a success or a failure. And if a suspected narcissist is doing the decision making, question their decisions on their behalf. Having advisory panels to provide checks and balances when narcissists have decision-making authority is imperative.”
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.