“God is really an artist, like me … I am God, I am God, I am God.” Pablo Picasso
Some experts have suggested there’s a link between narcissism and creativity – that the self-obsession and self-belief create the necessary time and space for originality to flourish. On the contrary, Jack Goncalo at Cornell University has just published results from three experiments which show that narcissists on their own aren’t any more creative than usual, even though they think they are. The narcissist’s braggadocio also leads others to overestimate the originality of their ideas. On the other hand, Goncalo’s team show that when it comes to group creativity, the competitiveness of multiple narcissists really is beneficial, so long as you don’t have too many of them.
Two hundred and forty-four undergrads completed a standardised measure of narcissism (sample items included ‘I really like to be the centre of attention’) followed by two classic tests of creativity. One of these involved thinking up new uses for a brick, the other required them to draw a new kind of alien. Students who were more narcissistic didn’t excel any more than usual on the creativity tests, but they thought they had.
For the second study, 76 students were formed into pairs and allocated the role of movie pitcher or evaluator. The former had 10 minutes to plan an idea for a new Hollywood movie before pitching it to the latter.
Ideas pitched by students who scored higher in narcissism tended to be rated as more creative and feasible – an association that was mediated by the fact that narcissistic pitchers were perceived as more energetic and enthusiastic. However, when the transcripts of the pitches were coded carefully by independent judges unaware of who had delivered which pitches, the more narcissistic participants no longer scored higher on creativity and feasibility.
The implication seems to be that the braggadocio of the narcissists, rather than the true quality of their ideas, led evaluators to rate their pitches more highly. The researchers said that this finding should be alarming for people who work in fields that lack objective measures of the quality of ideas. ‘In such fields, creative output may gradually decline as true creative talent is continuously traded for charisma and enthusiasm,’ they warned.
So far the research has challenged the idea that narcissists on their own really are more creative. But what about in groups? The final study involved 292 undergrads completing a measure of narcissism before forming 73 four-person groups. Their task was to suggest ways for a real company to improve its performance. The key finding here was that groups with approximately two narcissists on board tended to outperform those with more or fewer narcissists. Why should this be? Goncalo’s team think that the presence of two narcissists generates a healthy dose of in-group competition, thus helping idea generation. However too many narcissists in the proverbial kitchen and the excessive internal competition spoils the creative broth.
‘The same needs for recognition and power that cast a dark shadow on narcissists may position them as catalysts for creative colloquy,’ the researchers said. ‘The results suggest that to capitalise on the narcissists in our midst, we should collaborate with them and encourage them to collaborate with each other. In so doing, groups could turn what is often considered a decidedly negative trait into a valuable source of creative tension.’
Goncalo JA, Flynn FJ, and Kim SH (2010). Are Two Narcissists Better Than One? The Link Between Narcissism, Perceived Creativity, and Creative Performance. Personality and social psychology bulletin PMID: 20947771