Personality traits are often somewhat ambiguous. While it’s good to be agreeable, it’s not good to be TOO agreeable. While it’s good to be conscientious, you can be so conscientious that you never eat that piece of cake or splurge on that great meal. But narcissism, having an overinflated view of the self that leads to a sense of entitlement, self-centeredness and superiority, is pretty clear cut. Narcissism is bad for everyone. Being a narcissist comes with no real long term advantages, though short term advantages might be present. In fact, narcissism is such a bad quality that it’s considered part of the “dark triad” of personality traits, which also includes Machiavellianism (being very manipulative) and psychopathy (being callous and lacking empathy).1 Narcissism is not simply having high self-esteem, it is having a grandiose sense of self that is not grounded in reality.
That description might as well be a description of Donald Trump, former reality star and gold enthusiast and current candidate for the Presidency of the United States. When Donald Trump equates his personal success with the sacrifices of a gold star family, or when he talks about how he alone can fix the problems we face (after all, he knows more about ISIS than the generals and he could deal with thorny issues like illegal immigration and health care during his first 100 days in office), he is displaying a classic example of the narcissistic personality. So why do we care?
Well, psychologists have not only studied how narcissism affects individuals, they have also studied how narcissistic leaders affect their constituency. Jerrold Post has suggested that narcissistic leaders have impaired judgment and decision making.2 Because narcissists tend to think they know best, they are less likely to take criticism or advice from others. This is obviously a terrible leadership quality, as narcissistic leaders are more likely to make uninformed decisions, or to go forward with decisions even once contrary information has come to light. Because narcissists have a grandiose view of themselves, they are more likely to be overly optimistic about the efficacy of their beliefs.2 This problem is compounded by the narcissistic tendency to surround oneself with people who agree with the narcissist.3 In the case of the narcissist, the “best people” to surround himself with are the people who agree with him.
But the problems don’t stop there. Betty Glad finds that narcissistic leaders have an easier time rising to power than they do in actually wielding it.3 Narcissists are charismatic, so it is not surprising that narcissism may sometimes help someone get into a position of power.3 But Glad finds that once that power is attained, narcissists run into some serious problems.3 Oftentimes, narcissists have very bad ideas that cannot be enacted when they don’t have power. But once they do, they are less in touch with reality, more likely to display erratic behavior, have difficulty attaining goals and ultimately become paranoid and defensive.3 And when you surround yourself with people who agree with you, this leads to the perfect storm of malignant narcissistic leadership: Someone who thinks too highly of themselves and their own ideas, running essentially unchecked.
There is one more quality of narcissistic leaders that makes them incredibly dangerous: They have superego deficiencies.3 In other words, narcissistic leaders don’t have a very well developed conscience. The very thing that prompts restraint in our actions, that encourages us to think about how our actions affect others, that tells us to put the brakes on when our ideas are out of control…this basic sense of restraint and morality that children develop early on in life is largely missing from narcissistic leaders. So the next time Donald Trump asks why we can’t use nuclear weapons or vows to deport 11 million people, take him seriously. He has demonstrated that he isn’t a man who can really conceive of the consequences of his actions. But we know better. You cannot declare bankruptcy to get out of nuclear war.
- Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The dark triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of research in personality, 36(6), 556-563.
- Post, J.M. (1993). Current concepts of the narcissistic personality: Implications for Political Psychology. Political Psychology, 14(1), 99-121.
- Glad, B. (2002). Why tyrants go too far: Malignant narcissism and absolute power. Political Psychology, 23(1), 1-37.