Business School: Hotbed of Narcissism?

Posted by: Louis Lavelle on August 12, 2010

The rap against b-school students for some time now has been that they’re self-centered people focused on money who will stop at nothing, including cheating, to advance their own interests. Like most sweeping generalizations that one is probably wrong almost as often as it’s right.

Now comes some new research that suggests that the generalization has more than a dash of truth to it. The study, presented Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management in Montreal, was authored by four researchers from Appalachian State University in North Carolina. Jim Westerman, Jacqueline Bergman, Shawn Bergman, and Joseph Daly surveyed more than 500 undergraduate business and psychology students at their school and concluded that they are more narcissistic than college students of the past, and that of the two, business students exhibit the highest levels of the personality trait .

Since the study hasn’t been published yet, I called Westerman for the low-down on the study’s findings. He told me that the students who were surveyed were measured for narcissism using something called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. The NPI presents pairs of statements and asks subjects to choose the one that best describes them; it gives researchers a way to quantify personality traits such as modesty, selfishness, and assertiveness.

So how bad is it for b-school students? Pretty bad. The researchers, Westerman said, found that psychology students had an average NPI score of 15.19. The business students registered 17.67 on the narcissism scale. (Keep in mind that they still have a ways to go before they hit Donald Trump levels; the NPI tops out at 30.) And it gets worse. Westerman said the team compared the NPI scores it found with those reported by previous researchers. In 1992, the average NPI score of college students (not just business students) reported in one study was 15.93; a few years earlier, in 1987, it was 15.65. College students, particularly business students, were turning into full-blown ego maniacs.

Westerman blames business schools, who he says are either attracting narcissists, creating them from scratch, or a little of both. And that, he says, is a big problem for business, where he says the personality trait can cause all manner of mayhem. "Increasing narcissism has been linked to risky decision-making, alcohol abuse, and toxic work environments," Westerman says. "The fact that business schools are creating narcissists and sending them out into the workplace is not a good thing."

Oddly enough, a second paper presented at the conference suggests that narcissism in the right dosage might not be such a bad thing. That paper, authored by Jack Goncalo and Sharon Kim at Cornell and Francis Flynn of Stanford, found that narcissists on their own can undermine the workings of teams. But when two or more are present their tendency to compete with each other for the attention of teammates has the effect of prodding the group to consider a wider range of possible solutions.

So don't knock narcissists, just go out and find another one. If you're in b-school, that shouldn't be too hard.

Reader Comments


August 12, 2010 3:53 PM

interesting article...


August 12, 2010 6:05 PM

I'm kind of burnt out on the vilificaiton of b-schools and business students. I am happy to be an MBA. I happen to work at a NFP children's hospital. Plenty of my classmates work in NFP enterprises - hardly the epitomy of greed.

There are several problems with this article and this study. First of all, UNDERGRADUATE business majors aren't in business school. Second, they compared business majors with...psychology majors? What is the NPI of an average college student? I'm not usually one to point fingers, but I know PLENTY of doctors and lawyers that would rival any narcissim exhibited by even the most self-centered business students. Too bad they didn't sample pre-med and pre-law students as well. Assuming a normal distribution of results, where a score of 1 and a score of 30 are at the tails, wouldn't one expect to find most scores in the 10-20 range? 17.67 on the NPI scale is hardly noteworthy.

BW's Louis Lavelle

August 12, 2010 7:06 PM

Undergraduate business majors aren't in b-school? Really? That's going to come as a big surprise to a lot of them. So if you're an undergraduate who goes to Sloan (or Stern, or Wharton, or Ross) you're NOT going to business school. But if you're an MBA going to Sloan (or Stern, or Wharton, or Ross) you are? Color me confused. However I do agree with you on all the rest. The findings might have been very different if the sample included more than just psych and business students.

Louis Lavelle
Associate Editor
Bloomberg Businessweek

Nick Ursini

August 13, 2010 8:29 AM

Yes, the results are probably true. Then again, past media reports point out that folks with PhD's in English, History, Philosophy, and so on cobble together careers earning in the $30,000 range as adjunct faculty members. MBA students with technical backgrounds have the academic credentials to solve problems, create new products, and address market needs. Sooo, why not present an image of self-confidence? I am a Wake Forest MBA who graduated as a Babcock Scholar and NCSU engineering grad.

Read more: N.C. biz school students narcissists? - Triangle Business Journal

Chris Duke

August 13, 2010 9:17 AM

I am not clear from this story as to the source of the 500 students. It appears that the survey population is from Appalachian State University. If this is the case, then I would have to say that this study has no relevance for the MBA population at large.

While ASU is certainly a solid institution, they are not at the top of the list for business schools. For a survey to merit reporting, it should include some valid baseline for the general undergraduate population, the general graduate school population, and should be spread across schools in different areas and different academic levels. The difference could well be attributed to the student population attracted to this school. (For example - Duke's Fuqua School has a program for Social Entrepreneurship - I expect the participants would rank lower on the scale than this population)

The scope of this study (if it was in fact only at their school and only compared to undergrad psych majors) is simply too narrow. Even if the survey population was outside the school, it is not structured well enough to determine whether the results are statistically significant or not.

Controversy gets headlines and beating up on MBA students might seem like a good way to get some eyeballs, but the study should be statistically sound. Otherwise, you are just 'curve fitting' the results.


August 13, 2010 3:19 PM

It's a bit of academic lingo--to say one is in business school usually means that one is in a graduate program (MBA or PhD). An undergrad is just an undergrad....their major is business. Kind of like how a premed student is not in med school and a pre-law student isn't in law school.


August 13, 2010 4:31 PM

"The fact that business schools are creating narcissists and sending them out into the workplace is not a good thing."

I agree with that 100 % but at the same time it is interesting to note that it is B-schools who admit "narcissists" students.

We have to accept the fact that narcissists are not created overnight. The trait is acquired over time. So there might be something going on wrong with the whole process of student selection.

Maybe the lure of six figure salary and other benefits has in fact led these students to B-school who want it to use business school as a stepping stone for monetary success.

A look at B-school websites shows how over a period of time all the student profiles are starting to look similar.

I think the B-schools should take this as an alarm and do some soul searching as to what could be the reason !

BW's Louis Lavelle

August 13, 2010 4:55 PM

Chris, the students who were surveyed were all from Appalachian State--I said this in the blog post (2nd graph: surveyed students "at their school") but I didn't really dwell on it.

Karthik, I think you're onto something about the prospect of big salaries playing a big role in determining the kinds of people who go to b-school.

When I spoke to him, Westerman really focused on the negative attributes of narcissism, of which there are many. But surely it has positive aspects too. Many of the great advances in human history weren't the result of selflessness but selfishness-the desire to bring fame and glory on oneself. Purge narcissism from the human gene pool and you might soon regret it, no? Like any other quirk of human behavior, narcissism is probably the result of evolutionary pressures--we're narcissists today because they we need them.

Louis Lavelle
Associate Editor
Bloomberg Businessweek


August 18, 2010 3:52 AM

I strongly agree with Louis and recently read this posting which seems highly related. [Ed. note: what follows was posted by "littletoad" on the Bloomberg Businessweek MBA Forum on Aug. 16.]


Do you think it’s possible to make-up fictional essays and get admitted to top MBA programs? Many people would doubt but answer seems shockingly YES.

Recently, Stanford MBA admitted an Asian student as class of 2012 who wrote about non-existing family member -- adopted sister -- who succeeded as a photographer through the support of the candidate. Moreover, the candidate even manipulates family member’s job and talks about how fictional trip to the third world country opened the applicant’s aspiration of social work.

This is just a small part. Some admitted students easily change the time period that they volunteered for social work. More shockingly, some students confessed that their cancer surviving story and social volunteering story which took great part of application essay were all fictional. This is easy because most Top MBA programs do not check integrity on applicant’s essays. MBA admission committee only checks background records for full-time employment, diploma, criminal history, and transcript.

Does the end justify the means? Many students think they can make-up whatever the story that can be helpful to get admitted. I am worried that these ruthless morale-lacking people might end up as unethical businessman who can harm the whole society.

At the root of the above unfortunate incidents are greed, arrogance, and lack of integrity and ethical standards that is dangerously tied to criteria which top MBA schools are searching for: achievement, achievement, and achievement.

Top MBA Schools let people exaggerate and easily manipulate personal experience in the essay as the schools are looking for people who can tell eye-catching story, fun to read. Thanks to the schools, currently there are many MBA essay editing companies professionally articulate and manipulate the personal stories. Even many of top MBA admitted students use essay consulting service. Those companies, running by graduates from MBA schools including TUCK and Columbia, sometime advice applicants to change the company’s brand and location to the global ones, and to write fake stories that can be as good as real experience. They are true experienced professionals who make up touching and logical stories for paid-clients.

Why that can be possible? I doubt about MBA School’s verification process. I want to ask to Top MBA Program a few questions. How do you verify authenticity of essays of admitted students? Do you require any documentations and photographs which can easily prove the content of essay? Don’t you think that MBA schools are responsible for superficial education that focus only for number and ends not the mean and soul searching?

These days, People are looking for “good” jobs that can be easy to get into the Top MBA Schools, not for “right” career for their souls. The MBA program is not a means to the end; accordingly, a well-constructed and conscience school should compel its students to do a little soul searching. Ironically, the current structure and protocols in place seem to almost seduce students to sell their souls to get into a top caliber program.

Elise Feldman, PhD

August 18, 2010 7:10 PM

Are there a few more narcissists in business school than in graduate psych programs? Sure. So what?

First, lets talk about the measure. The NPI measures narcissism, but it is NOT a tool that can diagnose someone. That means that to be narcissistic according to the NPI only tells us that the individual has personality traits typical of narcissism, but not how those traits effect the person's functioning. What we should be more concerned with are the people in business who have sociopathic traits - those who habitually lie and hurt others to better themselves. Bernie Madoff, if you will.

Second, the average score on the NPI in the US is about 15.3 (Foster, Campbell, & Twenge, 2003), female celebrities have an average score of 19.3 (Young & Pinsky, 2006), and in my own studies of narcissism the score for the average narcissist was 21.0. Translation: While b-school students are a bit more narcissistic than your average Joe, they certainly don't compare to a Lady Gaga type or even the run-of-the-mill undergraduate narcissist.

Third, to succeed in business in a competitive marketplace like ours, some aspects of narcissism come in handy, such as authority and self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, some of the less admirable narcissistic traits, like exploitativeness and entitlement, don't hurt either. But don't all fields pull for a few personality problems here or there? I want my accountant to be a touch obsessive, the author of my latest fiction read to be eccentric, my lawyer to intellectualize everything emotional, and my doctor to put others' needs before his/her own.

So, in my professional opinion, the b-school students in this study aren't over-the-top, and there are probably a small number of more extreme narcissists pulling up the average scores. So, if narcissists know enough about themselves to use their powers to better a company and potentially the economy, good for them! And as a narcissist might say, good for me too!

Joe Daly

August 19, 2010 11:07 AM

I'm one of the study's authors. There seems to be a question as to whether the findings from undergrads at Appalachian State generalize to top b-school MBAs. I taught MBAs at Kellogg before I came to ASU--I would say that, if anything, the problem is worse at top b-schools than it is here.


August 19, 2010 12:48 PM

So business students at Appalachian State University are more narcissistic than psychology majors. Makes sense, I'm guessing business majors average out to be more confident, sure of themselves, and proud of themselves in the face of unemployment than psychology majors who are and should be fearing for their futures.

If I'm hiring, I'd prefer an entry-level narcissist than a graduate lacking confidence; but maybe I'm just too full of myself.


August 19, 2010 5:20 PM

The fella who commented that undergraduate business majors are not in business school,so give back their MBA to whatever school they graduated from,that is just a shame and i hope this fella did not graduate from an Ivy League school,shows how low IQ people with MBAs are given others with similar qualifications a bad name,how would you be an undergraduate business major and not be attending a business school,for christ sake do you study accounting in the biology department?am a bit lost here SMH


October 5, 2010 6:13 AM

My experience in working with lots of these people is that it doesn't start in B=School. It starts in the home. If we want to reform, then let's get to the parents. These students were narcissists before they got to B-School. The school just continued what parents started. The sad thing is that changing the parenting is not all that difficult. We have worked with many parents who, when they see the results of treating their kids "special" etc, have the light bulb go off and their parenting can immediately and radically change. The children ultimately appreciate it, too.


January 8, 2011 1:54 PM

To completely put to rest the "undergraduates aren't in business school" debate...

SOME are in business school. In fact- I feel it is safe to say that most undergrad business majors are not in business school.

I have a brother at Villanova, a university that has a business school. He decided to switch from engineering to economics and had to make the decision: Do I get a BA or a BS in econ? He went the BS route, so he is in business school.

I graduated with a BS in business and was not in business school because my college did not have a business school.

Never assume that because your own experience differs with someone’s statement makes you right and him wrong. Maybe you are both wrong because you are each half right. Maybe you are both narcissists. Regardless, it is impossible for me to be wrong because I am the true authority on this discussion and in life in general.

March 27, 2011 10:24 PM

Business_school_hotbed_of_narcissism.. Ho-o-o-o-t :)


April 3, 2011 2:19 PM

As a student of a prominent EMBA program, I can tell you it's a den of narcissists. Very unpleasant.

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