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.