Service To Self Vs. Service To Others With Dr. W. Keith Campbell
In this age of social media, narcissism has become even more felt. It shows up not only as our personas online but also in business. If you’re not aware, it could be impacting you negatively. Bringing new and important knowledge in this episode, Katherine Twells sits down with W. Keith Campbell, PhD. Dr. Campbell is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Georgia and is the author of more than 100 scientific articles and four books, including his latest, The New Science of Narcissism, which he is going to share today. He discusses the different kinds of narcissism and how it shows up in business and in all of our relationships. He also brings a better understanding of how we can work together to mitigate some of the challenges that it brings and how we can also increase our self-awareness, knowing that we can create a better future not in service to self but to others. Join in on this discussion and gain fresh insights about narcissism so we can improve our lives and those around us as well.
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Service To Self Vs. Service To Others With Dr. W. Keith Campbell
How The New Science Of Narcissism Is Affecting Leadership And Life
I will be speaking with Dr. W. Keith Campbell about how the dynamics of narcissism are at play in our leadership and our lives. My guest is a PhD, Professor of Psychology at the University of Georgia, and is the author of more than 100 scientific articles and four books, including his latest, The New Science of Narcissism. His work has appeared in USA Today, Time, and The New York Times. Dr. Campbell has also made numerous radio and television appearances including The Today Show and NPR’s All Things Considered. Dr. Campbell holds a BA from the University of California at Berkeley, an MA from San Diego State University and a PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His postdoctoral work was completed at Case Western Reserve University.Studying narcissism gives you a window into ego. Click To Tweet
Why talk about narcissism? This topic has been gaining interest as we observe the societal factors affecting us, everything from social media or the fast-paced, dynamic changes in the business that affect the leaders we choose. Since this is also commonly misunderstood, we’ll talk about the different kinds of narcissism and how it shows up in business and in all of our relationships. How might we better understand the impact and work together to mitigate some of the challenges that it brings? How can we also increase our self-awareness and move together knowing that a better future will arise from a commitment to the betterment of the whole versus individual self-interest? In our conversation, you’re also going to hear the unlikely way that Dr. Campbell found his way into this area of expertise. In reading this, you may never think about chocolate cake in quite the same way again. I hope that you will find an expanded perspective in my conversation with the accomplished Dr. Keith Campbell.
Keith, welcome to the show. I am grateful for your time.
Thanks for having me, Katherine. I appreciate it.
The people who read this know that I start and I’ll give your bio. I’ll set the stage right for our conversation before this. A bio is one thing, but your origin story is another. It’s that story behind the story of your bio. How did you get to where you are doing the mission work that you’re doing and writing about this topic? How did you get here?
The less interesting answer is that as a social-personality psychologist in graduate school, I wanted to figure out ego. Studying narcissism gives you a window into ego. You look at people who are narcissistic and see how they work. You look at people who are less narcissistic and see how they work. You go, “That’s how the ego works.” It’s not all ego but the narcissistic ego is big and colorful and easy to study. That’s the boring part.
The other part for me was coming at it from more of a Buddhist perspective and trying to understand what the non-self was and the lack of ego and how to get away from this ego. When I started looking at this stuff in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was too hard. I didn’t know how to do that. I studied the opposite thing. Instead of studying enlightenment, I studied ego. I did it all backward. This is how it is. That’s partly why I got into it. Narcissism is one of those topics that keeps being important. For whatever reason, things happen culturally, whether it’s social media, violence or fame-seeking. Narcissism plays a role in a lot of these important cultural things and that’s what keeps it interesting as a field of study.
I do feel like you hear it more and more. We’re going to talk about the societal impacts. Is it increasing? Are we hearing about it more now? Before we get to that, I’m always fascinated when I speak with people about their childhood or formative years. Keith, what was it about you that led you to be interested in the human psyche? What brought you into that?
I grew up at a different time, in a different place called the ‘70s in Laguna Beach.
The ‘70s in Laguna Beach sound like a dream.
It was crazy but I loved it. I grew up surfing and traveling. I’ve always been interested in whatever. The things that I’m interested in that I do for fun are expedition surfing, fly fishing and traveling. I traveled all over the world and talked to lots of people. I find the world fascinating. Psychology was a central thing where I think about philosophy, money, politics, art and all those things come together. That was my background. I was a terrible student. I went to Berkeley. I had a 2.47 GPA. I went to about 35 dead shows.
It’s not all about the GPA.
I was a horrible student. As an undergraduate, I never listened to anybody. I read a lot of books. I got lucky and got a couple of mentors that brought me into a graduate program. I got some good training. For the grace of God, I ended up on the other side and had a job. I’ve been able to do this my whole life. It was a different time and a different course of events. Nowadays, you can’t go and be crazy and then get into academics. You have to start working hard. I couldn’t have done it now.
You were born in a time of grace to be able to be surfing in Laguna in the ‘70s before the world got to where it is now. That’s pretty special. You mentioned the Buddhist perspective. You have been a seeker to try to make sense of things. You mentioned coming at it maybe through the back door. We can learn by studying the opposite of what we’re trying to understand.
I was always interested in it, but I’m extroverted. Be still and meditate, I never could do it. I could go travel to Tibet and arm wrestle a monk, that was more my style. I go into places and talk to people. I traveled throughout Asia and chatted with different people. I was a terrible practitioner of anything. I’m not that disciplined. I never could sit still. My great publicist, Beth, is always like, “If you meditated for five minutes a day.” I’m like, “I want to.” Temperamentally, I’m extroverted and open. Quieting myself was such a struggle that I ended up going out and doing stuff. Maybe when I get older, I’ll be able to quiet down a little more.
We are who we are. A lot of people can relate to that. It’s pretty tough to think, “How hard could it be to sit down for five minutes and be quiet?” It can be impossible. Whether you’re a surfer or rock climber, you get into this Zen space because you have to be super present. It’s the same thing. You’re entering it in another way.
We talk about that as the flow state, which is that active, engaged state you can get in surfing or fly fishing. It’s intense. That is similar to mindfulness meditation except you’re actively quieting yourself. The other is you’re actively engaged in something. The way I’m wired, I like to be actively engaged to quiet my mind.
The moral of this conversation is there are many pathways into understanding enlightenment into becoming quiet. It’s not one way. We’re going to talk about how your quest for understanding the ego and understanding this led you into this deep dive with narcissism. There wasn’t maybe one experience or one person that triggered that. It was the total journey.
In general, people have a forcefield around themselves that we think were more important and better than we are. This applies to most people. If I’m teaching a class and I say, “Rate yourself on attractiveness on 1 to 10 versus the class.” The class average will be 6.5. On average, people think they’re better than average. That holds for a lot of things in life. That’s pretty healthy. Happy people think they’re a little better. There’s always an interest in the research literature trying to figure this out. What we found with narcissism is even within that normal bias, some people say, “I’m better than average. I’m better than you, Katherine. I want to point that out right now. I’m better than everyone.” It’s this active superiority that you start to see. It’s interesting academically and as all these implications. That’s how I got into it from the academic perspective.
The Gender Dynamics Of Narcissism
I’m curious, Keith, even before we get into the narcissistic personality. As people rating themselves 6.5, do you see any gender differences? This is a generalization. There are exceptions to all rules. I often will find that a male applicant will be like, “I only know maybe 80% of this dynamic, but I’m good. I can figure out the other 20%.” I talked to a lot of women, “I need to know all 100% beforehand.” It seems to be a little bit of a different dynamic. Do you see that?
Yes. It’s something you see with this more extroverted, grandiose form of narcissism. Men have it a little more than women. There’s a balance between men and women. Grandiosity, I see it more in men. What happens in a lot of these seminar situations is men are like, “I got 80%. I’m going for it.” Women, on broad averages, say, “I need 100% to go for it.” I’ve encouraged some of my female students to be more narcissistic. This is one of those challenges about narcissism being a trade-off. It’s not bad. It’s not good. It’s a trade-off. If you’re in an initial setting and you have to speak up in an interview context or a roundtable, the person who speaks up, people think that person is competent and the people more likely to speak up are more narcissistic. Even if you’re not naturally narcissistic, you have to train yourself. In this context, Keith, or in this context, Katherine, you need to speak out even if you’re not 100% certain about what you’re doing.
Types Of Narcissism
This is a great time to ground everyone on this dynamic. I would imagine everyone reading has certainly heard the term. We’ve all heard the term narcissism. Even with what you said, it can be confusing. It’s like, “Maybe I need to be more confident. I need to have my voice heard. Does that necessarily mean I’m being more narcissistic?” Can you ground everyone on what is this? What are the types? How should we think about it?
To set the table, first off, when we’re talking about narcissism, we’re talking about a personality trait. A trait is a way of being or a characteristic way of approaching the world. It exists on a normal continuum. Most of us are somewhere in the middle of narcissism, some people are pretty high, some people are pretty low. There’s also a personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder. I can talk about that but that’s rare. Trust me, in the business world, you’re going to run into it, but it’s still not going to be as common. What we’re talking about are traits.
Within the trait of narcissism, there are two phases or two common forms. What most of us are talking about with narcissism, and this is what you see in the dating world, the leadership world, politics, celebrities, is grandiose narcissism. This is a combination of that classic narcissistic, “I’m superior to you. I deserve special treatment. I’m going to take advantage of you.” It’s what we call the antagonistic part of narcissism or sometimes the more toxic part. That’s combined with a trait that we call extraversion. Most of us know extraversion means socio-ability. In psychology, it also means drive, ambition or energy. You can think about grandiose narcissism as somebody who’s maybe confident, charismatic, energetic, but also mean and has a sense of superiority and entitlement. People like that do well in life. When you first meet them, you go, “This person’s confident. I like them.” They’re willing to get ahead.
Usually, a lot of charismatic. You see that big and bold presence.In general, people have a forcefield around themselves that we think we’re more important and better than we are. Click To Tweet
Boldness is a great term that you see and that’s the term they use in some of the leadership assessments. They call this trait boldness instead of narcissism. It’s the same idea. In some ways, these are likable traits. They’re positive traits if they didn’t have that meanness and that toxicity and that willingness to cheat, lie and steal.
It’s like, “There’s that.”
When I say to somebody be more narcissistic, I’m not saying, “You should go take advantage of your husband and steal his money and cheat on him.” What I’m saying is to be more confident. These other people don’t know what they’re doing and they’re acting like it. Act like you know what you’re doing a little bit. You’ve got the ability. It’s more focused on being more assertive, more agentic, more extroverted than telling people to be meaner. You’re not saying to people, “Be a meaner person and take advantage of people.” You’re saying, “Be more confident. Be more energized. Be more extroverted.” That’s why that advice is weird.
Negative Connotation Of Narcissism
Even using that term, don’t you think the term has more of a negative connotation? People think about narcissism on a grandiose scale.
I study narcissism because I see it as a trade-off. It has benefits and costs like all personality. The term itself when it’s used is often pejorative, almost always. Somebody says, “Keith, you’re a narcissist.” I’m like, “Thank you.” If somebody says, “You’re confident, bold and energetic.” You’re like, “Thank you. That’s okay. I’ll take that.” Narcissism does have a more negative connotation and part of the reason is that people who are narcissistic hurt us. We get in relationships with them. We work for them. When it comes down to them or us, it’s them and we get hurt. We don’t like that term. I’m biased because I see it as a trade-off. I don’t see it as negative.
In many things, you’ve got the double edge. You’ve got the good part and the downside. At what point does it cross over into toxicity? Let’s say you’re in the work environment or a relationship, anyone in your life. When do you know, “This is a dangerous place for me” versus “That’s the way Uncle George is.”
There are a couple of ways to think about it. Does it crossover? Is a little narcissism good? A lot of narcissism gets bad. There is some idea that’s the case. It’s better to think about it is in some context or some situations, narcissism is a benefit. In some situations, it’s a cost. If you start dating somebody, narcissism can be great because you’re dating someone confident, attractive and seems bold. You go, “This is fine and exciting. It can be positive.” In the long term, when the person cheats on you or it turns out the person isn’t interested in an emotionally deep relationship, it becomes bad.
In leadership, we say the same thing, narcissism predicts rising in the leadership ranks more quickly, being seen as competent more quickly, what we call emergent leadership. You also see what travels with narcissism is poor ethics and leadership, taking advantage of people, taking big risks publicly. If you look at some of the corporate leaders, they’ll take these big public risks because they get all the headlines. “Keith acquired the new beverage company out of India for $12 billion.” I get to be paraded around CNBC for a few days. Sometimes that works and sometimes it’s a disaster. That’s the trade-off you see with narcissism. It can lead to these disastrous outcomes. In other contexts, the appearance, initial meetings, appearing on CNBC, narcissism is probably pretty good.
The Chocolate Cake Model
There’s this big distinction, Keith, about the short-term and long-term game. I love what you put in the book about the chocolate cake model. Can you share that with everyone? It’s such an easy way to think about this.
The idea of the chocolate cake model came out of the work I did on relationships, but it applies to leadership too. It’s the same process. With chocolate cake, if somebody gives you the choice like, “Do you want to have this chocolate cake? Do you want to eat this broccoli or the salad or something healthy?” Nine times out of ten, I’m like, “Give me the chocolate cake.” I eat the chocolate cake. I get a rush and I feel good. I’m like, “This is awesome.” Twenty minutes later, I’m like, “Why did I eat that? I feel sick. I’m exhausted. I’m getting a sugar crash. I’m listening to Pink Floyd under my desk and I’m starting to cry.”
You then get self-recrimination. You’re like God, “I’m a bad person. What kind of bad person would eat that chocolate cake? A good person would have eaten the broccoli.” It’s this big process. If you eat the broccoli, you don’t get the rush, you don’t feel that big hit of sugar going through your body. You’re like, “This is pretty good.” Twenty minutes later, you don’t have the crash and you go, “I’m a healthy person. I made the right choice. I didn’t get the rush of that chocolate cake but I’m in a healthy relationship with my food.”
That trade-off of short-term benefit with longer-term costs versus missing that short-term benefit but getting this longer-term gain or longer-term health is what you see in relationships all the time. When you start dating narcissistic people, they often are exciting, they seem confident, fun, attractive. They’re attractive people. The relationship starts great. What happens in a relationship is we start with excitement and then we move into emotional intimacy over time. That’s how we run them in our culture. It doesn’t have to be this way. You could have an arranged relationship where your parents say, “Avoid this guy completely.” We like to make our mistakes.
We get in this relationship and then when the emotional intimacy is supposed to happen, it doesn’t happen. Instead, what you see is manipulation, you see dishonesty, the person is finding someone else on the side, or something else is going wrong. One of the bad parts is even when the relationship gets bad, you start questioning yourself, “Is it my fault? Am I driving this person away? He seems confident. What am I doing wrong?” It turns into a disaster and then it breaks apart.
You then spend the next six months going, “Why did I do that? I’m a bad person. How do I not do that again? Why am I stupid? Why did I hire that confident leader who everyone liked, who wears the suit and talk with his hands and seem like he knew what he was doing? Why didn’t I hire the nerd who’d done something with his life and proven success over years and years and had a lot of integrity?” He wasn’t as sexy as the guy with the suit who talked with his hands and seemed confident and talked about visioning. That process of going for what seems appealing often can lead to these longer-term downsides. We see this across leadership and dating relationships.
It’s in all domains of our lives. We could have a whole another podcast on the power of persona, the masks that we wear. I’m not talking about the COVID mask, the personality mask. Even how people have had to be more vulnerable, more revealing. We’re talking to each other from our home offices. Some of those personas are coming down. The world changes. It’s a fascinating thing because when you meet anyone in your life, whether it’s in your personal life or your professional life, you’re going to have an initial impression of the persona that person is giving you. It’s going to take probably at least 4 to 6 months before you start to see what’s underneath that.
One piece of advice I give people in dating and this applies equally to leadership is you look at somebody’s track record because it’s going to take you 4 to 6 months to figure out what this person is made of. What you need to do is say, “What happened in the last relationship? What happened at the last company?” Because you’re going to see if they’re going to damage you, they’ve probably damaged a bunch of people in the past.
When we do interviews, one of the things that come up is that the best indication of future performance is the past. That’s obvious. Don’t you think we often get into a state of, “It’s going to be different this time?”
It’s the psychology term, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. I’ve talked to people. We don’t even know where the saying comes from. It’s embedded in personality psychology and maybe even goes back to behaviorism. People are the way they are, but when you meet somebody and they seem confident, they’re exciting, they have this charisma and this extraversion that generates excitement, you go, “Forget the past. This is going to be it. I’m going to do it. It’s going to be awesome. Maybe we can become a tech company.” That excitement is an appealing trait in somebody, but if that’s somebody that has some nefarious intent and they’re not that competent, it can be a mistake. We get caught up in the hype. Who doesn’t? That’s why it works.
There’s the grandiose, but then there’s the swinging to the other side of that.
It’s the vulnerable side. The grandiose narcissism is when we tend to talk about it in the more outward appearing world, but if you start in the clinical world or the counseling world, what you’ll see are there certain folks out there that have that same sense of entitlement and superiority. Rather than being extroverted and driven, they’re a little bit introverted and they’re also anxious and depressed. What we call neurotic. We use the trait neuroticism, but anxiety, depression and maybe some hostility. This is what we call vulnerable narcissism or thin skin narcissism or basement narcissism or shy narcissism.
People run into the same two clusters over and over. We have lots of names. The reason vulnerable narcissism works is because of this thin skin quality. If somebody is grandiose, you’re like, “Keith, you suck,” and you’re like, “I’m awesome.” You can take it. People that have thinner skin fail and they’re like, “I’m going to get back at the world. People shouldn’t shame me like this. How dare you?” The truth is no one ever noticed you. The reason it’s often called covert narcissism is because it’s hard to see. You expect a narcissist to be bold, big and have big personalities.
When you find somebody who’s shy and withdrawn, you go, “Where’s your big personality? You can be narcissistic.” It’s in their fantasy world. They’re fantasizing about power and success. They might be online trying to actualize it in some way. Vulnerable narcissism is less destructive to the world because these folks don’t rise into positions of power. They don’t end up in dating relationships, but it causes a lot of suffering to the individual because they go, “Everyone should notice how great I am. No one gives me the respect I deserve. I’m going to go into therapy.”
What happened historically is that the therapists who were seeing narcissists were seeing all this vulnerability, and then they’d see the politicians out there and the leaders and they go, “Those guys deep down inside must feel like the guys in my office.” Meaning, the last CEO deep down is ashamed, unlike Woody Allen. That’s not the case. The more grandiose folks are grandiose through and through. The vulnerable folks are more vulnerable and some people have a little bit of both. You can have a quality of grandiosity and vulnerability.Narcissism does have a more negative connotation, and part of the reason is that people who are narcissistic hurt us. Click To Tweet
Sometimes, you see successful leaders who are also reactive and thin-skinned. You’re like, “Why are you getting pissed at me? I’m nobody. You’re a freaking billionaire legend. Why do you care what I think? What kind of loser are you?” “I’m a little vulnerable. I got to be honest.” You can have both. People used to think that they’re more grandiose people deep down don’t like themselves. It doesn’t seem to work like that.
Narcissism And Leadership
We’ve got to be on our game because you can’t always know what you’re dealing with. I want to do a deeper dive into the leadership dynamic. Before we do that, do you think there’s more narcissism now? What about society is driving this trait?
We’ve looked at this historically. Jean Twenge and I wrote a book called The Narcissism Epidemic several years ago where we saw narcissism score spiking up especially in college students. It looked like that happened until about 2008. When the Great Recession happened, that seemed to change some of the kids and the grandiosity seemed to drop down. They don’t have good fine-grained data for the last couple of years. It’s hard for me to say where it is now. My sense is that there’s a lot of vulnerability out there as well. At the Paris Hilton days, there’s this more grandiose narcissism before the collapse, but now, people are more defensive, angrier, more controller. There’s a lot more vulnerability, but I don’t have data on it. I don’t like to say for sure. The other thing that’s been a huge force in revealing narcissism is social media.
We are in the age of selfies.
Yeah. That was one of those things. I remember this and I was like, “They have a camera that takes a picture of that person. This is crazy.” It then became a phone that did it and they said, “You can take picture of yourself and share it.” The first selfie recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary was a drunk Australian who tripped and hurt himself and took a selfie. It wasn’t showing off. He’s just a drunk guy like, “I broke my tooth,” or something, “I chipped my tooth,” or whatever. What happened, of course, is that it’s not that all of a sudden that turned us all into a bunch of narcissists, but people who are naturally narcissistic said, “Here’s a chance for me to get some attention. Here’s a shot.”
There are cat videos and recipes, but social media was largely built on narcissism. That’s the currency that drives a good chunk of it. Whenever you look at your social media account, you’re going to have a lot more narcissism on your social media account than you will in your friendship group, Bible study group, or any random group you have. Your yoga class or whatever group you have is going to have less narcissism than your social media group. Not because you’re choosing narcissist, but because people who are narcissistic on social media put out a lot of content and they have a lot of followers. They’re good at it. It distorts the world in a way that makes it look more narcissistic than it is.
There’s all the science as well as we talked about personas that people experience this depression for being on social media because it’s like, “Everyone else has these amazing lives because these selfies and these stories are out there.” It’s just more a persona.
That’s something we’ve noticed, especially in younger women, since about 2013. People started getting depressed on social media and part of it is that comparison process that the narcissistic person takes the time to do it right. You’d look out, then you go, “Everyone, that guy is so hot. Why am I so unappealing? I hate this. I hate myself.” The other thing was FOMO or fear of missing out. Everybody out there is like, “I’m living my best life just another day at The Cape with my Countess girlfriend.” Everyone else is going, “Keith’s always at The Cape with the Countess” and I’m just on my Zoom. I’m a loser.
“I’m just here playing checkers with my friends” or whatever.
I don’t go into this enough because it makes me so depressed, but people will fake this stuff. They’ll fake being in private planes. They’ll fake being on The Cape with a Countess. You get this distorted view of the world through social media because of narcissism. That’s what they’re putting out there.
Let’s move off of social media, which is another rabbit trail that we could go down. Let’s talk about leadership. We have all kinds of people that read this, but a lot, because the origin is from the CMO Summit, are our business leaders and people who are working in the business domain. What I thought was interesting from your book is you talk about a couple of dynamics. One that I’d love you to share more about is the tragedy of the commons and what that dynamic looks like in the world of business.
The tragedy of the commons is the most classic social dilemma that people studied in behavioral economics and social psychology. The term comes from grazing on common land. Imagine your Boston commons and everyone’s grazing the sheep there back in the day. The tragedy of the commons is that if the situation comes where everybody just does what they’re supposed to do, things work. If everybody grazes ten sheep, it works. If everyone just catches ten salmon, the salmon will reproduce, the systems work. What happens though is somebody goes, “I’m just going to graze twelve sheep. Who’s going to know? I’ll do better than everybody else and it’ll be awesome” or “I’m going to go catch more sheep than anyone else” or “I’m going to catch more salmon” or “I’m going to cut down more forest than anyone else,” or whatever the case may be or “I’m going to cheat a little bit.” The people more likely to do that are narcissists. That’s what we find in the lab studies. You find that in the real world to some extent.
Because in their mind, they deserve more.
“Why not? I’m going to win. I’m going to take a little more sheep. It’s going to be fine.” The problem is with the commons, this is why it’s the tragedy of the commons, is once one person starts doing it, then other people look around and they go, “I’m going to start grazing twelve sheep.” Soon, the grass stops coming back, so people go, “We’re out of grass. I’m going to graze twenty sheep before this thing’s done.” The resource becomes over-harvested or exploited and it’s gone. Here’s how it ends. The narcissist who started the problem in the first place wins because he grazed more sheep than anybody.
For him, that’s called a victory, “I’m going to exploit the New York commons now. I’m going to go get the commons in Atlanta. I’m going to get all the commons.” Everybody else loses, especially the next generation because there are no more commons left. This trade-off of individual benefit to group cost or shared costs, you see this in a lot of situations in the social world. Commons are just an easy example. People are narcissistic when they win in the short term because they’re the ones who destroy it first. You can think about this as exploitation. Anytime there’s a system to exploit, the people willing to do it first win in the short term. In the long term, they lose because the system’s wiped out, but everyone loses. They’re the relative winners in a losing system.
That’s a dangerous dynamic. We talk a lot in business about this whole short game and long game. Just like the chocolate cake and the broccoli, what we would maybe do at the moment. There are lots of research on habits and rituals and how are you thinking about cultivating on a longer runway of health when you get into this short term like kill or be killed. “I’m in the video game and I’ve got to be the last survivor.” That is a detrimental stance for an organization, for the planet. I remember learning about selfish altruism and understanding that the more you contribute to the collective, all people rise up, but there’s a missing link with the narcissistic thought with this.
You can think about this with payoff ratios. The tragedy of the commons, when you put it into payoff ratio, it’s called the prisoner’s dilemma or the prisoner’s dilemma game if you get some nerds out there that know what I’m talking about. That’s the same payoff. The general choice is, “Keith, you can go win and you get five points and everyone else gets zero, or you can share and everybody gets four points.” The best thing to do is for everybody to share and get four points. There are lots of points, but it’s better for me to get the five points and you get nothing. I get that extra point even though I destroy the system. What you end up having to do is you have to put in some regulation with any of these things because there’s always somebody who’s going to exploit the system. You go, “Think about the long game, Keith.” I can think about the long game. If not every one of us is playing the long game, if Katherine’s playing the short game, I got to play the short game too or else, I just lose.
There’s a line where the narcissist loses too. Let’s say you’re the leader of a company. You are pillaging resources to a point where you drive the company downhill and you go down with that ship too. At some point, there’s some discernment like, “This isn’t working for me anymore.”
Do you go down with the company or do you leave the headquarters with your twelve-cylinder BMW at 400 miles an hour on the I-85 and then get hired from a hedge fund because you’re an expert?
It gets you to have the talking hands and they love you.The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Click To Tweet
You’re a game-changer who went in and you stripped all the fat out of the company, and you replaced it and made it work right and somebody will hire you. I wish your story was right because it should be, but it’s not how it works. If you look at people like Neutron Jack Welch or Chainsaw Al Dunlap and any other corporate raider with a name that involves killing people and leaving the property, that strategy for a business leader can work well. There’s always somebody who needs a tyrant to go into a company he just bought or she just bought and rip out all the goodness, and then sell it for parts. That sounds evil to talk about, but that’s how it works.
You’re not making me feel good about the future of this. You talked about cooperation versus competition. I think about my own leadership working within my team. Anyone who works with me knows I’m a big believer in the power of the collective and creating that motivation of that shared vision. How do you put safeguards into place because everyone’s got their own wiring and their own personalities to try to wire in a longer game model?
A lot of the challenge is selection. When we’re selecting leaders, we end up selecting the person who’s narcissistic because they want the job. They’re out there saying, “I can do it. Look at me. Give me the ball, coach. I can do this. I’m going to do what you want and make it happen.” If you say, “Who wants to be in charge?” The first two people that shoot their mouth off say, “I am. I’m the person to do it,” they’re more likely to be put in charge.
When they’re in charge, they’re going to look like leaders because they’re confident and they’re walking around like they’re in charge. You go, “Keith seems to know what he’s doing.” They’re going to perform well for a little while. You get the honeymoon for a while. The challenge is you’re selecting wrong. You need to select people who aren’t narcissistic jerks. Some people describe this as the no asshole rule. Some is just being leery of people who the boards are bringing in. You got to work at the selection.
Is there a way from a psychological filter point of view? I know at certain levels within our company, we do look at personality traits and dynamics. Going back to that 4 to 6-month, you found out it’s a little too late, how do you look for that? Maybe let’s even broaden the question out. You’re reading this conversation. You are choosing business leaders, or you’re an individual contributor or you’re someone looking for a partner in your life. You’re choosing a mate or you’re choosing a friend. How might we get better at selection when the narcissist is so skilled at sweeping us off our feet?
If I’m a high-level executive at a company with some money, I’m hiring a company to do a bunch of assessments on people. I’m just running the assessment center and spending the money to do it to the extent that works. It has some benefits for sure. Outside that context, a lot of it is looking at the track record, seeing with data. You want to see what people are doing and see how they’ve worked at their last company and how they’ve worked with people before. In terms of feedback, with narcissism, if you just ask somebody’s boss, the boss might say, “This guy’s great. He goes out and does what he says. He’s confident and he gets the job done. He doesn’t need a lot of direction.” You want to do something like 360 feedback where you get feedback from peers. You get anonymous feedback from the staff or from people who are employees of the person.
You want to get that full assessment of that person, not from the top up. Narcissistic people are good at managing up. They’re looking good for the boss, but the people below them see through it. You want to do those full 360 feedbacks and get the sense of people. Here’s what happens in companies where things aren’t going right and somebody says, “We need a change agent.” When you get the change agent, that’s when you start pulling for the narcissism because that’s the person willing to break everything and put in their own vision. Companies sometimes asked for this.
There could be timing for it. In other words, if you are playing a short game, and you’re like, “I need someone to handle this task now, but they’re not maybe the long game.” There could be a reason why you would want that.
It could be a sales position or a real competitive position where this person doesn’t have any power over anybody. They don’t have any access to money. All they do is speak. You’re like, “We’ll put somebody narcissistic in there, but they can’t do too much damage.”
As long as the ethics are right. You got to watch that part of it.
You’ve read these corporate stories with the leaders. You see it in all areas because it’s a sense of entitlement. It’s like, “I’m the leader. I’m a king. I deserve to do whatever I want. It’s my company.” This is a public company, it’s not your company. You’re working for the board. They’re like,
“No, I’m not.” You see ethical problems.
People start to think, “I’m above the law. I’m above this.” It’s amazing the stories people can weave to justify certain actions. We’ve seen it play out across many domains in the media of people. Once that’s it’s been exposed, you’re like, “That was amazing.”
You were a monster and they kept that hidden for several years what a horrible human being you were.
Self-Care From The Damaging Dynamic Of Narcissism
Keith, let’s say you’re reading this conversation and you’ve got a little more texture now on what it looks like. It’s not necessarily always good or bad. It’s the dynamics and you’ve got to understand the pitfalls of this. Let’s say you realize that you’ve got a grandiose narcissist full-on in your life. Maybe they’re your partner, family member, your boss or a coworker. How would you guide people on managing some of these situations and handling self-care protecting yourself from what could be a damaging dynamic?
It’s tricky especially with the power structure in there. The first thing is to protect yourself. To protect yourself, keep records of things, don’t volunteer things, don’t be trusting, be controlled and lock down what you say to people.
You’ve got to watch your back a little bit.
Build allies, because if this person is manipulating or harming you, they’re probably doing it to a lot of people so you can build some allies there. People ask, “You confront the person and say, ‘Your narcissistic jerk,’” and the answer is, “That’s probably not going to be that effective because that’s going to make somebody angry and aggressive.” That’s something we see with narcissism. Somebody’s got a big ego and you tell them, they’re not that good. They’ll get aggressive.
That’s the narcissistic wound or something. It can go astray fast.
Exactly so you try to avoid that. What you can say is, we talked about there are these two aspects of grandiose narcissism. One is this more leadership quality that might be positive and one is much more interpersonal quality that’s honesty, ethics, warmth and integrity. You can work on that you can say, “You’re such a great leader. You’re so confident but some of your employees aren’t up to your level. They’re not that good, but if you spend the time to be a little more, give them some positive feedback. I know you don’t need positive feedback, but they need it. If you gave him some time, I bet you’d be even more successful.”
You’d probably be even more successful as a leader if you did that, then you reward people for being nice, taking the time, just basic behavioral stuff, how to listen to somebody. That’s a possibility. The other thing is you get rid of the person. I’ve started to get more real after I’ve done more podcasts, but one thing people do is try to get people promoted out. It’s like, “You’re such a great leader. You should be at headquarters in Atlanta. We don’t need you out here. You should be in the big leagues.” You try to get rid of them. That way you try to get them hired by somebody else. You say, “You’re so good here. You should be at a cutting edge tech firm. I’d hate to lose you, but you’d be great at Dell.” Sorry, Dell. I didn’t mean to say that. It just popped in my head.
It’s a slippery slope, isn’t it? There’s a lot of this out there and we’ve answered this question through our conversation. Why should we care about this? Let’s say you’re reading this and you’re like, “I don’t have this problem. There’s no one in my life creating this for me.” Why should we care about this growing dynamic?
One of the challenges with narcissism is it has a lot of consequences because narcissistic people have lots of relationships, followers, on average, lots of followers on social media, they rise into positions of power and positions of political leadership, and they rise to be celebrities. If you look at these powerful positions on Earth, influencers, celebrities, famous actors, politicians, surgeons, whatever, you see a lot of narcissism. Whatever those traits are, they move into positions of power, where they have more influence than most people because that’s the nature of having a big ego. You want to influence people.
Pound for pound, you can do a lot of damage with narcissism. You can do some good too but the concern is you get people in positions of power who are not looking out for the best interests of the people they’re supposedly working for the people they’re supposedly leading. They’re looking out for the best interests of themselves or friends or their family. In a world that’s filled with leaders like that, that doesn’t work. It’s always hampered.
This has been a problem certainly over history and continues to be. Our first step in any change-making is to start with ourselves. Is it a matter of how we make sure that we’re more self-aware of our own narcissistic tendencies? Knowing at times to your earlier examples, there are times to utilize those personality traits. All of us as a collective, how do we help the issue by being aware of ourselves?
For the self, it’s important. The challenge isn’t so much if you think, “I’m attractive and I’m a go-getter.” That’s okay. You’re not hurting anyone. That’s not so much a problem. The problems come up when people are selfish, lack love, empathy, connection with people and lack warmth in their relationships. What I would suggest to people is, don’t worry so much if you think you’re better looking than you are, that’s fine as long as you have loving relationships and committed relationships with other people.
If you’re able to have those warm relationships, you’re not going to get that much out of balance and you’re not going to cause as much trouble. If you’re lacking love, and all you’ve got is that ego, and the only direction for you to have is to make that ego bigger, you’re basically a time bomb. You’re going to get bigger and bigger until something pops you. You’re going to be happy as long as your ego is expanding, you’re growing, becoming more popular, and getting greater sex status. Once that stops, you’re going to be miserable, empty and die. It’s a rosebud. You build your ego your whole life and we all grow to the point where no one cares about us. I’m getting there now. In several years, they’re going to shove me on a surfboard and look for me in Peru.
If you go from surfing in Laguna Beach to surfing in Peru, that’s a life well-lived. I’m not so sure that’s a bad equation.
It could be worse. Throw me in the briar patch, I didn’t care about that. That wouldn’t be so bad. Even with attractiveness, if you’re focused on attractiveness, and they talk about this with people aged out who are narcissistic. If you’re 75, trying to be hotter than everybody, you’re going to be miserable. Narcissism is a young person’s game. If you’re carrying it your whole life, it’s going to weigh you down eventually. You’re going to be 80. You’re going to be trying to call your daughter who’s been estranged from you for twenty years because you were such a jerk mom. You’re like, “Please love me. I’m about to die.” I shouldn’t laugh about this. It sounds sad. That’s where you’re going.
Everyone out here as you’re reading this, here’s the lesson. Fix it now. Don’t wait until later. Begin with the end in mind. To quote Stephen Covey, “Think about where you want to be in the long game, not the short game.” It doesn’t mean you can never have a piece of chocolate cake, but be sure you get your broccoli involved in that. There’s a lot to learn about this. Reading your book, I was like, “I didn’t understand the personality recipe or some of the dynamics.” If people want to learn more about this clearly, your book, The New Science of Narcissism, which I’ll also include in the setup but any other suggestions for people who need resources around this or our guidance?
There’s so much out there and I’ve done about six million podcasts, which are examples and wrote books. Tell the one thing I want to say is that I’m an academic. The academic literature sounds scary, it’s available to anybody go on Google Scholar and hit narcissism and whatever you’re interested in and you can read the science yourself. Anybody reading to this is smart enough to do it and there’s no mystery. Google Scholar, look and you can figure out things yourself. In the book, I snuck a personality class in there because it’s hard to understand narcissism without having a broader understanding of personality and that’s a big advantage. I teach a whole class on the topic.
It’s a lot. I would tell everyone that your book is reachable, conversational and easy to understand. It’s not like you’re reading at a high level. You’ve got science in there, but you put it together in a way where it’s like, “I can completely get how this leads to this dynamic.”
Good. I can’t tell anymore.
It is. I’m giving you props. It was helpful. I have one last question. This has been such an interesting conversation. I always ask and pan out away from the narcissistic conversation. This is a broad question that I always try to close the conversations with. If you think about your life from surfing and Laguna to your future surfing in Peru, what life experience has been the most valuable lesson for you? What would want you to tell your kids? What would you tell our readers about, “Here’s some wisdom that I have always taken with me?”
There’s a lot I haven’t told my kids that I’m going to keep off the air. One of the most powerful experiences I’ve had, I was in Mongolia probably in ‘92, ‘93. We’re horseback trekking for about 3.5 weeks with a group. I don’t know how it happened. It was a friend of a friend and they opened it up and I’m going. On the second night, we’re on horseback and a pack of wolves came on us. I was in my tent, thinking I’m going to blind them and slash. That was my first response. “I’m just going to stab. What am I going to do?” I’m out here in the middle of Mongolia. There’s nobody here. There are not even jet contrails. We’re in the middle of nowhere. Our leader walked out and started talking to the wolves. That’s interesting and the world’s quieted down. The next morning, they’re burning Juniper, putting all the rifles through the smoke and blessing everything. Through the translator, I’m like, “What happened?” Our leader says, “Everything’s alive. I told the wolves that we’re here. They’re going to leave us alone.” That was it.
That was the first time I got a sense of that insight. You see it in Buddhism and all the tradition, but the first time I got that insight was in this shamanic culture in the middle of nowhere with these nomads. That was something that stuck with me. It still sticks with me. It’s that idea that there’s a different way to approach the world. Instead of being defensive and scared all the time, you can walk out there and live. The other thing he said then was because we live in a wild country, sometimes you lose a horse. That’s a much more comfortable way to live. You live with the wolves and acknowledge that you’re going to lose a horse instead of sitting around trying to hide my whole life and protect me from them. It’s a weird story and I apologize it’s too long. This one sticks with me.The problems come up when people are selfish, lack love, empathy, and connection with people and their relationships. Click To Tweet
It’s not a weird story at all. it’s a powerful story. As I think about that story, combined with the conversation we had about narcissism, it would be my hope if you’re a beginning journey was to look at the elimination of ego or the way we all can become enlightened. How powerful to think that we could get to a place where we understand that we’re a part of an ecosystem. There is no single action that one of us does that we get away with because it is having a ripple effect. Your story is a beautiful example of the power of that holistic thinking and the wisdom that’s there.
I like that. You said it better than I did.
I want to thank you for your time, for the wisdom and for the great conversation. This has been informative. I am sure the people reading have gained a lot from it. Thank you, Keith, for your time.
Thanks for having me. That was fun.
About W. Keith Campbell
W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of Georgia, is the author of more than 100 scientific articles. His books include:
The Handbook of Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Theoretical Approaches, Empirical Findings, and Treatments (with Josh Miller)
The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (with Jean Twenge)
When You Love a Man Who Loves Himself: How to Deal with a One-way Relationship
His work on narcissism has appeared in USA Today, Time, and The New York Times. Dr. Campbell has also made numerous radio and television appearances, including the Today Show and NPR’s All Things Considered.
Dr. Campbell holds a BA from the University of California at Berkeley, an MA from San Diego State University, and a PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His postdoctoral work was completed at Case Western Reserve University.
Keith lives in Athens, Georgia, with his wife and daughters.
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