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When two self-absorbed heads are better than one

Narcissus. 1903. By John William Waterhouse.

The Globe and Mail

The current crop of business school students are more narcissistic than their predecessors, but that may not be all bad, according to new research.

In a study of 500 college students enrolled in psychology and business courses, personality tests found significantly higher levels of self-centred attitudes than students of previous generations and the highest levels of narcissism were among the business students, a group of researchers from Appalachian State University in North Carolina reported this week in Montreal at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management.

However, a second study presented at the meeting suggests that as overbearing as they might be individually, when two narcissists are put on the same team, they can drive everyone to higher levels of creativity.

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"Narcissists may be highly effective at generating novel solutions to complex problems, so long as there is at least one other narcissist in the group who can compete with him or her for attention and support of their opinions," concluded the research team.

"Two narcissistic heads might be better than one, because their tendency to engage in competitive dialogue benefits the group by prompting it to consider a wider range of potential solutions," said Jack Goncalo, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at Cornell University.

In the study of 244 business students, those who scored as highly narcissistic turned out to be no more creative than others in solving business problems, even though they were significantly more likely to believe they were more creative.

In a follow-up, in which 76 narcissistic students were paired off randomly and put on teams asked to propose an original movie idea for the others to consider, evaluators rated narcissists' ideas as significantly more creative than those of non-narcissists, the research found.

However, the results may be skewed by the narcissists' sense of self-assurance, they noted, because other raters who assessed the ideas based on presenters' written, rather than verbal descriptions, gave no edge in creativity to the narcissists.

That leads to the danger that the ideas suggested by narcissists who are too sure of themselves "might actually be implemented despite the fact that they are not necessarily very good," Prof. Goncalo says.

The study also found that having more than two narcissists on a team can end up being a drag on creativity.

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"You want creative tension. Narcissists shake things up -- they stimulate competition and provoke controversy." But on a team with too many narcissists, "it starts to get chaotic," Prof. Goncaldo said.

Still, the "results suggest that to capitalize 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," he concludes.

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