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Planet of the Apes: Narcissistic Behavior Allows Candidates to Ace Interviews

Apr 19, 2012
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

A recent study on what makes a person successful in a job interview found that narcissists do much better than non-narcissists. Apparently, the tendency to promote oneself, by engaging and speaking at length, aggressiveness, and using ingratiation tactics such as smiling, gesturing, and complimenting others, gets interpreted as confidence and expertise, which impresses interviewers. Even trained interviewers are influenced by narcissists when it comes to selecting self-centered candidates with milder personalities. What this research suggests is that an interview can be a poor selection device, since there’s no evidence that being narcissistic makes a candidate a better performer.

As a predictor of job performance, interviews have usually ranked low compared to other options. Tests of all types typically rank much higher. A structured interview can be as good as some tests, but only if the structure is rigidly adhered to and the responses are uniformly scored. Once we allow for things such “chemistry,” “fit,” and other undefinable factors, then all bets are off.

What We Can Learn From Apes

For an answer to what explains this outcome — both in the behavior of candidates as well as the interviewers who allow themselves to be influenced — look to the social behavior of apes. Narcissistic behavior is also most commonly seen among other primates. Decades of research shows that dominant males among chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and baboons all demonstrate narcissism in varying degrees, suggesting that the trait is genetically ingrained. The trait — and associated behaviors (self promotion, etc.) — can be described as status-striving, intended to elevate the narcissist to the top position in a social hierarchy (company, community, professional, or social group). Among both apes and people, a common manifestation is the radiant smile of recognition — broadly exposing gums and teeth. Narcissists tend to display this frequently.

But what about the interviewers? Back to the apes. A key reason why a primate that displays narcissistic behavior usually leads the pack is because the behaviors displayed provide a sense of security to the others. Narcissistic behaviors are most commonly accompanied by aggressiveness and  a demonstration of perfection. Aggression involves body posturing, gestures, and eye contact of intimidation and deference. Perfection is most commonly seen as maintenance of neatness, order, and symmetry. Narcissists give the appearance of being in control of their environment: they are highly competitive and well groomed.

Think about what impresses you about candidates during interviews. Why are candidates advised to dress well, polish their shoes, have a firm handshake, and make eye contact? There is not a shred of evidence that candidates who are well dressed make better employees than those who aren’t, but would you be favorably disposed toward a candidate who came in with a stain on their jacket, avoided eye contact, and had a limp handshake?

Interestingly, there’s no evidence that any of the behaviors displayed by narcissists (among apes or humans) makes them successful. In certain situations their aggressive nature may allow them to become leaders or push through their ideas, but that only works if the ideas are any good to begin with or their leadership takes their followers in the right direction. Otherwise it’s just a disaster waiting to happen. Just see the movie “Planet of the Apes” if you don’t believe me.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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