So, You’re Creative. Are You a Narcissist?

My friend’s a narcissist. Let’s call him Ronin. I once told Ronin I thought he displayed all the hallmarks of narcissism including self-absorption, a lack of empathy and the need for recognition. I said it as a joke so I’m not sure he believed me. Ronin is not only egotistic; he’s also annoyingly talented with the paintbrush — every stroke a little truth. I told him that as well; he believed it.

Ronin is in good company. The artworld is full of inflated egos interested in the praise to cement their beliefs that, yes, they are loved; they are respected. I dare say, most creative types display at least some level of narcissism (spoiler alert: you can take this online test to find out). But new research confirms this suspicion: creativity and narcissism are related. No one likes to be labeled a narcissist, and yet it may be the secret ingredient to one of our most praiseworthy qualities. Could such a repugnant trait really be the driver behind self-expression?

Øyvind Lund Martinsen at the Norwegian Business School in Oslo, Norway, certainly thinks so. Professor in organizational psychology, his latest study examines the connection between narcissism and creativity in 1,375 young military trainees. Using a psychological test called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), Martinsen measured how narcissistic traits correlated with creative personality features. To find out whether participants were creative, he used the Creative Person Profile (CPP) alongside creative ability tests. Respondents rated how much they agreed with comments such as “Achieving something that brings me broad recognition is not very important for me” (CPP) and chose between statement pairs like “I have a natural talent for influencing people” versus “I am not good at influencing people” (NPI).

Martinsen and his team found that the seven CPP factors — agreeableness, originality, flexibility, instability, ambition, associative orientation (playfulness/being easily absorbed by a task), and motivation — all correlated with narcissism. The researchers found:

“Narcissists described themselves as ambitious, disagreeable, emotionally stable, associative, motivated, less flexible, and with a low need for [rules and regulations].”

Ronin meets me for a coffee in Berlin where he lives now. He arrives on an electric scooter — the dockless kind; the kind that are littered across the German capital to chauffeur residents and visitors around town at 20mph. His long ocher blazer flutters in the wind as he cruises past me calling out: “Na Annchen!” Sitting opposite the Volksbuehne in Mitte — one of my favorite landmarks in the city — we catch up over coffee and apricot pie. I’m not one to beat around the bush and ask if he’d be willing to take the NPI. He cheerfully agrees. Should I be surprised by his response? These are his results:

The top of the test page reads: “your score is 22 out of 40. Higher scores indicate greater levels of narcissism.” Ronin’s score is 82.5 percent higher than that of the sample — an average score based on the replies of US university graduates, adults, and celebrities. The NPI also includes a breakdown of seven key facets of narcissism. Ronin scores highest for superiority and self-sufficiency.

Ronin’s NPI scores – the breakdown of facets.

When I ask how he feels about his results, he shrugs and says: “Thought I’d score higher.”

Martinsen doesn’t provide a clear rationale for surveying male military trainees, but recruiting high numbers of participants within the confinements of psychological research (bias, reliability, validity) is notoriously difficult. Most university studies enroll students because they tend to volunteer their time more readily. There are problems with that approach, for example, students tend to be younger and more educated than the general public. The military may offer an alternative, but it poses similar challenges — military trainees make up a specific subset of the wider population. That’s not to say that the results from such studies aren’t valuable, but it’s worth being aware of their limitations.

I reviewed similar research leading me to conclude that Martinsen’s sample size may be one of the largest to discuss narcissism to date. He admits that narcissism may have been over-represented because military leadership is associated with narcissistic personality traits. (There is some research to suggest that narcissism may even offer advantages to adapt to military careers.) Irrespective of over-representation, the implication is clear: creative people exhibit traits of narcissism.

But what about those of us who scored ‘1’ on the NPR? Are we not creative?

When Adrian Furnham, a professor of psychology at University College London, UK, asked 207 students to answer a series of personality surveys, he wanted to study whether narcissism would correlate with self-reported creativity. What Furnham found may send the prodigies flying off their horses: narcissists only think of themselves as more creative. They aren’t any more gifted than the rest of us.

At the same time, a Stanford University study in 2010 discovered that we tend to perceive narcissists as more creative. The experiment asked students to pitch unoriginal movie ideas to a panel. Judges rated pitches by narcissistic students as more impressive than those by non-narcissists. However, when they evaluated the blind proposals on paper, the panel found creativity to be similar among the students. It turns out that narcissists were better at making energetic pitches. Skilled in self-promotion, they won over the judges. But does a penchant for ‘me’ propaganda ensure success?

So, you’re creative and you scored high on the NPI (congratulations?); dreams of becoming the next Joan Crawford, Sylvia Plath or Andy Warhol abound. And whilst you envision your fifth acceptance speech at the Oscars, the critics condemn your latest sequel, plunging you into a darkness that leaves you questioning why you’re doing all this ‘crap’ anyway. Who’s it all for?

To determine if the need to please others is the narcissist’s primary driver for self-expression, Roberta Biolcati, an assistant professor at the Department of Education Studies at the University of Bologna, Italy, studied the motivations behind posting selfies. She observed that narcissists shared selfies because they craved the attention of others. In contrast, confident people gained satisfaction from posting group selfies.

Participants who shared photos of themselves wanted to improve their self-image. But is the notion that narcissists are extrinsically motivated to be creative (as opposed to having an internal desire to create) a reason to condemn them?

Though noble, artists who gain satisfaction from the creative process alone may not feel a desire to exhibit their work — ever. It appears the devotion to sharing art with the world is a necessary attribute (or evil) of the working artist. So, if all professional artists are narcissistic, are those with higher levels of narcissism more successful?

“Warhol resembles one of those creatures that can mate with itself — the perfect narcissist. […] His narcissism was pure,” art critic Mark Stevens wrote about the American pop artist in New York Magazine. His net worth at the time of his death was an estimated $220 million.

According to Yi Zhou, a professor at Florida State University, U.S. narcissistic trades in artists coincide with their success. His analysis proposes that artwork market value and auction house performance increase with greater levels of narcissism. Zhou told Artnet News: “You know, my data does support that: narcissistic artists will have higher prices and they will have more recognition in the art world. If I had a large pool of money, I am pretty confident that this result holds strongly.”

Though egotistic artists may thrive in the creative industries, high grades of narcissism could backfire in business. There is some evidence to suggest that medium levels of narcissism have a positive effect on leadership whilst high levels could result in ineffectiveness. Everything in moderation!

A shaving of ash lands on his leg. He exhales circles and then scrubs his black suit trousers ferociously to blur the grey powdery remains. Ronin tells me he’s going to exhibit in London soon, not long now, sometime this year, once the funding comes through. He hasn’t climbed the artworld ladder to its godly highs just yet, but he’d “rather die trying because art is communication” and his “message must be heard.” I hope he enjoys the scenery on the way up.

Illustration by Anne Freier.

Author of “Science of Breakup”. Preorder now: MRes Biomedical Research & MSc Neuroscience Neuropsychology.

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