Narcissistic Behavior Prevents People From Acknowledging and Learning From Their Mistakes

Narcissism is defined as egotistic admiration of one’s self-image and the belief that one is more entitled and deserving. Narcissistic behavior relies on the idea that they are always right in a given situation. Narcissists refuse to admit that they made a mistake which contributes to their failure to learn from those mistakes. The process of reflecting on your past actions to see what you could have done differently is called “counterfactual thinking”.

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Counterfactual thinking is the process of creating a possible alternative to events that have already occurred. Individuals engage in the self-serving bias principle. This psychological process refers to the tendency of people to take credit for their successes but to not take responsibility for their failures. “But narcissists do this way more because they think they’re better than others,” Howes said. “They don’t take advice from other people; they don’t trust others’ opinions. … You can flat-out ask, ‘What should you have done differently?’ And it might be, ‘Nothing, it turned out; it was good.’

Research Examines Narcissistic Behavior

Present research by Howes et al., recently published in the Journal of Management, conducted four studies (n=727) with four different groups of study participants. One of the studies took place in Chile with Spanish-speaking participants.

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Initially, study participants took a test to rank their narcissism according to certain pairs of statements (“I think I am a special person” versus “I am no better or worse than most people”). In the first of the four studies, participants read the credentials of potential job candidates and choose whom to hire. Secondly, participants were informed regarding how the employee performed in the job. Participants were then assessed based on how much they engaged in “counterfactual thinking”.

The four studies used different methods to analyze how hindsight bias affects counterfactual thinking. Hindsight bias is defined as the tendency of individuals to perceive an event that already occurred as being more predictable than it was before the events took place. Howes and colleagues discussed that previous research has demonstrated the hindsight bias is a self-defense mechanism when a prediction proves to be incorrect. For example, Trump said in 2017 that “No one knew health care could be so complicated” after he failed to find other alternatives to the Affordable Care Act.

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Researchers found that narcissists followed the self-serving bias principle. If they predicted an outcome correctly, they attributed that to the fact that they “knew it all along” compared to when they predicted incorrectly, they would say “Nobody could have guessed”. Narcissists do not think that they need to do something different the next time.

“They’re falling prey to the hindsight bias, and they’re not learning from it when they make mistakes. And when they get things right, they’re still not learning,” Howes said. Narcissists tend to rise in levels within an organization because they take credit for other peoples’ successes and do not take responsibility for their failures. However, over time this can cause harm to the organization because of the low self-esteem of the employees working with the narcissist and because of the narcissist’s inability to learn from their mistakes.

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To avoid falling into the self-serving bias principle, it is recommended that individuals practice counterfactual thinking. Individuals should reflect and analyze their decision even if the outcome was favorable. Regardless of the outcome of the decision, individuals should take the time to investigate why things went wrong and what they could do differently. If narcissists are in a place of power or decision-making authority within an organization, it is recommended to have advisory panels look over their work.


When and Why Narcissists Exhibit Greater Hindsight Bias and Less Perceived Learning

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