How Power Can Turn People Into Narcissists Entitled to Privileges

Posted on: June 18th, 2019 by Pat Mesiti No Comments

According to research published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology, power definitely makes some people more narcissistic and they come to feel entitled to special privileges.  The research article is called, ‘Power increases the socially toxic component of narcissism among individuals with high baseline testosterone’.

The lead investigator of the research, Associate Professor Nicole Mead, recently published a great story on her research in the Melbourne University magazine, Pursuit which I will quote from. She explains that at work narcissists do underhand things like taking credit for others’ hard work, and seeking all the glory. Narcissists also love holding positions of power and privilege. They have no qualms about demeaning and domineering others and often have no sense of common decency. The question is: are narcissists good at getting into positions of power or does power tend to cause some people to become narcissists?

Associate Professor Mead’s research found that giving people power can inflate the socially-toxic component of narcissism called ‘exploitation and entitlement’.

Narcissists have a sense of entitlement

“Narcissists can feel a sense of entitlement – they expect and demand respect from others as well as special privileges,” says Dr Mead, who is based in the Department of Management and Marketing in the Faculty of Business and Economics at Melbourne University.

“They are willing to exploit others to get what they want.”

Give them power and those people can turn into oppressors and bullies.

“While power doesn’t turn everyone into a destructive tyrant, it has pernicious effects when it gets into the hands of those who want it most,” says Associate Professor Mead.

“Power increased narcissism only among those with high-baseline testosterone – people who want to achieve and retain positions of power.”

Dr Mead, a social psychologist, delved into the relationship between power and narcissism in part to help explain the socially toxic behaviours of powerful people, which she saw as resembling narcissistic behaviour.

People in power want to keep their power

“Those who enjoy power try to keep it even at the expense of others,” she says.

To test their theory that social power inflates narcissism among people with high testosterone, Dr Mead and her colleagues recruited 206 men and women. They took saliva samples from each participant and told them they were joining in a team dynamics study.

Each person was asked to complete tasks framed as measures of leadership abilities. All participants were told they achieved the best leadership score but only half of participants were told they would be “boss” of a group task. This meant they could control their subordinates and the rewards associated with the group task. The other half were told they had equal control over the same task.

Narcissism was assessed using the most commonly used measure of narcissism, the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Corruption was measured with a scale that taps into people’s willingness to misuse their power.

Because men have higher testosterone levels than women, the researchers standardised testosterone levels within each gender. This means the researchers were able to examine how people react to power when they have relatively high or low testosterone levels for their gender.

Some people don’t become narcissists when given power

The study shows that men and women with low baseline testosterone for their gender don’t become narcissists when put in a position of power. However, those who have high testosterone levels for their gender show an increase in the exploitative-entitlement component of narcissism when they got power. The more narcissistic people were, the more willing they were to misuse power.

 “Power is an essential component of social life,” Associate Professor Mead says.

“Although the corrupting nature of power has been noted for centuries, the way it changes how people see themselves in relation to others remained an enigma.”

People with high testosterone are inclined to misuse power

The results of the study suggest that people with high testosterone may be inclined to misuse their power because when they have power they feel entitled to special treatment.

 “This research is some of the first to look at factors that fuel the rise of narcissism and to pinpoint the change in self-views that can explain the corrupting influence of power,” says A/Prof Mead.

“Moreover, the work shows that the destructive effects of power were not due to narcissistic feelings of superiority but rather narcissistic feelings that one is special and should be treated accordingly. Feelings of exploitation and entitlement may help those who crave power to retain a power gap between themselves and others.”

When scanning the workplace for pro-social leaders, it’s optimal to look for “actual signs of talent, competence and skill rather than people who brag that they have those skills”, says A/Prof Mead.

How to manage a narcissistic boss

A narcissistic boss spends an enormous amount of time thinking about achieving power, influence and success. They often lie and exaggerate to feel self-important. These bosses do not understand that they are the problem. If you have a narcissistic boss, you have two choices: quit and get another job or learn how to deal with it.

You need to accept that they, not you, are the problem. You need to be unemotional and rational when dealing with them, and try to put some barriers in place. You also need allies at work to help you manage the narcissistic boss. At the end of the day, it’s not a great situation but unfortunately narcissistic people often end up in positions of power.


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Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.


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