Certain careers may be particularly attractive to narcissists, according to research published in Personality and Individual Differences. The study revealed that grandiose narcissism was associated with career interests related to science and business, while vulnerable narcissism was tied to career interests related to the arts, social, and applied domains.
Personality researchers have been invested in exploring how personality influences career choices. One branch of this research has focused on anti-social personality traits — also called ‘dark’ traits — which include psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism.
Study author Julie Aitken Schermer and her colleagues sought to continue this research by exploring how the two distinct dimensions of narcissism relate to vocational interests. Notably, past studies have focused on grandiose narcissism, which is characterized by dominance, high self-esteem, and entitlement. This is in contrast to vulnerable narcissism, which is also characterized by entitlement but includes social avoidance and hypersensitivity to criticism.
“My main interest in this topic is because although we know that personality helps to explain why people are drawn to pursue certain careers, most of the past research has focused on positive personality dimensions, such as conscientiousness and agreeableness, but what about the types of careers for those with darker personalities?” explained Schermer, a professor at The University of Western Ontario.
For their study, Schermer and her co-authors had 716 undergraduate students complete an online questionnaire. The survey included the Five Factor Narcissism Inventory, an assessment of narcissism that includes 4 scales measuring vulnerable traits and 11 scales measuring grandiose traits. Participants also completed the Jackson Career Explorer (JCE), an assessment that measures vocational interests by asking respondents how interested they are in certain activities. The JCE can be divided into six vocational interests: science, business, social, artistic, applied, and biology.
The researchers analyzed how participants’ narcissism scores related to their scores on the JCE, and found that vulnerable narcissism and grandiose narcissism were related to distinct vocational interests.
Scales measuring grandiose narcissism (exhibitionism, authoritativeness, grandiose fantasies, and manipulativeness) were related to higher interest in the business domain. Of note, exhibitionism and authoritativeness are traits related to extraversion, which falls in line with evidence that extraverts are more inclined to pursue careers in business.
Schermer was surprised to find that aspects of grandiose narcissism were also tied to interest in science-related vocations, particularly the scales measuring indifference, exploitativeness, entitlement, lack of empathy, arrogance, and thrill seeking. Interestingly, these traits are also thought to be characteristic of psychopathy, which has previously been found to relate to an interest in science-related careers.
“These findings need to be replicated but suggest a very cold nature towards others,” Schermer said.
Next, two scales measuring vulnerable narcissism (need for admiration and reactive anger) were associated with interest in the arts and the applied fields. Need for admiration was also associated with interest in the social field, although with small correlations.
The authors noted that people with reactive anger and a need for admiration may be drawn to jobs in the applied field — such as skilled trades — since work can often be done in social isolation and admiration is received once the work is done.
The study authors say that personnel such as career counselors might find these insights helpful in guiding clients toward meaningful career choices, particularly those with narcissistic traits.
“People with dark traits are in the workplace,” Schermer told PsyPost. “Are they people that you want to work closely with? Probably not, but some can succeed in their positions if their character fits the demands of that role. For example, there has been the suggestion that narcissists might be good for the ‘bottom line’ for a company. Some narcissists will work extremely hard to maintain their self-image (by thinking they are the best; they will try to outperform everyone else to demonstrate that they are the best).”
“When we looked at how narcissism was correlated with career interests, narcissists were interested in the arts (performing, journalism), possibly to obtain some fame and public recognition, as well as leadership and supervision roles within companies. They want others to admire them as much as they admire themselves.”
A limitation of the study was that the sample consisted of undergraduate students studying business management, and such participants may have been especially drawn toward the business field. Subsequent work might explore additional samples like high schoolers with a wide range of interests. It may also be insightful for future studies to explore whether the observed effects would translate to performance at work, and not just career interests.
“Our studies, looking at the correlations between the dark traits and vocational interests, did not include some of the traits which are gaining interest in the literature at the moment.” Schermer noted. “Sadism, for example, is an extreme dark trait. It is hard to imagine where a sadist would perform well in an organization except for possibly being a script writer for horror/gore movies (maybe they might perform well creating violent video games?). Our future project will be examining career interests for those scoring higher in measures of sadism.”
In previous work, Schermer and her colleagues also examined vocational interests related to Machiavellianism and psychopathy.
“This recent study was a follow-up to a previous study where we examined other dark dimensions,” she explained. “With respect to psychoticism, a moderate degree of psychopathy is helpful for individuals who work in situations where they face criticism. The cold affect characteristic of the sub-clinical psychopathic personality can be useful as they are less likely to become emotional when their work is ridiculed, and they are more likely to continue working as opposed to giving up.”
“In terms of their career interests, there was a positive link with the hard sciences, such as math, physics, and engineering. Not surprisingly, people scoring higher in psychopathy do not want to pursue careers helping others (such as teaching).”
“Sticking with the other dark personality dimensions, the one trait which would not be helpful in an organization, unless you were trying to start up an illegal pyramid scheme, would be Machiavellianism,” Schermer told PsyPost. “Interestingly, these manipulative individuals do not have clear vocational interests. They are only clear that they do not want to help others, get involved with family- oriented activities, and surprisingly, admit that they do not have staying power or stamina. This profile suggests that these individuals will change positions often and would not be an asset in the work environment (would be a waste of money with respect to employee training).”
“How do you recognize a darker trait in someone else? This is a hard task for some of the traits. Narcissists are pretty easy to detect as they will steer conversations back to themselves. Psychoticism is harder to visualize as the individual’s colder affect might be perceived as shyness or snobbery. Machiavellians probably won’t stick around long enough for you to try to figure them out.”
The study, “Are there narcissistic career choices? An investigation of narcissistic traits and vocational interests”, was authored by Jenna Velji, Christopher Marcin Kowalski, and Julie Aitken Schermer.