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“The Chocolate Cake Model”: Too much of a  narcissist is a nauseating thing

Wednesday, April 6, 2016
posted by Douglas Keene

rich chocolate cake cutMuch like the chocolate cake staring at you from the dessert tray in that fine restaurant, the narcissist initially seems irresistible—but like the cake, when you indulge in a relationship with the narcissist, you will probably end up sick to your stomach. It’s called the Chocolate Cake Model of narcissism. And it’s  how today’s researchers begin their article on leaders who are narcissists:

“The first bite of chocolate cake is usually rich in flavor and texture, and extremely gratifying. After a while, however, the richness of the flavor makes one feel increasingly nauseous. Being led by a narcissist could be a similar experience: Narcissists might initially be perceived as effective leaders, but these positive perceptions may decrease over time.”

When I was first studying personality disorders in graduate school, a professor discussed how in social interactions narcissists are often delightful for the first couple of dates, and rapidly become very burdensome.

Today’s researchers did two separate studies, one using a group of students who were strangers to each other (first semester, first year students in their first week at a university) and a second using a group of students who knew or had information about each other (third and fourth year students psychology majors at a university) to study the relationship between narcissism and leadership.

Yes, there could be an age component to the results, but hey—not everyone does much growing up during college. Arguably, there is a range…

Essentially, in each group, the student-participants completed measures of narcissism, leadership (using a measure described in this article) and transformational leadership (using a modified version of the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire) at the very first meeting of a 12 week course. Then during the next 12 weeks each group was assigned weekly tasks to complete for points in a class competition. After completion of the weekly tasks, individual participants completed the leadership and transformational leadership questionnaires.

What they found will likely not come as much of a surprise if you have ever encountered a narcissist:

In the first experiment (where the student-participants did not know each other), initially the participants who were higher in narcissism were seen as good leaders. But that perception dissipated over time (the experiment ran for an entire semester).

In the second experiment, (with a group of students who were familiar with each other from majoring in psychology at the same school), those who measured higher in narcissism were not seen as good leaders initially but by the end of the semester their leadership capability was viewed negatively.

In other words, to strangers the narcissist was charming and thought to have strong leadership skills. Over time though, the narcissist was unable to maintain the pretense and stopped doing the things that initially curried favor with the group and was seen increasingly negatively over the course of the semester. Narcissists, say the researchers, always emerge as leaders in groups where they are unknown but over time, their leadership skills are seen to be lacking and they become increasingly unpopular.

When we are hired to work on a case, one of the early conversations includes a discussion of the style and manner of the attorneys, parties, and witnesses for both sides. A narcissistic witness often has a good bit of charm and initially comes across well. Over time, though, a skilled examiner can feed them enough rope for them to hang themselves on their own pride and arrogance.

What started out feeling bold and engaging devolves into shallow obnoxiousness (consider the current Presidential primaries for a case in point). Narcissists often love the limelight, but don’t realize when they have gone too far. A long trial (if it is an attorney or corporate rep) or a long examination (for the problematic witness) can grow old to jurors before it’s over.

Ong CW, Roberts R, Arthur CA, Woodman T, & Akehurst S (2016). The Leader Ship Is Sinking: A Temporal Investigation of Narcissistic Leadership. Journal of Personality, 84 (2), 237-47 PMID: 25487857

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