Planet of the Apes: Narcissistic Behavior Allows Candidates to Ace Interviews

A recent study on what makes a person successful in a job interview found that narcissists do much better than non-narcissists. Apparently, the tendency to promote oneself, by engaging and speaking at length, aggressiveness, and using ingratiation tactics such as smiling, gesturing, and complimenting others, gets interpreted as confidence and expertise, which impresses interviewers. Even trained interviewers are influenced by narcissists when it comes to selecting self-centered candidates with milder personalities. What this research suggests is that an interview can be a poor selection device, since there’s no evidence that being narcissistic makes a candidate a better performer.

As a predictor of job performance, interviews have usually ranked low compared to other options. Tests of all types typically rank much higher. A structured interview can be as good as some tests, but only if the structure is rigidly adhered to and the responses are uniformly scored. Once we allow for things such “chemistry,” “fit,” and other undefinable factors, then all bets are off.

What We Can Learn From Apes

For an answer to what explains this outcome — both in the behavior of candidates as well as the interviewers who allow themselves to be influenced — look to the social behavior of apes. Narcissistic behavior is also most commonly seen among other primates. Decades of research shows that dominant males among chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and baboons all demonstrate narcissism in varying degrees, suggesting that the trait is genetically ingrained. The trait — and associated behaviors (self promotion, etc.) — can be described as status-striving, intended to elevate the narcissist to the top position in a social hierarchy (company, community, professional, or social group). Among both apes and people, a common manifestation is the radiant smile of recognition — broadly exposing gums and teeth. Narcissists tend to display this frequently.

But what about the interviewers? Back to the apes. A key reason why a primate that displays narcissistic behavior usually leads the pack is because the behaviors displayed provide a sense of security to the others. Narcissistic behaviors are most commonly accompanied by aggressiveness and  a demonstration of perfection. Aggression involves body posturing, gestures, and eye contact of intimidation and deference. Perfection is most commonly seen as maintenance of neatness, order, and symmetry. Narcissists give the appearance of being in control of their environment: they are highly competitive and well groomed.

Article Continues Below

Think about what impresses you about candidates during interviews. Why are candidates advised to dress well, polish their shoes, have a firm handshake, and make eye contact? There is not a shred of evidence that candidates who are well dressed make better employees than those who aren’t, but would you be favorably disposed toward a candidate who came in with a stain on their jacket, avoided eye contact, and had a limp handshake?

Interestingly, there’s no evidence that any of the behaviors displayed by narcissists (among apes or humans) makes them successful. In certain situations their aggressive nature may allow them to become leaders or push through their ideas, but that only works if the ideas are any good to begin with or their leadership takes their followers in the right direction. Otherwise it’s just a disaster waiting to happen. Just see the movie “Planet of the Apes” if you don’t believe me.

Raghav Singh, director of analytics at Korn Ferry Futurestep, has developed and launched multiple software products and held leadership positions at several major recruiting technology vendors. His career has included work as a consultant on enterprise HR systems and as a recruiting and HRIT leader at several Fortune 500 companies. Opinions expressed here are his own.


18 Comments on “Planet of the Apes: Narcissistic Behavior Allows Candidates to Ace Interviews

  1. I’m not at all surprised (I bet most recruiters will not be): most candidates get hired because the hiring manager likes them. Skills, experience and capabilities are almost always secondary factors.

    Keep in mind that hiring managers are descendants of the same baboons they hire…. 🙂

  2. Another ‘study’ endorsed blog post trying to cast light on something which really doesn’t need any light casting upon it. How exactly do you measure Narcissism? 72 people were used in the study, not exactly a huge sample is it.

    Anyone who doesn’t know and appreciate that ‘people buy people like them’ shouldn’t be in recruitment and shouldn’t be hiring. Why wouldn’t you? Modelling and mentoring is all about identifying with people. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the hiring on this basis, unless you consistently hire the wrong people.

  3. I just read your post Raghav.

    Jane and I were just out having an early morning swim. It has been lonely since Cheeta has gone off to college.

    I have been interviewing many replacements and also found that Chimpanzees tend to be narcissistic.


  4. I’m sorry this article was not received with the respect it deserves. Narcissism is a major recruitment problem. For anyone interested in the subject, Dr Robert Hogan has spent a career studying failed leadership and published many articles on the subject of narcissism at the c-level.

    Consider the roots of narcissism: skilled manipulator of people; convinced he/she is smarter than everyone else; conceals his/her total disregard for others; sees people as objects to be manipulated to achieve his/her own objectives; surround themselves with people who idolize them; react violently when confronted or challenged; skilled at publicly demeaning others if he/she feel threatened; is sociopathic; and, the list goes on…

    Professionals report narcissism is exceptionally difficult to cure because narcissists are quite satisfied with their self-exalted status and ability to manipulate others. So how do you identify a potential narcissist? Begin by rembering a narcissist is a practiced expert at social manipulation. So, if a charismatic candidate looks and acts too good to be true, refuses to be tested, or attempts to hijack hiring due diligence, you might actually be face to face with one of these sociopaths.

    If you suspect narcissism, but still want to pursue the candidate, be sure to methodically interview people he/she worked with, worked for, and/or supervised. If you cannot do in-depth background checks and interviews, there are some clinical tests that can be used, but you will have to contact a professional to administer them for you.

  5. Dear Dr Williams, apologies my intention was not intended to cause offence or come across as petty. It is just that so many of these posts tend to be a precursor to someone selling yet another personality testing tool.

    In all fairness, all the characteristics of narcissism are in many cases precisely what the Dr ordered (no pun intended). I suspect that were you to test for narcissism amongst the CEO’s of the FTSE100 or Fortune 500 you would find a high degree of people demonstrated narcissicistic tendencies. Similarly within politics, armed forces and almost any organisation that has a heirarchical structure.

    Surely the ability to control, to influence, to monopolise, to engender respect, to coerce and to dominate are critical in tough leadership situations.

    I am as certain of the fact that Tony Blair and George Bush are narcissists as I am of the fact that Pope Benedict XVI and the Prime Minister of Bahrain are.

    Horses for courses. I would hire any of them as a programmer for a software project or as a nurse. But if I wanted to get things done at any cost, well maybe!

  6. Wendell, I think (hope) the previous posters had tongues planted firmly in cheek. I agree with you and feel this is an important and well presented piece (Thank you. Raghav!). Narcissism is a real problem and most often on the part of the hiring manager. They’re the ones with the inflated sense of self that often leads to poor hiring decisions (“I know a good one when I see one.” is a common refrain we hear.)

    On the other hand, when coaching people, and as I pointed out in my session in San Diego last month, confidence on the part of the candidate is crucial if they want to improve their chances of getting hired. Think about your last recruiting experience. Were you anxious to hire or comfortable sending on a candidate who reeked of desperation? No, we are human (and primate) and tend to respond positively to a candidate who appears confident.

    On the other hand, when we feel that we are being manipulated by candidates, it is our responsibility to search for contrary evidence to our first impression. If someone appears “too good to be true,” then they probably aren’t being completely truthful.

    And that’s where our skill and training come in to add value to our organizations.

    And I have to admit I like Robert’s post.
    Thanks to all who contribute to this conversation.

  7. It’s important to note that confidence is a good thing, but narcissism is not. Narcissim is sociopathic, manipulative, destructive, and a host of other bad things… The problem facing recruiters, interviewers and hiring managers, is narcissists are such masters of manipulation they can only be identified by examining carefully their track record(i.e., not what they take credit for, but how they did it) or using special tests.. Believe me when I say they are so good, you will not know you are being manipulated.

  8. Raghav, why do you need Keith Halperin to weigh in on this? It appears that you stirred a little controversy and now you need a friend to back you up?

    Nothing against you personally but this is just another example of theoretical baloney that appears all too often on this site.

    ‘Narcissism is a major recruitment problem’. Wrong, Doc. Poorly trained managers and recruiters are the problem.
    Ronald Katz said it best ‘And that’s where our skill and training come in to add value to our organizations.’

    Nothing theoretical about it.

  9. Sorry, Raghav- had some other stuff to do:

    WANTED: Charming, aggressive, carefree people who are good at looking out for Number One
    By Michele R. Berman MD,

    Published: June 21, 2011
    6 comment(s)

    If the title of this post applies to you, you may be a psychopath.

    Our title is actually a shortened version of a newspaper advertisement that researchers used to recruit potential psychopaths from non-incarcerated populations (Gao and Raine, 2010). The goal of the research was to study the differences between “successful” versus unsuccessful psychopaths. Successful psychopaths are a subgroup that meet the diagnostic criteria for psychopathy but who have managed to stay out of the criminal justice system.

    Literature on five populations was reviewed:

    Community psychopaths
    Psychopaths from temporary employment agencies (NOT a Keith joke! -kh)
    College students with psychopathic traits
    Industrial psychopaths
    Psychopathic serial killers…..

    …..Industrial or “white collar” psychopaths bear special consideration because they, in fact, may be more dangerous and destructive to society than “typical” psychopaths whose images in the public mind are based on either fictional characters in the movies or on TV (e.g. Hannibal Lecter, Dexter) and/or “true crime” stories in the media (Drew Peterson, Green River Killer Gary Ridgway).

    As Canadian psychologist Dr. Robert Hare has said:’
    ‘Not all psychopaths are in prison. Some are in the Boardroom.” (quoted in Babiak et al., 2010)

    Dr. Hare has written extensively about corporate psychopaths who ‘violate their positions of influence and trust, defraud customers, investors, friends, and family, successfully elude regulators, and appear indifferent to the financial chaos and personal suffering they create.’ These Snakes in Suits may explain the stunningly high incidence (43%) of fraud and corruption in companies surveyed worldwide (Babiak et al., 2010).

    In his book The Psychopath Test which inspired our current series of posts, author Jon Ronson talks about the case of alleged corporate psychopath “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap who made a phenomenal business career by firing others (“workforce reduction”). Dunlap was eventually fired himself after his psychopathic tendencies and their consequences led him to ‘self-destruct’ in a blaze of accounting fraud that presaged the epidemic of white collar crime in the Adelphia, Enron, Worldcom and Tyco cases of the early 2000s and, more recently, Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.

    As work by Babiak and colleagues, 2010 shows, high levels of psychopathic traits may not impede but can actually enhance career progress and advancement in business organizations (to see how, read the story of “Dave” in Snakes in Suits).

    In Chapter 6 (“Night of the Living Dead” describing the death of Shubuta, Mississippi) of his book, Ronson describes his visit with Albert Dunlap during which he attempted to determine if Mr. Dunlap was a psychopath based on the Hare criteria. As Ronson ran through Hare’s checklist, Dunlap redefined many psychopathic traits as exemplary qualities of executive leaders. For example:

    Item 2 Grandiose sense of self-worth (“Believing in yourself”)
    Item 5 Manipulativeness (“Leadership”)
    Item 7 Lack of empathy (“Not being weighed down by nonsense emotions”)
    Item 14 Impulsivity (“Quick analysis”)

    We’ll end this section by pointing out that psychopathy is not restricted to the business world but affects politicians, leaders of international organizations and, yes, even medical students and physicians (e.g. see Snakes in Suits, pages 199 and 214)…..

    I particularly liked the part about:
    “Dr. Hare has written extensively about corporate psychopaths who ‘violate their positions of influence and trust, defraud customers, investors, friends, and family, successfully elude regulators, and appear indifferent to the financial chaos and personal suffering they create.’ These Snakes in Suits may explain the stunningly high incidence (43%) of fraud and corruption in companies surveyed worldwide (Babiak et al., 2010).” That’s good news: nearly 3/5 of our companies AREN’T involved in fraud and corruption- the odds are in our favor!



  10. @Paul:
    Raghav doesn’t need my help- even though I don’t always agree with him, he’s a thoughtful and articulate writer.

    Re: “‘Narcissism is a major recruitment problem’. Wrong, Doc. Poorly trained managers and recruiters are the problem.”
    What do you base that on, Paul? We’ve seen how arrogant, Type-A narcissists (some of whom are psychopaths) have destroyed companies and crippled the American economy, but evidently keeping these folks out of where they can do a lot damage isn’t a problem, in your opinion.



  11. Keith, how do these ‘Type-A narcissists’ get into companies in the first place? A major part of the problem is poorly-trained managers and recruiters who allow themselves to be bowled over by these candidates.

    You can’t change people if they have narcissistic personalities. But you can take steps to make sure that such aren’t allowed to ‘destroy and cripple’ a company. I put myself on the spot, as a seasoned and trained recruiter to take the lead in it. Blame me, not the sociopath that I hire.

    ‘We’ve seen how arrogant, Type-A narcissists (some of whom are psychopaths) have destroyed companies and crippled the American economy’

    Okay, Keith, so are you saying that these narcissists are solely responsible for the economic mess we are in and no one else? That is exactly what you wrote. What do you base THAT on?

  12. @ Paul: A few things-

    1) Often these folks ARE what the hiring managers are looking for: confident, well-groomed, attractive, self-starting, hard-charging spearheads, who reach for the brass ring and not just the low-hanging fruit. Think Don Draper with an attitude. These folks do things and go places; what if they’re a little “cocky”- they’ve earned it.

    2) Also, ISTM a lot of the folks who are looking for people like this are like this themselves, particularly at “employers of choice”. Beyond (or should I say “beneath”) these are the real “snakes in suits: so smooth you can’t see ’em coming, even if you know what to look for. It’s interesting that you’ve worked in environments where you can decide who gets hired- that it’s up to you and not the hiring managers. Must be fun…

    3) Finally, I didn’t say that these folks are solely responsible for our economic crisis- I don’t believe it. What I am saying is that a lot of the “bankstas” and “oligarchs” (particularly) in the financial sector that brought down the economy ARE like this, and as long as everybody was making money, nobody cared. Now though, the economy lost a $trillion, millions of ordinary people lost their jobs and homes, and these “pindejos” walked away with $billions when IMHO they should be doing hard, 20 years-life terms with Bernie Madoff.

    Bottom line: you won’t be able to completely eliminate high-achieving narcissistic psychopaths from getting hired particularly in sales areas anymore than you can avoid hiring high-achieving aspergers in engineering roles. The key is to effectively utilize their talents and to make sure they don’t get out of control and try to run things. (Trust me on this: I’ve worked at places where at times I’ve had a sociopath and at other times aspergers in charge, and they were all REALLY dysfunctional.)



  13. I don’t know how this discussion went from crazy sociopaththy to these are the kind of people we occasionally need. No. They are not. We have to make it clear that narcissists are destructive…both to the people who work for them and the shareholders of the organization. Why? Narcissists really don’t care about anything except themselves. They will rob, cheat, steal, and take credit for others work if it fosters their one ends. They care even less about shareholders, even if it means running the company into the ground to get a bonus. They will abuse subordinates and physically itimidate anyone who disagrees with them…AND…they are seldom, if ever, as smart as they want you to believe. If you were marooned on a desert island with a narcissist, only one of you would survive. So, who wants to share aroom with Hannibal Lector this weekend?

  14. @ Dr. Williams: I may have been unclear. I do not think we should hire full-blown destructive narcissistic psychopaths- I’ve known and worked for enough to know that. At the same time, I believe that a certain amount of narcissistic traits confidence, persistence, goal-orientation,may be helpful. It’s analogous to sickle-cell: a person who carries the trait has a certain resistance to malaria, but someone who has full-blown sickle-cell anemia has a disease. Likewise with Asperger’s: a certain amount can help you found a multi-billion-dollar SW firm, but too much and you’re on SSI for life…But back to narcissitic psychopaths- if the cause is genetic ( and *incurable (, what do you do with the ~1% of people who are like this? Perhaps, as has been proposed in the UK, people with the extreme psychopathic personality profile (or maybe in the near future even a specific genetic profile?) should be monitored or segregated even before they commit a crime, or do you wait until they commit a crime? Fundamentally, folks like this can tell right from wrong, but they don’t (and literally can’t) care.



    *Some are fearless- no physiological fear response to forthcoming painful stimuli.

  15. Dr. Williams: I may have been unclear. I don’t suggest that we hire extreme narcissist-psychopaths (NPs)- I’ve known/worked for enough to say that. Rather, that a certain amount of traits (confidence, bravery, goal-orientation, persistence) which accompany psychopathy may be valuable. It’s like with sickle cell- the trait gives you resistance to malaria, but the full-blown condition is a disease. Likewise with Aspergers- a little may help you found a multi-billion dollar SW company, but too much and you’re on SSI for life.



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *