Narcissists never learn from their mistakes – Here’s why

Mistakes are an inevitable part of life, right? Not necessarily, according to the narcissists of the world. A new study from Oregon State University has concluded that narcissists rarely, if ever, learn from their mistakes. Why? A true narcissist refuses to believe they are capable of making a mistake.

Everyone engages in “self-protective thinking” to a certain extent. Whenever a situation doesn’t go our way it’s natural for anyone to look for someone or something else to blame besides themselves. 

“But narcissists do this way more because they think they’re better than others,” explains study author Satoris Howes, a researcher at OSU-Cascades with the OSU College of Business, in a university release. “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.'”

So, while narcissists stay committed to the idea that their actions are infallible, the rest of us tend to move on from this line of thinking rather quickly. Sure, the average individual’s first reaction to bad news may be to blame someone else, but eventually, that person will start to ask themselves “what could I have done differently?”

The mental process of analyzing one’s past actions and decisions to see what they should have done differently is called “should counterfactual thinking.”  Simply put, narcissists aren’t capable of this, which is why they don’t learn from their mistakes.

Narcissists, by definition, believe that they are generally better than other people, and far more deserving of success.

To come to their findings, the study’s authors conducted four separate variations of the same experiment. Each time a different participant group was used; the first involved students, the second consisted of employees, the third was made up of experienced hiring managers, and the fourth was held in Chile with Spanish-speaking participants.

Across all four experiments, participants first took a test designed to measure their narcissism. The test asked participants to choose between statement pairs, such as (“I think I am a special person” or “I am no better or worse than most people”). Then, the subjects were told to evaluate a group of hypothetical job candidates based on fictional qualifications/traits. Once each participant had made their choice, they were told how their hypothetical hire ended up doing on the job. 

Researchers looked to see how participants reacted to this information. For example, if a subject hired a candidate they thought would do great on the job, but was then told the employee ended up being a horrible worker, would they engage in any “should counterfactual thinking” and question if they had made a mistake?

Each of the four experiments utilized different methods to analyze the results. The research team looked specifically to see how participants’ counterfactual thinking was influenced by hindsight bias.

Hindsight bias is when someone exaggerates what they knew or predicted in the past. Researchers used Donald Trump’s 2004 statement that he “predicted the Iraq war better than anybody” as an example of hindsight bias. According to the study’s authors, hindsight bias can also be reversed and used as a protective tool when predictions are proven false. Again, Donald Trump was used as an example to illustrate this point; in 2017 President Trump remarked that “no one knew health care could be so complicated.”

The four experiments revealed that narcissists use both variations of hindsight bias to avoid questioning their past decisions/actions. If a narcissist accurately predicted a job candidate would be a good employee they remarked “I knew it all along,” but if they had chosen to hire a subpar worker narcissists would remark “nobody could have guessed.”

Both of these approaches/reactions yield the same result. The narcissist absolves himself or herself of any personal wrongdoing or mistake.

“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 comments.

Thanks to the mindset that they can do wrong, narcissists usually exude confidence. After all, why wouldn’t they? They’re incapable of making mistakes. 

However it’s achieved, confidence can be an asset in the professional world, and many narcissists do quite well for themselves career-wise. Besides just being super-confident, narcissists are also quite adept at deflecting blame when things go wrong and collecting credit for other people’s work.

In the long run, though, the team at OSU warns that narcissists usually do far more harm than good to the companies they work for. If a narcissist ascends to a management position, they usually make life incredibly difficult for their employees. Also, never learning from one’s mistakes almost guarantees a steady stream of poor business decisions.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Management.