Are Narcissistic Students More Likely to Cheat?

Narcissism has gotten a lot of attention lately, which is presumably just what it wants. The decision to drop narcissistic personality disorder from the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (usually referred to as the “DSM”) recently caused a bit of a backlash. Also, there’s a continuing debate about whether college students are becoming more narcissistic, an issue that was summarized nicely in The Chronicle Review a couple months back.

Now comes a new study that draws a link between narcissism and cheating. Researchers asked 199 college students from a “regional Midwestern college” to take the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, a 40-question test that purports to measure one’s self-regard. They also had them complete a questionnaire that evaluated their academic dishonesty and how guilty (or not) they felt about what they’d done.

They found that students who tested high for a particular dimension of narcissism — exhibitionism — were more likely to be cheaters. The researchers define exhibitionism as a “desire for admiration” that “functions as a means to demonstrate superiority to others.” These students were less likely to feel remorse over their academic sins.

So one way to interpret this finding is to think that students today are more likely to be narcissists and therefore more likely to cheat — that is, if you buy the argument of Jean Twenge, whose new book warns that we are in the midst of a narcissism epidemic. Here’s an excerpt from one of Twenge’s papers to give a taste of her thinking:

… many self-esteem programs, ‘‘I Am Special’’ song sessions, and ‘‘All About Me’’ lessons are taught to all students, not just those with low self-esteem. Thus Americans are administering a psychological intervention to an entire population of children when only a small minority shows any sign of needing it. This is akin to giving all third graders Ritalin because a few of them have ADHD.

But hold on. While this new paper found a link between exhibitionism and cheating, it didn’t find the same correlation with higher self-esteem. From the paper:

… students with higher self-esteem also report higher GPAs. Thus, it may be that students with higher self-esteem have less inclination to cheat—perhaps because of confidence in their own abilities—and also experience less pressure to cheat because they assume that others are cheating to a lesser extent than do those with lower self-esteem.

So it’s probably careless to conflate narcissism and plain old self-esteem. And drawing a direct line from “I Am Special” songs in kindergarten to cheating on an English term paper would be dubious, at least without some supporting evidence.

The study, though, does makes a kind of intuitive sense: If your opinion of yourself is ridiculously high, and your desire to appear superior to others especially strong, then maybe cheating becomes an almost irresistible option. And if your primary goal in life is to publicly assert your awesomeness then how you achieve that objective isn’t important. Why feel guilty about doing what it takes to win? Right?

(The paper is titled “Narcissism and academic dishonesty: The exhibitionism dimension and the lack of guilt,” and it was published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. The authors are Amy B. Brunell, Sara Staats, Jamie Barden, and Julie M. Hupp. The abstract can be found here.)

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