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Narcissism + Incompetence = Ignorance and More Incompetence

ResearchBlogging.orgLast month I attended the Annual Convention of the Western Psychological Association (WPA), at which two of my students were scheduled to present research. I will spare you the five-page (single-spaced) description of my peril-fraught journey to Cancun and the disappointment of losing the posters along the way and just tell you that I am very proud of how my students handled it.

Totally unrelated lizard image. If you close your eyes, you might be able to imagine a beautiful poster with a couple of people standing in front of it.

However, instead of our ugly makeshift poster, you can look at a great shot of an iguana that my co-author Dylan Keenberg took on our excursion to Tulum. We saw so many lizards that we took to calling them Mexican squirrels.

Now for the science.

In my experience, most teachers, particularly college instructors, believe that entitlement attitudes, student expectations, study strategies, work habits, and aptitude have changed dramatically in recent years. As students spend more time working in addition to school, they miss more class and devote less time to studying. In addition, because modern technology makes it possible to use (and provide a copy to students) slide show presentations and distribute study guides. As the proportion of courses taught by adjunct faculty, whose teaching load is greater than tenure-track faculty, increases, so does the proportion of exams given in multiple choice format. This, along with outcomes-based learning which shaped students’ habits in elementary and secondary school, promotes rehearsal study strategies.

We hypothesize that the result is a cycle of incompetence as an increasing proportion of college students who believe that memorization of material is an effective way to study and that they are entitled to be given the material and assessments which maximize the benefits of this strategy. In addition, these students do not understand what they memorize and are unprepared for coursework which builds on the material they should have learned. Because they then attribute their failures to outside forces, they do not change their habits and a vicious cycle continues. The literature on academic entitlement is thin, however, some recent findings suggest that academic entitlement attitudes are positively correlated with narcissism, external attribution patterns, feelings of superiority, and exploitative attitudes (Greenberger, et al., 2008; Achacoso, 2002).

To examine these variables, we asked students (N = 95) in upper-division psychology courses to complete a number of measures. Our specific predictions were:

  • Entitlement attitudes are positively correlated with external attribution style, narcissism, and feelings of superiority.
  • Metacognitive skills are negatively associated with rehearsal learning strategies and positively associated with entitlement beliefs.

As with previous discussions, I will minimize the amount of statistics and technical information I discuss I use to describe the study and its findings, but if you would like more specific information, please feel free to email me.

Our measures:

  • The Superiority Scale (Robbins & Patton, 1985).
  • Narcissistic Personality Inventory (Raskin & Hall, 1981)
  • The Multidimensional-Multiattributional Causality Scale: Achievement Subscale (Lefcourt, Baeyer, Ware, & Cox, 1979). This scale measures the degree to which the participant attributes academic achievement to ability, effort, context (such as the difficulty of the course), and luck. The former two are internal attributes and the latter two are external.
  • Learning Strategies Survey we developed to measure the study habits that student think work best. Scores determined relative amounts of passive, rehearsal, and active learning strategies.
    1. Passive = attending lectures without taking notes, attending review sessions to study for exams, and using templates or examples to write papers.
    2. Rehearsal = using instructor-provided lecture notes, memorizing terms and concepts (e.g., flash cards), using study guides, and studying from sample questions or past exams.
    3. Active = taking notes in class, active reading from learning objectives, and drafting & revising papers incorporating feedback.
  • An Academic Entitlement Survey we developed which encompassed expectations about the source of grades, what students believe should be expected of them, what they believe instructors should provide, etc.
  • A Metacognitive Measure: Participants evaluated the validity of ten syllogisms (all invalid), then estimated the percentage they answered correctly. Performance in this task is fairly difficult for most people to judge.
  • In addition, we asked participants to indicate the number of hours studying each week outside of class they believed was reasonable to do well in the course and how many class meetings per semester it was reasonable to miss.

The number of variables and the complex relationships we hypothesized make the findings a bit confusing, but it can be simplified to a series of strong correlations.

Not at all surprising was that the more class meetings students thought it was acceptable to miss, the less time studying they felt should be needed to to do well. What is surprising is that the more missed class meetings they thought were acceptable, the more they felt that academic achievement is determined by luck. Attribution to luck was also positively correlated with rehearsal learning strategies.

The more students attributed achievement to context, the more entitleed they felt.

In addition:

  • Entitlement attitudes were positively correlated with narcissism and superiority, a finding which is consistent with most studies on entitlement.
  • The greater the entitlement attitude, the more likely students were to use rehearsal learning strategies and the less likely they were to use active strategies.
  • The more entitled students felt, the more they attributed academic achievement to external causes (context and luck) and the less they attributed it to effort (attribution to ability was not correlated with any variable).
  • Superiority attitudes were positively correlated with attributions to context.
  • The most telling finding and the strongest correlations: Overestimation of performance was positively correlated with estimated performance, but negatively with actual performance. In other words, the better students thought that they had done on the argument judgments, the worse they actually performed and more they overestimated their performance.

The worse students performed, the better they thought they'd performed.

These findings are consistent with those of Kruger and Dunning (1999), who found that incompetence is perpetuated by ignorance of incompetence. (Dubbed “The Dunning-Kruger Effect“)

Rehearsal learning strategies were correlated with entitlement and external attributions, suggesting that students who believe that rehearsal strategies work best are more likely to feel entitled to use them and less likely to attribute their failures to those strategies or their own efforts. Instead, they will attribute them to external forces such as luck, instructors, and other situational factors. As a result, they continue to use the same failed strategies.

Student use rehearsal strategies which are highly ineffective, but since they attribute failures to external factors such as context and luck, they do not recognize that they do not understand the material. Thus they are stuck in a cycle of metacognitive ignorance and rehearsal strategies ensuring that they continue with poor strategies and poor outcomes, remaining ignorant of the need for change.

Before we publish these findings, we intend to test the validity and reliability of our original measures and use structural equation modeling to map the complex relationships among the variables. This should be completed in the fall with new participants and I fully expect these findings to be replicated.


Anchacoso, M.V. (2006). “What do you mean my grade is not an A?”: An investigation of academic entitlement, causal attributions, and self-regulation in college students. Dissertation Abstracts International, 67 (6-A) : 2006-99023-155

Greenberger, E., Lessard, J., Chen, C., & Farruggia, S.P. (2008). Self-entitled college students: Contributions of personality, parenting, and motivational factors Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 37, 1193-1204 : 10.1007/s10964-008-9284-9

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77 (6), 1121-1134 : 10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121

Lefcourt, H., von Baeyer, C., Ware, E., & Cox, D. (1979). The multidimensional-multiattributional causality scale: The development of a goal specific locus of control scale. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 11 (4), 286-304 DOI: 10.1037/h0081598

Raskin, R., & Hall, C. (1981). The Narcissistic Personality Inventory: Alternative Form Reliability and Further Evidence of Construct Validity Journal of Personality Assessment, 45 (2), 159-162 DOI: 10.1207/s15327752jpa4502_10

Robbins, S.B., & Patton, M.J. (1985). Self-psychology and career development: Construction of the Superiority and Goal Instability Scales Journal of Counseling Psychology, 32 (2), 221-231 : 10.1037/0022-0167.32.2.221

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