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Ego Inflation

March 30, 2010
by Lygia Navarro

Are you overvaluing yourself?

After earning a Ph.D. from Cal in 2001, psychologist Cameron Anderson found that his favorite projects—studies of social dynamics in the workplace—were transcending the arcane realm of psychology and moving into the practical business world.

Anderson, who joined the Haas School of Business last fall, immediately set out to study pomposity in the workplace and how inflated egos impact business. The project—a collaboration between Berkeley, UC Davis, Yale, and the University of Oregon—measured how well group members perceived their own status level within the group, and how overly confident members cause group tensions.

Hundreds of undergrads were brought together and ordered to work in groups. The researchers found that when participants were asked to evaluate their own stature within the group, most did not rate themselves more highly than their peers rated them. They wanted to avoid coming off as high and mighty, Anderson says, because people who are seen as arrogant in group settings are generally disliked and ostracized. According to the study, groups with several members possessing an inflated sense of self were most prone to outright conflict.

Even in his own graduate school career, Anderson says he watched peers bomb academically because of pompous attitudes. “Graduate students with an incredibly narcissistic self-view weren’t liked as well by their advisors,” he says. And their advisors seemed less inclined to work with them, which could seriously hurt the students’ careers.

Anderson believes this research can help students who score high on personality tests for extroversion and assertiveness. He stresses to them that by avoiding coming across as overly self-important, they will be more likely to have positive professional relationships and be able to foster collaboration.

Apparently future MBAs aren’t the only ones interested in Anderson’s research on the social politics of the workplace: His earlier studies have been written up in several women’s magazines. That attention is just not enough for Anderson, however. “My ultimate goal is to be in Cosmopolitan,” he says.

From the January February 2006 Chinafornia issue of California.

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