How ‘collective narcissism’ is directing world politics
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A little-known personality trait may lie behind the political upheaval across the world.

How do you feel about your nation? Does it make you angry when others criticise your country? Do you feel the world would be a better place if your country had more of a say? Do you wish other countries would more quickly recognise your country’s authority?

Anyone who answered “yes” to these questions would be showing signs of “collective narcissism” at the level of their nationality – at least according to social psychologists. The questions are adapted from a nine-item Collective Narcissism Scale used in research. 

A lot of us are familiar with the psychological construct of narcissism as applied to an individual: someone who is grandiose and overconfident on the outside, but needy and vulnerable underneath. But collective narcissism is something different: it is when someone exhibits an exaggerated belief in the superiority of their in-group, be that a gang, religion or nation, but deep down feels doubtful about their group’s prestige and therefore craves its recognition by others. This ‘fragility’ makes it different from simply having pride in one’s country – in much the same way that a narcissist is quite different from an individual with healthy self-esteem.

Collective narcissism has been documented in many countries, including Poland, which has seen a rise in nationalism among young people (Credit: Getty Images)

Collective narcissism has been documented in many countries, including Poland, which has seen a rise in nationalism among young people (Credit: Getty Images)

One way that psychologists have studied collective narcissism is by using the “Implicit Association Test” (IAT). The test can take different forms, but usually involves pressing keyboard keys to decide whether a word fits into different categories. The basic idea is that we’re quicker to respond when the same key is allocated to categories that we associate in our mind. If you have good self-esteem, for instance, you will be quicker if you have to use the left arrow to sort both positive words, and those that relate to yourself.

To take one example of how the test has been applied to the study of collective narcissism, Polish people showing signs of collective narcissism were slower than average to associate Polish symbols with positive words. Although there’s controversy around how to interpret the IAT, these findings suggest that at least on some level the Polish collective narcissists didn’t see their national in-group in a positive light. This would explain why they desperately sought affirmation of their country’s worth from other people.

Other evidence suggests that certain aspects of collective narcissism emerge as a way to compensate for feelings of personal inadequacy – in much the same way that individual narcissists may vaunt their self-importance to hide their anxiety. Aleksandra Cichocka and colleagues at the University of Warsaw recently found that people who felt less in control of their lives were more likely to show signs of collective narcissism, for instance.

Along these lines, the researchers also found that they could increase their participant’s scores on collective narcissism by prompting them to think about times in their lives when they didn’t have control. Conversely, encouraging them to think about times they’d had control had the effect of reduced the participants’ collective narcissism.

Both sides of the Brexit debate may have appealed to voters' collective narcissism to a greater or lesser extent (Credit: Getty Images)

Both sides of the Brexit debate may have appealed to voters' collective narcissism to a greater or lesser extent (Credit: Getty Images)

The concept of collective narcissism isn’t new – it was first proposed by the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm and sociologist Theodor Adorno in the 1930s – but social psychologists’ increasing interest in the idea is especially timely given the political upheaval going on in the world right now. Indeed, Cichocoka’s former professor, Agnieszka Golec de Zavala at Goldsmiths, University of London has found preliminary evidence that collective narcissists were more likely to vote for Donald Trump, and Brexit. (And just to be clear, that does not mean that all people who voted for Trump and Brexit were collective narcissists.)

In fact, politicians from both sides of any debate may appeal to collective narcissism to a greater or less extent. With talk of restoring Britain’s rightful sovereignty and independence, for instance, the Brexit Leave campaign may have struck a chord with people with those traits. But the Remain side may have also recognised the need to appeal to this same mindset. Consider how the Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, justified voting Remain in patriotic terms: 

“I don’t think Britain at the end is a quitter. I think we stay and fight. That is what we should do. That is what made our country great and that’s how it will be great in the future.”

It is also intriguing – and potentially relevant – that collective narcissists tend to be more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories, especially those involving outsiders. For example, another study by Golec de Zavala and Cichocka, published last year, found that Polish people who scored highly in collective narcissism tended to believe that the Smolensk plane crash of 2010 (in which the Polish President and dozens of other politicians died) was an act of terror by the Russians.

Turkish people scoring higher in collective narcissism were more likely to hold hostile views towards Germans - as seen in this protest (Credit: Getty Images)

Turkish people scoring higher in collective narcissism were more likely to hold hostile views towards Germans - as seen in this protest (Credit: Getty Images)

Worryingly, Golec de Zavala and Cichocka suggest that collective narcissism could fuel hostility between countries – since collective narcissists are also more likely to endorse revenge, when they feel that their group has been insulted.

In a study published last year, for example, Turkish participants who scored highly on collective narcissism were more likely to say that it was a national humiliation that their country had not been allowed to join the EU, and at the same time they said they took pleasure in the economic woes of the block. Similarly, Portuguese participants with collective narcissism saw Germany as a threat (presumably because they blamed the Germans for the EU austerity measures imposed on Portugal) and said they’d enjoy any chance to retaliate against the Germans. Another study with US students found that those scoring higher in collective narcissism were more likely to favour military aggression.

Despite these findings, it’s worth underlining that collective narcissism is quite different from other kinds of national pride – and positive feelings about one’s own country can bring many benefits. In fact, in her recent review of the field Cichocka explains how feeling a strong sense of identification with a larger group can be constructive. People can find great purpose and meaning in doing things for the greater good of their group, and healthy patriotism is associated with more tolerance and understanding of other nationalities. What makes collective narcissism distinct is its defensive and paranoid tone, and the insatiable desire for due recognition from others.

Another thing to bear in mind is that a lot of the research on collective narcissism involves deliberately factoring out the influence of other related psychological and sociological constructs, including those usually seen as negative, such as in-group glorification (believing in the superiority of one’s own group over others), and others that are more positive, such as constructive patriotism (loving one’s country while also recognising flaws and seeking ways to help bring about improvements). In the messiness of real life, of course many of us hold these kind of feelings to varying degrees all at the same time. And our attitudes and beliefs can change with time – they are not set in stone.

These caveats aside, people from all sides of the political spectrum would do well to take these results seriously: if the events of 2016 are anything to go by, we may be hearing a lot more of this little-known personality type.


Dr Christian Jarrett edits the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog. His next book, Personology, will be published in 2019.

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