It feels like this year there has been a big increase in people’s tendency to make a show of their political allegiance, to believe passionately in the superiority of their chosen group’s position, and to be ultra-vigilant to any potential incoming slight or insult toward the group. This kind of behaviour shows signs of “collective narcissism”, which like individual narcissism, is characterised by outward confidence compensating for deep-rooted insecurity.
Collective narcissists say they believe that their group is special and superior, yet when asked what others think of their group, or when tested on implicit measures, such as how quickly they associate in-group symbols with positive words, there is evidence of collective doubt. Worryingly, a series of new studies in the European Journal of Personality shows how collective narcissism can foster inter-group conflict. The results suggest it is important that responsible politicians and journalists do what they can to prevent rather than encourage this dangerous group mentality.
Across five studies, Agnieskzka Golec De Zavala and her colleagues surveyed hundreds of participants in Turkey, Portugal and Poland. The most important measure was of the participants’ feelings of collective narcissism, as revealed through their agreement with statements like “My [national] group deserves special treatment”; “I will never be satisfied until my group gets all it deserves”; and “If my group had a major say in the world, the world would be a much better place”. The researchers found that high scores on collective narcissism tended to go hand in hand with feeling that one’s group had been insulted or derogated in some way, and in turn, wishing for direct or indirect revenge against the out-group.
For instance, after reading a news story about Turkey’s failure to become part of the EU, Turkish participants who scored highly in collective narcissism were more likely to say they interpreted this as a national humiliation, and were more likely to say they found pleasure in the EU’s recent economic woes.
After reading about the EU financial bailout of Portugal in 2011 (and related austerity measures seen by many as imposed principally by Germany), Portuguese participants who scored highly in collective narcissism were more likely to believe that Germany was a threat to Portugal (for example, believing that the EU legal system shows favouritism toward Germany), and in turn were more likely to express intentions to harm, injure, humiliate or intimidate Germans given the chance.
Other similar studies with Polish participants showed that high collective narcissism was related to finding a controversial film (about Polish pogroms) insulting, and wishing for revenge against the film-makers; and there were similar findings related to finding insult in an actor’s jokes at the expense of the Polish political system.
In all studies, collective narcissism was found to be the strongest, and in some cases unique, correlate of the likelihood of perceiving insults or humiliations towards one’s national group, and thence wishing for retribution. For instance, the researchers also measured individual narcissism but this did not have these same associations, possibly because individual narcissists tend to pick and choose group identities as and when they work in their favour. Note too that when separated from any signs of collective narcissism, a positive, patriotic (but not grandiose) attitude towards one’s national in-group actually acted as a buffer against perceiving insults and wishing for vengeance towards other groups.
Where does collective narcissism come from? This is only part of the story, but based on measures of participants’ self-esteem, there was some evidence that collective narcissism may act as a compensation for low individual confidence and low self-worth. Lacking confidence in themselves, people can find comfort in aligning closely with a larger grouping, and seeing this group as somehow special and great. In turn, they are then highly defensive of their chosen group’s status, ultra-sensitive to possible slights, and keen to derogate any threatening groups.
“The present results suggest that there will always be a proportion of the population, which is responsive to the framing of intergroup situations as insulting to an in-group,” the researchers said. “Such a framing is likely to mobilise support for hostile actions towards the alleged perpetrators of the imagined in-group offences.” For this reason, the researchers said that collective narcissism, as and when it arises, could be part of a dangerous social psychological process that fosters intergroup tensions and even extremist activities.
The new findings suggest that any politician who ferments in their followers a grandiose belief in the in-group, combined with encouraging them to believe the in-group is being insulted or slighted by others, is arguably fostering collective narcissism and sowing the seeds for future conflict and hostility. One positive way to intervene might be to see if collective narcissists can be encouraged to channel their envy and sensitivity toward constructively helping their in-group rather than harming out-groups.
“[B]etter understanding of the cultural, economic, educational or societal contexts that encourage versus discourage collective narcissism may inspire new ways to deescalate intergroup tensions and discourage radicalization towards intergroup violence,” the researchers concluded.
Image via Democracy International/Flickr