We live in polarised times and more and more people harbor anger and grievances about their lot in life. What is underlying these feelings? One explanation is the concept of “collective narcissism”, which implies exaggerated notions of importance and positivity attached to a group. We talked to Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, who is based at Goldsmiths, University of London and a world leader in this field, about the causes and consequences of this worrying phenomenon.
Dr. Golec de Zavala, why has collective narcissism become so pronounced in today’s world?
Collective narcissism is the belief that the ingroup’s exceptionality is not sufficiently appreciated by others. It entails feeling entitled and privileged based on the group membership. When the existing privileges and entitlements of their group are challenged, collective narcissists mobilize in their defence. We live in times of economic crisis and austerity measures when a lot of people have had to lower their expectations regarding their living standards. This creates feelings of violated entitlement and uncertainty about self-worth.
The need for personal significance can be fulfilled by an exceptional group one belongs to, especially when there are ideological movements present that suggest that individuals can fulfil their need for significance by asserting special recognition for their groups, making their groups great again. We live in times, at least in the Western world, when many previously disadvantaged groups are successfully fighting for their rights. This creates feelings of violated privilege among some members of the advantaged groups. They may feel motivated to protect the privileged status of their groups.
Finally, we live in times when individual narcissism, exaggeration of self-importance and entitlement, is on the rise. There is an argument in psychological science that this increase is due to the upbringing practices in the Western world that aimed at cultivating self-esteem but in fact enabled expression of narcissism. Cultures idealising individual success and defining it as being ‘better’ and ‘more unique, special etc.’ than others suggest that it is OK and desirable to be narcissistic. Those who, for some reason, cannot claim their individual greatness directly, claim it indirectly, demanding special recognition for their groups. Those are collective narcissists.
We have been studying collective narcissism empirically for the last 15 years. And the more we study a phenomenon the more we see it. Maybe the concept of collective narcissism has given us a tool to talk about phenomena that might have existed before but were not referred to as collective narcissism.
Which methods do you use to study the phenomenon of collective narcissism?
I study collective narcissism as an individual difference variable, a characteristic that people can have more or less of. We measure collective narcissism by a Collective Narcissism Scale, which I developed in collaboration with colleagues from the Salomon Ash Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at the University of Pennsylvania, USA. People who score high on this scale believe that the true importance of their group is not sufficiently recognized by others, that their group would make the world a better place but that others do not fully appreciate its greatness. We study how such people behave towards their own group and other groups and we look at their attitudes and beliefs about the social world in more general terms.
What role, if any, do you think religious belief plays in the phenomenon of collective narcissism?
We have studied collective narcissism in the context of religious and ideological groups, and as much as religion can be seen as social identity, people can be collectively narcissistic about their religious groups. Indeed, people can be collectively narcissistic about any group they belong to. Collective narcissists use such groups to participate in their ‘borrowed’ greatness, to feel entitled, better than others and to demand privileged treatment. They are typically hostile to relevant ‘outgroups’, i.e., groups that practice other religions or do not practice any, or those who do not follow the guidance of the ‘one true’ religion that the collective narcissists practice.
Often religion is closely tied to a national identity (like in the case of my home country, Poland). Here, religion is used to identify ‘true’ and ‘better sorts’ of nationals. Collective narcissism is related to a narrow definition of the national group and those who do not fall under this definition are rejected and discriminated against. In Poland, for example, collective narcissism is related to a belief that a ‘true Polish person’ is male, Catholic and heterosexual. So, in Poland, national collective narcissism is related to religious prejudice and discrimination, misogyny and homophobia.
Religion and ideological zeal undermine rationality and reliance on empirical evidence. Collective narcissism is related to a biased perception of the social world in which conspiracy theories serve as valid explanations of why others are against ‘us’ and how we should act to stop ‘them’.
Both Brexit and the rise of populists all over the world have been attributed to the fact that vast swathes of our populations feel left behind and not listened to. Do you think that this inequality, either perceived or real, has contributed to an upsurge in collective narcissism?
Collective narcissism is not about striving for equality. People who work for the betterment of their communities or engage in collective action to improve the situation of their own group, typically are not collective narcissistic. They are proud and happy group members who highly value their group membership. Collective narcissists use their groups instrumentally to bask in their recognition and greatness. They are not interested in working on their behalf though. They do not demand equality for their group. They demand privileged treatment. The fact that collective narcissism strongly predicted Brexit and the election of Trump suggest that those who are swayed by populist propaganda are not motivated by a struggle for equality but rather by the fear that their group-based privilege is being undermined.
What practices do you see as being conducive to reducing collective narcissism?
We have tried several interventions which didn’t work. It is not easy to reduce collective narcissism as it is not easy to change people’s personalities by short-term interventions. Our best bet is stopping collective narcissism from becoming an acceptable vision of group identity, stopping it from becoming a group norm.
We have identified a group of interventions that can, at least temporarily, break the link between collective narcissism and hostility. We are able to do this by inducing so-called self-transcendent emotions. These are emotional states that are positive and relate and tie us to others. They are evoked when we feel connected to something greater than our individual selves. Feeling grateful for experiences or feeling touched by a sense of belonging to a community are the emotions that weaken the link between collective narcissism and hostility and aggression towards other groups. We have also some initial data suggesting that collective narcissism may be lowered when people feel included and accepted by others.
Based on your research, do you think an international order based not on multilateralism between countries but rather one based on nationalism and the primacy of individual states could ever work? In other words, can different groups who all practice collective narcissism ever work together in harmony?
Groups that practice collective narcissism cannot work in harmony. Collective narcissism is related to so-called hostile attribution bias. Collective narcissists believe that everyone is after and against their group whose greatness and true importance are not understood by others. They do not trust others. They believe in others conspiring against their group. This means that they cannot build successful coalitions. But collective narcissism is not the only or the necessary positive attitude towards the national group. People who value their national group membership, but are not narcissistic about it, appreciate other groups. They can relate to others who value their group membership, even if it is a membership in a different national group. Collective narcissism should be discouraged as a national attitude but positive, non-narcissistic attitudes towards a national group can be platforms for successful international collaboration. This can be illustrated using an analogy to self-esteem and individual narcissists. Narcissists cannot form close, intimate and happy relationships. They cannot make space for anyone else. High self-esteem, on the other hand, is a good predictor of forming close, intimate and happy relationships.(© Neysan Donnelly / AcademiaNet / Spektrum.de)