Research from my PrejudiceLab at Goldsmiths, University of London shows that people who score high on the collective narcissism scale are particularly sensitive to even the smallest offences to their group’s image.
In 2007, a British school teacher in Sudan received a jail sentence under Sharia law because she allowed her pupils to name a classroom teddy-bear ‘Muhammad’. The day after the sentence was announced, more than 10,000 people took to the streets of Khartoum demanding the teacher’s execution for blasphemy. While alternative explanations existed – the name Muhammad was chosen by children’s voting, it is a popular male name in Sudan – the teacher faced such disproportionate hostility because some people interpreted her actions as an insult to their whole group.
In 2014, a production team from the British TV series Top Gear was forced out of Argentina by angry protesters offended by the licence plate on one of the show’s cars. It read ‘H982 FKL’, which the Argentinians saw as a sneering allusion to the 1982 Falklands war with the UK. Naturally, this could have been a coincidence or a mistake, but it was interpreted as an insult to Argentina, and followed by retaliatory hostility.
In these examples, those who felt that their group had been insulted must have held the group in high esteem. But not all who hold their group in high esteem feel insulted and retaliate after real or imagined threats to their group’s image. So why do some feel that their group was insulted while others do not? And why do some feel that their group has been insulted even when no insult was intended and alternative explanations have been offered?
Research from my PrejudiceLab at Goldsmiths, University of London shows that people who score high on the collective narcissism scale are particularly sensitive to even the smallest offences to their group’s image. As opposed to individuals with narcissistic personality, who maintain inflated views of themselves, collective narcissists exaggerate offences to their group’s image, and respond to them aggressively. Collective narcissists believe that their group’s importance and worth are not sufficiently recognised by others. They feel that their group merits special treatment, and insist that it gets the recognition and respect it deserves. In other words, collective narcissism amounts to a belief in the exaggerated greatness of one’s group, and demands external validation.
Collective narcissists are not simply content to be members of a valuable group. They don’t devote their energy to contributing to the group’s betterment and value. Rather, they engage in monitoring whether everybody around, particularly other groups, recognise and acknowledge the great value and special worth of their group. To be sure, collective narcissists demand privileged treatment, not equal rights. And the need for continuous external validation of the group’s inflated image (a negative attribute) is what differentiates collective narcissists from those who simply hold positive feelings about their group.
In Turkey, collective narcissists enjoyed Europe’s economic crisis because they felt offended by their country being denied membership of the EU. In Portugal, collective narcissists rejoiced in the German economic crisis because they felt their country was slighted by Germany’s position in the EU. Stretching the definition of intergroup offence even further, collective narcissists in Poland targeted the makers of the Polish film Aftermath (2012) for telling the story of the Jedwabne massacre of 1941 in which villagers set fire to their Jewish neighbours, and then blamed the Nazis. Even a petty transgression such as the film’s lead actor joking about the country’s populist government (whom Polish collective narcissists support) was met with threats of physical punishment and online abuse.
When their own group is involved, collective narcissists have no sense of humour. They are disproportionately punitive in responding to what they perceive as an insult to their group, even when the insult is debatable, not perceived by others, or not intended by the other group. Unlike individual narcissists, collective narcissists cannot dissociate themselves from an unpopular or criticised group. Once their self-worth is invested in the greatness of their group, collective narcissists are motivated by enhancing their group rather than themselves.
My team researched collective narcissism as a characteristic that pertains to an individual. We believe that there will always be a proportion of people in any given population who meet the criteria. But collective narcissism can also seize an entire group, resulting in seemingly sudden and unprovoked outbursts of intergroup rage or prejudiced reactions towards minority groups. We believe that collective narcissism is most dangerous as a group syndrome – when the belief that the righteous group is not given its due acknowledgement becomes shared by the majority of group members and becomes a dominant narrative about the group’s past and present.
Such collective narcissism is so toxic it explains phenomena such as anti-Semitism and perhaps even two world wars. It might explain the 2015 terrorist attack on the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical weekly that published controversial caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. Recent research by Katarzyna Jaśko and her colleagues at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, College Park demonstrates that collective narcissists in radicalised social networks are ready to engage in political violence and terrorism.
But collective narcissism explains political behaviour in established democracies, too. Recent research indicates that national collective narcissism was implicated in voting behaviour in the Unites States: apart from partisanship, this was the strongest factor predicting voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election. Collective narcissism also explained the Brexit vote in 2016, because it predicted fear of immigrants and foreigners.
Recently, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania scanned narcissists’ brains with fMRI and found physiological evidence that their experience of social rejection was particularly hurtful, despite their denials to the contrary. This is so important because other new findings show that people derive emotional pleasure from responding to rejection with aggression. It is likely, although it remains to be confirmed, that collective narcissists feel similarly distressed when their group is criticised, rejected or otherwise undermined. They can be particularly tempted to use aggression to reduce their distress.
Can we find alternative ways of reducing the link between collective narcissism and a tendency to react with retaliatory intergroup hostility to trivial acts and events? Answering this question is the topic of our ongoing research for my team at Goldsmiths. If we could learn to deactivate the hostility felt by people who score high on the collective narcissism scale, we might also learn to defuse and de-radicalise collective narcissistic groups.
Agnieszka Golec de Zavala
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
The controversial author predicted the rise of Trump by placing "a ruthlessly ambitious, narcissistic, media-savvy villain sporting makeup and coloured hair" in his new book, written before the election. But can he explain the hate of knowledge that persists in the world today?
Well! Salman Rushdie pretty much predicted the future in his new book, The Golden House, wherein the antagonist is "a ruthlessly ambitious, narcissistic, media-savvy villain sporting makeup and coloured hair." Read into that what you will, but Rushdie here posits that he's baffled by the sudden worldwide rejection of knowledge and the elites. He says that it's not just an invention of the American right wing — that it's a worldwide problem that's helped in large part by the likes of Fox News et al — and he wonders both what gave rise to that and how it will stop. Perhaps he'll have to write a sequel.
Elitism has come under fire since the recent wave of populist politics. But when we don't listen to experts, we end up listening to politicians' lies, says Richard Dawkins.
You want expert pilots to fly your planes, top doctors to perform your surgeries, the finest musicians in your orchestra, and for the same reason, you should want experts leading the nation, says Richard Dawkins. There has been a backlash against expert knowledge amid the rising wave of populist politics, but Dawkins doesn't think elitism is the dirty word that people are implying. He contends that not all opinions are equal, and that the leaders of the UK were profoundly misguided in allowing a referendum on Brexit to occur. No average citizen—not even Dawkins himself—was fit to decide on whether to leave a federation of states with so much economic and political importance, and decades of complex history attached to it. And much like the 2016 US presidential election, it was a political movement fueled by misinformation. A representative democracy is one thing, where citizens entrust experts to make national and local decisions, but a referendum democracy seems to Dawkins extremely ill-advised, particularly given that the top Google search in the UK the day after the Brexit vote was 'What is the European Union?'. Dawkins isn't shy: he's an elitist, but a rational one. He affirms he would never want a world where your IQ determines how many votes you get, but he sees the clear benefit of making political decisions based on knowledge rather than emotion or misinformation, deliberate or otherwise. Richard Dawkins' newest book is Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.
Populism won two big votes in 2016, while the global worldview suffered... well... "big league". But how did we get to this big discord? And can populism and globalization ever get along?
There's a schism between the idealism of globalization—i.e. that a more connected, educated, and mobile world is going to make everything better—and that of populism, which demands a more insular, community-orientated way of life and thus world at large. In 2016, both the U.K. and the U.S. made it overwhelmingly apparently that the schism had reached a boiling point: the UK voted to leave the European Union without, seemingly, any forethought as to what it would do to the economy. And America elected a reality TV star, Donald Trump, who advocated both sexual assault and violence against journalists. Good times! But David Goodhart says we should have seen this coming—that there has been a battle between "Anywhere" and "Somewhere" tribes for decades, and that the issues don't all come down to "elites" versus "non-educated". It moreover comes down to a political system that favors one over the other. So what can we do? Perhaps see the other side for who they really are: one of us, just with a different view on the world.David Goodhart's new book is The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, the EU had better get ready for some of these exit-names
The European Union finds itself trapped in a reality not unlike the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Former friends are turning into mortal enemies at a frightening rate.
In fact, the EU is stuck between a rock and a hard place: Russia actively seeks to destabilize the Union from the east, and from the other side of the Atlantic, the Trump administration seems keen to do the same. Ted Malloch, president Trump's pick as U.S. ambassador to the EU (1), has compared the European project to the USSR – and expressed a desire to see it end in a similar way:
“I had in a previous career a diplomatic post where I helped bring down the Soviet Union. So maybe there’s another union that needs a little taming”.
And then there is the UK, which has decided to leave the Union. Some hope (and others fear) that its 'Brexit' is the first of several member state exits from the EU – thus potentially precipitating the end of the Union.
Such a scenario would have sounded impossible just over a year ago (i.e. before the British referendum on Brexit). But perhaps the EU should get ready for some worst-case scenarios. What will come after Brexit? Here is a map of portmanteau descriptions for other member states leaving the Union – some funnier than others.
Strange Maps #822
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
(1) News of Mr. Malloch's candidacy for the job caused strong disapproval from EU officials. He was not appointed, and the position of U.S. Ambassador to the EU remains vacant (as of October 26, 2017) since the resignation of Anthony L. Gardner on January 17, 2017.