What to expect when collective narcissists get political power

a_golecDr. Agnieszka Golec de Zavala is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology. Her research interests and expertise lie in the areas of social and political psychology.  She is  interested in how prejudice is embodied. For example – why do we use a metaphor of cleansing when we mean exterminating others (e.g. ´ethnic cleansing´). She  has examined how intergroup attitudes are shaped by the interaction of ideological orientations – such as political conservatism, nationalism or religious fundamentalism – and epistemic motivations (need for cognitive closure, death anxiety, uncertainty avoidance). She is also particularly interested in predictors of political radicalisation, violence and prejudice, and in  in collective and individual narcissism and their social consequences. It is to this  interest that her post speaks.

Our ongoing research showed that people who agreed with statements like ‘My national group deserves special treatment‘; ‘Not many people seem to fully understand the importance of my group.‘ or ‘I will never be satisfied until my group gets the recognition it deserves.’ voted to Leave the European Union in the referendum in the UK in June 2016. They elected ultraconservative, isolationist government in Poland. They voted for Donald Trump in the US presidential election. These people can be described as collective narcissists and we will face the consequences of their getting to power in the years to come. Thus, we should understand how they think and act.


Collective narcissism is analogous to individual narcissism: emotional dependence on admiration by others (Rodthewald & Morf, 2001) but collective narcissists seek admiration for groups they belong to. In general, people relate to important groups in similar ways they relate to the self (Scheepers, et al., 2013). Insightfully, Jean-Jacques Rousseau differentiated two types of self-love.  Amour propre (self-love) is a preoccupation to amount to something in the eyes of others. It can be compared to individual narcissism, self-esteem contingent on recognition by others. Amour de soi-même (love for the self) is a need to care for and nourish oneself.  It can be compared to self-acceptance or self-compassion.

Similarly, attachment to groups can take two distinct forms. Collective narcissism is an emotional investment in an exaggerated image of an(y) important group contingent on recognition and admiration of others (analogous to image-cautious self-love). It is characterized by an unrealistic belief in group’s grandiosity and demands for privileged treatment (Golec de Zavala, et al., 2009). Collective narcissism may be contrasted with attachment to a highly valued group expressed as feeling responsible for the group’s welfare (analogous to love for the self). The two forms of group love have distinct consequences for inter-group relations. Collective narcissists are hostile towards groups that they see as a threat to their group’s image. People satisfied with their group but not narcissistic about it hold positive attitudes towards other groups (Golec de Zavala, et al., 2013).

Collective narcissists believe their group is unique but not sufficiently recognized by others. In fact, they themselves unconsciously doubt their group: They do not automatically associate group symbols with positive stimuli. People who are attached to a group believe in its good qualities (Golec de Zavala, et al., 2009). For example, in our ongoing studies collective narcissists voted to Leave the European Union because they feared and rejected immigrants. Those who were proud but not narcissistic about being British, voted to Remain because they saw their country as indispensable in defining the European Union’s identity.

Collective narcissists are determined to get the recognition of others. When they think their group is not sufficiently recognized, they advocate hostile revenge. They attack not only the ‘offenders’ but the whole groups they represent. In our studies, when their group was criticized by one person, collective narcissists responded with aggressive intentions and behaviours towards the whole group (Golec de Zavala, et al., 2016). Collective narcissists are also indirectly hostile. They rejoice in misfortunes of groups or people they hold accountable for offending their group.

Worryingly, collective narcissists can construe almost anything as offence to their group. For example, Polish collective narcissists felt offended by a movie about one of the least laudable aspects of Polish modern history: post-war anti-Semitism. In response, they attacked a celebrity actor who played the protagonist in this movie. They expressed intentions of harming and offending him. They rejoiced in his personal hardships (Golec de Zavala, et al., 2016).

Since they constantly monitor their group image, collective narcissists are prone to conspiracy thinking to explain anything that may undermine their group (Golec de Zavala & Cichocka, 2012; Cichocka, et al., 2015). Consider the catastrophic plane crash in 2010 that killed 96 members of the Polish ruling elite including the President and his wife. Collective narcissists could not believe such monumental national loss might have been caused by something as mundane as human mistake. Especially, not one made by the president himself who ordered the plane to land despite averse atmospheric conditions. Thus, they spread and believed in conspiracy theories about a secretive Russian attack. Our ongoing research shows that national collective narcissism predicts support for political parties that most actively promoted such theories.



Collective Narcissism Scale

So what can we expect from collective narcissism being now in power and on the rise? Collective narcissistic rulers are likely to make unrealistic demands on other countries. This will result either in increased international tensions or international marginalization, depending on the country’s actual economic and political power.  Their alliances are likely to be short-lived. Collective narcissists look for allies but they quickly get used to their support and make further demands. Conspiracy theories are likely to become more prominent in political rhetoric. In internal affairs, the divide between ruling parties and opposition is likely to increase. Active opposition undermines the image of the governors.  Internal intergroup tensions are likely to increase because collective narcissists rely on a narrow definition of what constitutes a nation. They do not like it when their group is comparable to other groups. We are likely to witness efforts to marginalize minority groups and limit the rights of immigrants and foreign workers. The more immigrants are presented as economically successful (and comparable to hosting nationals), the more threatening they would seem to national collective narcissists. There will be less help for refugees. Refugees who can successfully settle in a host country become comparable to the hosting group. Such prospects are likely to be threatening to national collective narcissists. In short, we will also see more efforts to secure, legitimize, and further legalize group-based privileges.

There is a chance that collective narcissists’ hostile sentiments may become ‘tamed’ by participation in democratic processes and institutions based on transparency and equal rights. However, there is a real danger that democratic institutions and processes may become compromised by collective narcissistic sentiments.


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