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How “collective narcissism” helps explain the election of Trump

“Collective narcissists do not have a sense of humor when their group is concerned,” a psychologist says.

GOP Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Campaigns In Cedar Falls, Iowa
 Collective narcissists are obsessed with admiration of their group. Remind you of anyone?
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

Donald Trump’s message during his presidential campaign was clear: America is being humiliated by the rest of the world.

China is killing us on trade. Mexico’s least desirables are streaming across our border. “We don’t win anymore,” Trump said, over and over.

Trump’s words hit on a psychological principle that scientists are beginning to understand. It’s called collective narcissism, and it likely helps explain why Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” resonated with some Americans.

You may be familiar with regular narcissism: a person obsessed with admiration, with a need for others to know how great he is, and a propensity to lash out when his greatness is attacked.

Collective narcissists are a group of people who desperately need their group to be admired, and validated by others. Collectively narcissistic Americans would feel the need for America to be revered the world over. They would need America “to win.”

“It’s a preoccupation with the greatness and that others notice that greatness,” Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, a psychologist at Goldsmiths University of London, tells me.

It’s also “a major predictor of all that goes wrong in intergroup relations,” Golec de Zavala says. She and her colleagues recently published a study that found collective narcissism predicted hypersensitivity to insults, and a propensity to retaliate, in a sample of nearly 1,600 people across the globe. It even predicted feelings of schadenfreude when other groups fail.

The world over, collective narcissism has become a powerful influencer. It’s one form of gasoline that can ignite slights into bloodshed. Consider how the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris was set off by cartoons. Or how the British TV show Top Gear set off protests in Argentina in 2014 by featuring a car with a license plate that coincidentally referenced the 1982 Falklands War (which Argentina lost to the UK).

Golec de Zavala has data (under peer review) that shows collective narcissism predicted voting for “Leave” option in the Brexit referendum. The “Leave” campaign, in part, tapped into the sentiment that immigrants were diminishing the greatness and uniqueness of the UK. And she’s starting to see data that shows it predicted support for Donald Trump — what’s “Make America Great Again” if not a phrase that tugs directly at collective narcissists’ hearts?

In the coming years, collective narcissism will continue to rear its ugly, destabilizing head. It’s not necessarily a phenomenon that’s growing stronger, but increasingly politicians have been using it as a tactic to win elections. How can we stop it?

An edited transcript of my conversation with Golec de Zavala, conducted via phone and follow-ups over email, follows.

Brian Resnick

So what happens in the minds of collective narcissists when they think their group is being threatened?

Agnieszka Golec de Zavala

Collective narcissists do not have a sense of humor when their group is concerned. Any [insult] could be convincing. So you tell them naming a teddy bear Mohammed is insulting, and collective narcissists would be more likely to believe you.

In a way, they are susceptible to any type of propaganda that upsets the in-group image.

Collective narcissists — [that is, people who score high on the collective narcissism scale] — support hostile and aggressive actions toward those who they see as threatening the exaggerated in-group image regardless of the costs of those actions.

Collective narcissists are exclusive in who they are willing to regard as compatriots. And they turn against those who express concern.

Brian Resnick

How is collective narcissism different from social dominance orientation or authoritarianism — other ideas that have recently been floated around to explain the rise of Trump and other right-wing politicians around the world?

Agnieszka Golec de Zavala

They all have different definitions. They are motivated by different concerns.

Authoritarians are motivated by the concern of being threatened by [the] changing status quo. So they want to reject every other group that would threaten the status quo.

People high on social dominance orientation are competitive; they believe they have to fight in order to be competitive. They want to be on top, and therefore they reject others.

With collective narcissists, the concern is group greatness. In that sense, any other group that can rise up in the world can be a threat to in-group greatness just by the virtue of intergroup comparison.

Brian Resnick

Is collective narcissism a better predictor of hostility than these other traits?

Agnieszka Golec de Zavala

I cannot say whether it is better [as a predictor]. However, in the last paper I published, it was the strongest predictor of reacting with intergroup hostility to imagined insults across five studies [conducted in Turkey, Portugal, and Poland]. So I guess it is a better (so to speak) predictor of hostility in this particular context — when collective narcissists believe the greatness of their group was threatened.

[Author note: In that study, recently published in the European Journal of Personality, collective narcissism was also associated with a sense of schadenfreude when learning about another group’s misfortunes.]

Brian Resnick

Can collective narcissism explain Trump’s election?

Agnieszka Golec de Zavala

We have just received data from an American national sample showing that collective narcissism predicted having voted for Trump. It was the strongest predictor together with partisanship (and it was stronger than authoritarianism).

That means that partisanship predicted voting for Trump and collective narcissism independently predicted voting for Trump. Republicans voted for Trump whether they were collective narcissists or not, and collective narcissists voted Trump whether they were Republicans or not. (These data were collected by my colleague and collaborator Christopher Federico at University of Minnesota.)

We haven’t published these findings in any scientific outlet yet. We will, but it will take some time to write this up. What is written up and under review now are my data showing that collective narcissism predicted the Brexit vote in a similar manner.

Brian Resnick

To me, “Make America Great Again” sounds like the exact type of slogan that would tug at a collective narcissist’s heart.

Agnieszka Golec de Zavala

Collective narcissists were really appealed to. Imagine you feel great but not appreciated. That is a frustration. It’s a very powerful motivation.

Brian Resnick

What interested me the most in your most recent paper was the finding that collective narcissism and in-group pride did not perfectly correlate. That it’s possible to be proud of your group but not narcissistic about it. Can you explain?

Agnieszka Golec de Zavala

People who are proud group members, they can be narcissistic, but they don’t have to be.

Actually, when we managed to separate those two variables, people [who have in-group pride but aren’t collectively narcissistic] are actually tolerant toward others. They’re not intolerant, they are not rejecting, they are not exclusionists. They are actually more open.

Narcissism is hyperprotective, hypersensitive, and aggressive. National group pride is not necessarily so.

Brian Resnick

That sounds like a good goal: How can we make people proud of their groups but not intolerant toward others?

Agnieszka Golec de Zavala

We do not know much about how to reduce prejudice and hostility of collective narcissists.

Known psychological interventions address people who consciously want to reduce their prejudice. So we know how to preach to the converted.

We know less how to address those who embrace their xenophobia and intergroup hostility. We can reduce negative consequences of collective narcissism by exposing collective narcissists to the culture of intergroup tolerance.

This may “disable” the most ugly expressions of collective narcissism: bigotry, exclusions, hostility. We can teach people to postpone negative reactions through mindfulness and self-affirmation. We can teach them to express compassion, appreciation, and gratitude in their daily lives and express those emotions more in public life. Mastery of those prosocial emotions allows [people] to address basic and universal human motivation to care for others.

Brian Resnick

I see that. I find that a lot of psychological research on intergroup conflict is really good at defining problems. But solutions are still far off.

Where did the idea for “collective narcissism” come from?

Agnieszka Golec de Zavala

The concept is not very new, but the research on it is new.

The concept was actually proposed by Theodor Adorno and Erich Fromm — from the Frankfurt School — during the 1930s in Germany. They used the term to describe the sentiment the Nazi Party was rising on.

Their idea was that collective narcissism was a defensive type of group identification. Because people felt threatened, and because it was difficult economic times, it resulted in a weakening of the ego. And therefore people [wanted to identify with groups] imbued with grandiose and special features.

Collective narcissism was explained as an overcompensation for individual weakness. But I don’t know whether this is true. The current research doesn’t support it as much: People who hold themselves in esteem hold their groups in esteem as well.

Brian Resnick

Are there more collective narcissists than ever before? And if so, can that explain the rise in right-wing governments with anti-immigrant sentiments?

Agnieszka Golec de Zavala

I don’t have the data to say we have X percent collective narcissists in this country and another percentage in another. It’s an individual difference variable [meaning it follows a bell curve in the population] — some people will have it less, and some people will have it more.

One thing that worries me the most is that collective narcissism becomes a problem when it becomes a norm. So identifying when collectives, groups, nations become collectively narcissistic and addressing this sentiment before it erupts in political violence would be the ideal thing.

I live in the UK now, and collective narcissism very clearly predicted Brexit voting, and it very clearly predicted it thorough the rejection of immigrants and foreign workers.

Basically, when you have a narrative like that, you always have a group that will be convinced by that narrative. Then you’d have the people in the middle who will be swung by the fact there are more and more people saying that.

The ability to marginalize this type of narrative is what really matters. And I think we’re failing now.

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