The world is in political upheaval, and people are rebelling against excessively proud groups of people that dominate or exude elitism. Many people have become allies to the oppressed and dominated minorities. There is a dislike toward those who demonstrate religious, cultural, and national superiority. We need to belong to a group, but sometimes, that need turns into a toxic group identity. As members of a group, some of us value the group-level pride way too much and use that pride to feel superior to others – psychologists call it “collective narcissism.”
The concept is fairly new, with one of the earliest well-done studies published in 2007. Authors Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, Aleksandra Cichocka, Roy Eidelson, and Nuwan Jayawickreme define collective narcissism as “an ingroup identification tied to an emotional investment in an unrealistic belief about the unparalleled greatness of an ingroup.” Collective narcissism is an idealized identity for a group and members of that group fall in love with the image of that group. The keyword here is image.
Here, an in-group is any social group that is held together by a theme. That theme could be a country’s border, a religious text, a historical claim, or a deluded politician. Sports fandoms, music fandoms, cult fans of a musical genre, lifestyle choice advocates can all be collectively narcissistic too. Every group under the sun has the potential to demonstrate excessive group-pride. Collective narcissism emerges from individual narcissism in a social context. In collective narcissism, members of a group are emotionally invested in the group’s identity to the point of excessive pride and a sense of superiority. According to the 2007 paper, there is a need to show social dominance and not favor equality (which they see as a threat).
Now researchers have shown that collective narcissism may begin with feeling threatened by other out-group members and that can result in toxic nationalism. Just like self-esteem (how you see your own worth), there is group-esteem (how you see your group’s worth). People who form the “collective narcissists” gain self-esteem from their group’s image and worth. But healthy self-esteem comes from within, with your attitude toward yourself. Getting attached to your own group can have a down-side – it can promote aggression toward out-group members (people outside your group). There is little to no empathy, even if attempts are made. According to Agnieszka and colleagues, collective narcissism is closely associated with perceived threats from other groups or out-group members, a preference for military action, blind patriotism, an unwillingness to forgive out-groups, and right-wing authoritarianism.
This poses a problem because none of the behaviors that collective narcissism predicts foster community well-being.
While the 2007 study found right-wing authoritarianism to be a trait of collective narcissists, the story isn’t that simple. Members of any group including justice warriors, leftist fundamentalists, and we-are-above-all centrists can turn toward narcissism. The exact identity or category of your group isn’t as significant as the perception of your own in-group – do you want the world to see how superior your group is? If the answer is “Yes,” it could lead to collective narcissism.
Let’s backtrack to the concept of narcissism. As the story goes, in Greek mythology, a beautiful hunter called Narcissus showed contempt for all those who fell in love with him. One day, a nymph called Echo spotted him in the woods and fell in love with him. He pushed her away and rejected her love. She roamed the woods in despair and wilted away. In the end, all there was was an Echo. The god of retribution, Nemesis, was displeased with Narcissus’ behavior and put Narcissus on a path to a water spring. There he saw his reflection, an inauspicious thing at that time, and fell in love with his own reflection. When he realized the love of his life, his own image, couldn’t materialize, he presumably killed himself. A flower bloomed at that point, which we call Narcissus – A daffodil.
In line with this story, Theodore Million, a sexologist, called excessive masturbation “narcissus-like” because it made oneself the object of one’s primary sexual attraction. If we extend this notion to a narcissistic social group, the term “circle-jerk” gains more validity!
So instead of admiring oneself or seeking admiration, members of a collectively narcissistic group admire their group’s image and hunt for ways to reinforce that – in a way, fuel a group’s ego.
How does collective narcissism come to be? What begins at the individual level that manifests as White Supremacy, Neo-nazism, and Hindutva? Or what makes one push for ideas like Sinocentrism that make China a cultural, political, and economical capital of the world?
A recently published paper (2019) by Aleksandra Cichocka and Aleksandra Cislak says nationalism is collective narcissism. They proposed a model that describes how people’s personal needs transform into unhealthy social pride. For the sake of clarity, as per political psychology researchers, nationalism is “a perception of national superiority and an orientation toward national dominance.”
They say nationalism is not just about showing the dominance of your own country but it is more about a need for others to recognize the country’s greatness. Similar to the narcissus’ story, there is a high value attached to the image of the country – we have seen this in mottoes like “Make America Great Again,” “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and “Shoot the traitors to the nation.”
When it comes to hostile behavior from narcissistic groups, even as large as whole countries, the criticism from out-group members plays a role. One study looked at this and supports the idea. The study found that criticism from out-group members can motivate hostile behavior toward the “outsiders” but positive remarks won’t. So intergroup conflicts would be high if there is perceived threat but not if the group’s image is seen in a positive light. Feeling threatened may be at the heart of intergroup hostility and aggression. Because threats motivate us to change other people’s behavior via anger or aggression. Moreover, collective narcissistic groups seem to be hypersensitive or paranoid that others want to undermine the narcissistic in-group even if the evidence for undermining is absent. So 2 things: Feeling threatened and hypersensitivity can make a group or nation aggressive toward others.
The ongoing criticism toward China for the coronavirus pandemic may partly explain China’s aggressive stance toward multiple countries. For example, China retaliated against Australia (economically) after Australia’s push for a deeper investigation into the origins of the pandemic. China did this by imposing a massive additional fee on its barley exports to Australia and stopped importing beef from a few Australian vendors.
We can see collective narcissism in online groups too. One such group is the group of Incels (involuntary celibates) – mostly guys who think women deny them sex and opportunity. They feel entitled to sex and companionship from women. Many of these Incels show hatred toward women and treat them as sexual objects. Their perceived threat from women and low self-esteem transforms into hostile behavior toward women.
How we convert to collective narcissism
This brings us back to the collective narcissism model described by Aleksandra Cichocka and Aleksandra Cislak. For the authors, national collective narcissism or excessive group-pride is a defensive form of commitment to one’s group. According to the model, collective narcissism compensates for a person’s shortcomings and unmet needs. There are 3 factors that promote collective narcissism:
- Low self-esteem and self-worth
- Unmet needs or a frustrated need for sex, identity, and belongingness
- Lack of control and independence
So if people are not in control of their lives, have low self-esteem and self-worth, and their needs are not being met, they idealize their group identity. They put their group on a
pedal-stool pedestal. People then use their group’s superior image to feel a sense of control in their lives and improve their self-worth by borrowing from the group’s worth. That means they gain self-esteem from the group’s success, not from their attitude toward themselves.
People feel an increase in the group’s narcissism if they are unhappy with the group’s status in the whole society. If members of another group are doing better than them, the narcissism rises. This may explain why shunned groups like the Incels or Neo-Nazis get more aggressive when others are doing better than them.
Once the national collective narcissism increases or takes hold due to perceived threats, low self-worth, and lack of control, it fuels 3 broad categories of problems.
- Intra-group problems
- Taking advantage of people within the group for personal gain.
- A drop in loyalty for your own group or nation.
- Conspiring against other members of your group
- Political problems
- An increase in right-wing and authoritarian beliefs.
- Supporting national populist parties and politicians.
- Abandoning multi-national and global organizations in favor of in-house institutions.
- Climate-change denial and anti-environment policies to spite more popular and well-respected policies from other people.
- Inter-group problems
- Feelings of paranoia and hypersensitivity to threats.
- Belief in conspiracies.
- Hostility to defend the group’s image.
- Increase in prejudice against people outside the group.
- Lower sense of kinship with others.
- Promoting violence and extreme actions.
How can we avoid the problems of collective narcissism?
Looking at the theory explained above, the best approach is to prevent a person from compensating for shortcomings by idealizing a particular group’s image. That will prevent the need for a group to build self-worth, meet one’s needs, and feel a sense of control. So this approach will remove the “collective” part of narcissism and work on the core issues that underlie it.
Self-worth: For those who tend to rely on a group’s identity to borrow self-worth from, work on your self-worth with other techniques such as making a list of things that make you feel valued and seeking value-affirmations (activities that highlight the values you hold). Feeling valued is important, especially because not feeling valued is the main reason we get angry.
Unmet needs: To prevent collective narcissism and improve well-being, meeting basic needs is vital. These needs include food, clothing, shelter, sex, companionship, achievement, a defined identity (who am I?), independence, meaning and purpose, and respect. All of these needs can be met without the need for a group to fulfill psychological voids. The need for belonging and satisfactory social health is tricky because that is exactly what transforms into strong group identities. You should be careful in having a sense of belonging with a group. Belonging to a group for a purpose such as common interests, hobbies, and activities can be healthy. As long as it does not turn into a blind commitment to the group. The needs should be adequately met in multiple areas (professional, personal, social) so that there is no fear of losing your identity or missing major benefits if you need to exit a group for any reason.
Sense of control: From the unmet needs, two personal needs have a long-lasting impact on psychological wellbeing: One, independence and two, meaning and purpose. Both of these needs address how you feel about your life. Begin by gaining financial independence and independence in relationships. Next, work on independence of thoughts and feelings, which may not need validation from others. Finally, open-up to large changes in your thoughts so you can adjust to new circumstances.
Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. Each article is frequently updated with new research findings.
I’m an applied psychologist from Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play the guitar.