Collective Narcissism

We think of narcissism as a solitary activity. Narcissus didn’t apparently invite anyone-else to gaze with him at his own reflection. But there are different types of narcissism. They do not all revolve around admiration of our own physical beauty. Fortunately, for those of us not obviously endowed with beauty of form, there are alternative ways of admiring ourselves. And others can get involved too.

In 2005, the psychologist Agnieszka Golec de Zavala was trying to understand what leads people to commit acts of terrorist violence. She began to notice amongst extremist groups what other psychologists, Theodor Adorno and Erich Fromm, had previously described as “group narcissism”: “a belief that the (exaggerated) greatness of one’s group is not sufficiently recognized by others.”. This means that the thirst for recognition is never satisfied. She helped to develop the Collective Narcissism Scale to measure the severity of group-narcissistic beliefs, including statements such as “My group deserves special treatment” and “I insist upon my group getting the respect that is due to it” with which respondents rate their agreement.

At first, she thought it was just a fringe phenomenon, but has since realized that it’s widespread. It can happen in any kind of group, whether religious, political, gender-based, racial, ethnic or in sports teams or clubs of any sort.

Collective narcissists can be distinguished by the fact that they are more focused on prejudice against people outside their group rather than in-group loyalty. And so it can fuel political radicalism and violence and, in everyday settings, can keep groups from listening to one another, reducing people on the “other side” to one-dimensional characters.

As Orwell made clear though, in his essay on patriotism, it’s entirely possible to have healthy pride for your nation or political group and the unique aspects of your culture without being consumed by the desire to tear down other groups and so be seen as superior. Unsurprisingly, collective narcissism has clear links to support for populist parties and nationalistic politicians around the world.

Groups may differ in their narrative about why they are superior - they might believe that they’re the most moral, the most culturally sophisticated, the most talented, the most powerful, or the most protective of democratic values. They may think that their greatness is God’s will, or that they’ve earned it through the benefits they see themselves as having brought to society. Regardless, collective narcissists are resentful of other groups, and hypersensitive to perceived intergroup threat. As a result, collective narcissism tends to breed prejudice.

Group narcissists also glorify leading members of the group and tend to overlook their moral transgressions. But members don’t always benefit from this thinking: collective narcissists are also hyper-vigilant about “enemies within,” members who, in their opinion, reflect negatively on the group. And some studies have suggested that collective narcissists are actually more likely to leave their group for personal gain, and to use in-group members as tools to advance their own goals. So, not very loyal.

When people think of narcissism, they conjure up the boastful, grandiose narcissist. But psychologists have identified a more vulnerable form of narcissism, involving a fragile sense of self-worth. Collective narcissists of this sort might be obsessed with receiving group recognition because, on a personal level, they feel deeply insecure about their own value - they desperately need validation. We have seen that many people in online conspiracy theory groups do their ‘research’ in the hope of finding ‘links’ to support their favoured theory which have been missed by others. In this way they gain the kudos they so want from the other group members.

Ultimately, though, collective narcissism isn’t a successful coping strategy; studies show that it doesn’t improve self-esteem. In fact people who believe that their group’s greatness is not truly appreciated seem likely to start worrying that their own personal greatness is not appreciated either.

But even in smaller groups and lower-stakes settings, collective narcissism still shows itself. One study showed that sports fans high in collective narcissism were more likely to feel threatened by a news report about their team that they perceived as critical - and were more likely to say they’d like to hurt the author of the report or “teach him a lesson.”

A good present-day example is the typically combative stance which was taken by Yorkshire Cricket Club over accusations of racism. The club obviously considered itself to be justified in whatever it did because, well, they’re Yorkshire Cricket Club and the people of Yorkshire can say what they like. They can use racist epithets, such as calling people ‘Pakkis’ and call it ‘banter’, because they take pride in being blunt and to the point. After all, these people come from Pakistan and so use of Pakki is not evidence of an underlying racist attitude. Until now, when so many of their sponsors have withdrawn their support, leaving the club close to bankruptcy. Ironically, the new chairman of the Club is a peer of Pakistani ethnic origin who has apologised on behalf of the club to all players and others affected by what was in fact blatant racism. The club has now paid compensation accordingly, having abandoned its attempt to impose non-disclosure agreements as a condition of payment.

And then we have the likes of Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain. As we have noted before, their standard comment is that the government is ‘not listening’, when they actually mean that the government is not bending to their will. Why do they think that it should? It’s pretty obvious that it’s a question of narcissism. They consider themselves to be morally superior to all others and so should be obeyed. Their leader, Greta Thunberg, has told us that COP26 has achieved precisely nothing, a view not shared by leaders of even the countries most likely to be submerged beneath a sea rising because of global warming. They, like Barack Obama, say that the conference has made progress, but that, rather obviously, much more still needs to be done. So far, however, in order to persuade those who could easily do more, our activists have not glued themselves to the door of the Chinese embassy in London, never mind to the tarmac of Tienanmen Square. But then a balanced view is not typical of narcissism.

The most prominent group of narcissists, however, is that obsessive set of people known as Brexiteers. Their wish to impose an extreme form of Brexit has over the last few years brought our Parliamentary system further and further into disrepute. They ‘know’ that their view of Britain’s position in the world, its ability to flourish again once freed from the shackles of the EU, is correct and they have taken action (often illegally) accordingly. It has also lead to a situation where that group, including our beloved Prime Minister, has formed a protective circle around its members. This applies particularly to the inner circle, the ‘Spartans’, one of whom was Owen Patterson, who stood unflinchingly in favour of a hard Brexit.

No-one in this circle is to be allowed to be disadvantaged, because whatever someone may have done, it is seen as a minor infraction when compared to the good done by holding the beliefs and supporting the ethos of the group. If group members display a venal form of morality, then that too is to be overlooked because the group’s survival is overwhelmingly more important. If it means that only members of that group are ministers, even if they’re incompetent, then so be it. Only in that way can they be sure that its core task can be carried out – getting Brexit done.

However with the sudden abandonment of Owen Paterson, following Thursday’s highly critical Daily Mail front page, there are now signs of cracks. Why? I would suggest that this is because they have been telling us for some time that they have been successful in their quest:  Brexit has now been ‘done’. Which means that their raison d’etre is no more. What will their collective narcissism be based on in future, I wonder? Will the group finally drown in its own sleaze?

Paul Buckingham

9 November 2021

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