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Poor us: how collective narcissism powers Trump and Putin’s supporters

Individuals can feel narcissism for their group as well as themselves – and many politicians are succeeding by playing to those feelings

David Robson
24 April 2022, 9.00am

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Nikolay Vinokurov/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

For Vladimir Putin, no other country is greater, or more unfairly persecuted, than Russia – which stands against constant threat from Western influence.

Such rhetoric has only increased in recent months. “They sought to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us, our people from within, the attitudes they have been aggressively imposing on their countries, attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature,” he declared on 24 February this year.

“The collective West is attempting to splinter our society,” Putin emphasised again in March, while also expressing fear of the insiders who were turning against his country. “But any people, the Russian people especially, are able to distinguish true patriots from bastards and traitors and will 'spit them out’.”

Such words seem designed to appeal to citizens’ 'collective narcissism' – a phenomenon that is of increasing interest to social psychologists. Much like individual narcissism, it involves a fragile sense of unparalleled superiority that is dependent on others’ admiration, and extremely hostile to anything that threatens to puncture the ego. The difference is that collective narcissism concerns people’s feelings of fragile superiority towards their group’s status, rather than their own. And they respond extremely aggressively to anything that may threaten their feelings of grandiosity.

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Multiple studies over the past decade show that collective narcissism can predict people’s voting intentions for populist movements, their prejudices against outsiders, and their tendency to fall for misinformation and conspiracy theories.

Not he the nobody is great, but he the member of the most wonderful group on earth

Erich Fromm

“The concept allows us to measure and disentangle the more negative nationalistic elements from healthier elements of group identity,” says Jay Van Bavel, an associate professor at New York University and a co-author of the recent book, ‘The Power of Us’.

Indeed, when seen through this lens, any of the most confusing events of the 21st century start to make a lot more sense.

From philosophy to science

The concept of collective narcissism is rooted in the writings of psychoanalysts and philosophers grappling with the causes and consequences of the two world wars. Chief among them was Erich Fromm, who described how people with a diminished sense of personal self-importance may try to derive status from their group.

“He is nothing – but if he can identify with his nation, or can transfer his personal narcissism to the nation, then he is everything,” Fromm wrote in 1979. “The individual satisfies his own narcissism by belonging to and identifying himself with the group. Not he the nobody is great, but he the member of the most wonderful group on earth.”

The scientific study of collective narcissism would not come for another three decades, however, spearheaded by Agnieszka Golec de Zavala and her colleagues Aleksandra Cichocka, Roy Eidelson and Nuwan Jayawickreme.

Their first task was to work out how to measure collective narcissism. To do so, they adapted the most widely-used measure of individual narcissism – but adjusted each term to describe an individual’s feelings for their group.

You can try some of the items for yourself. On a scale of 1 (“I strongly disagree”) to 6 (“I strongly agree”) rate the following statements.

  • I insist upon my group getting the respect that is due to it
  • If my group had a major say in the world, the world would be a much better place.
  • I wish other groups would more quickly recognise the authority of my group.
  • The true worth of my group is often misunderstood.

The scale can be applied to any group. You can use it to measure people’s attitudes to their university or their football club. Given its obvious political significance, however, much of the work has focused on people’s beliefs about their country.

Note also that the emphasis is on the need to receive the adulation of others. Narcissism is not just a feeling of being special, but the demand that others see you that way too. This is important when comparing a collective narcissism for one’s country with general feelings of national pride, which does not inevitably come with that insistence on being worshipped by others.

Fragile egos

Some of the earliest investigations examined the consequences of collective narcissism for intergroup relations. Individual narcissists, after all, are known to be more sensitive to perceived threats to their status and self-image, and they will lash out when they feel undermined. And the same seems to be true for its collective equivalent. “The narcissistic craving for recognition can turn into aggression and rivalry, especially when people are threatened,” says Cichocka, who is a reader in political psychology at the University of Kent, Canterbury, in the UK.

Consider an experiment on a group of 108 Americans, who were asked to read a letter written by a British foreign-exchange student. For half the participants, the letter was extremely critical of the American character. “Thinking about Americans, it seems to me that they are very materialistic and arrogant,” the letter said. “I also think that it is a nation of ignorant people. They do not know much about countries and cultures beyond their own.” The rest saw a letter full of praise for Americans’ friendliness, work ethic and optimism.

After reading the text, the participants were next asked to describe how they would behave towards British people whether they wished to “hurt, offend, injure, intimidate, and humiliate” people from the UK.

For people high in collective narcissism, the criticism from the student resulted in greater hostility towards all British people. Based on that one person’s views, they had started to feel that the whole nation deserved to be opposed and confronted. For people low on collective narcissism, however, the letter made barely any difference.

Further studies documented such effects in many other populations. Participants in Poland, for example, first read an article about alleged British prejudice towards their compatriots. Later they were asked to consider a minor academic conflict between scientists of the two nationalities. When describing the best kind of behaviour to resolve the issue, those with high collective narcissism happily endorsed hostile actions such as “use deception to weaken the other party’s position”, “spread negative information in order to hurt the public image of the other party” and “oppose every action of the other party to impair its plans and efforts”.

Collective narcissists were also more likely to endorse anti-Semitic beliefs

Overall, the people scoring high on collective narcissism seemed to be extremely ready to see a threat in other groups’ behaviours – and a greater willingness to lash out to anyone who might threaten their country’s standing.

Anti-Semitism in the real world

You may be sceptical of experiments that rely on hypothetical scenarios, but collective narcissism does seem to be connected to many of the real-life prejudices that we see around us – both to external threats and potential “enemies within”. In 2012, for example, Golec de Zavala and Cichocka examined attitudes in Poland. They found that people who scored higher on collective narcissism were more likely to have a general “siege mentality”. They would be more likely to agree with the idea that “most nations will conspire against us, if only they have the possibility to do” – a response that seems to reflect a general paranoia about their country.

Importantly, the collective narcissists were also more likely to endorse anti-Semitic beliefs like “Members of this group strive to rule the world” and “Actions of members of this group are often clandestine”. And they even endorsed hostile acts, such as playing noisy music out loud deliberately to annoy a Jewish neighbour.

All I want for our country is to be treated well, to be treated with respect

Donald Trump

Collective narcissism also appears to predict anti-Arab attitudes in the US, and negative attitudes towards immigrants in the UK and Poland. This includes the justification of using collective violence against the newcomers. As Golec de Zavala wrote in a recent paper, “collective narcissism is the form of ‘in-group love’ persistently associated with ‘out-group hate’”.

Woman holding a

Humiliation won't win her over

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Jim Lambert/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

United in paranoia

Many populist politicians have tried to appeal to citizens’ collective narcissism, with considerable success. “Populists are all basically selling the same message,” says Golec de Zavala, who is a reader in psychology at Goldsmith’s University in London. “And it’s very strongly emotionally laden, with this sense of resentment – that something was taken away from us, and that we are the righteous ones here, coming for what is ours.”

Just consider the following statement from President Trump in 2018. “All I want for our country is to be treated well, to be treated with respect,” he said. “For many years other countries that are allies of ours, so-called allies, they have not treated our country fairly.”

The words could have almost been lifted directly from the Collective Narcissism Scale. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that people who scored more highly on that measure were consistently more likely to support Trump’s campaign in the 2016 US presidential election.

Elsewhere, measures of collective narcissism have predicted support for the populist Law and Order party in Poland and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary. “If you make people believe that others are after you, after your great misunderstood nation, and that you have to protect our greatness – that creates a feeling of threat and people will rally around the leader,” adds Golec de Zavala.

COVID narcissists

Some of the most surprising consequences of collective narcissism have only become became apparent recently, over the course of the pandemic. This includes a greater susceptibility to misinformation that might enhance a country’s reputation.

“Anecdotally, it felt like we saw national narcissistic rhetoric related to COVID-19 everywhere,” says Anni Sternisko, a doctoral candidate at New York University. When she tested this empirically, she found that national narcissists were consistently more likely to believe and spread conspiracy theories about the emerging catastrophe. “We think they were attractive to collective narcissists because they provided an excuse for why their country was struggling or suffering,” says Van Bavel, who was a co-author on Sternisko’s paper.

Even more shockingly, a recent paper by Cichocka, Sternisko and colleagues found that collective narcissists were more likely to endorse bizarre measures to hide their country’s failures to contain the outbreak – such as limiting the number of COVID tests that were available to diagnose infections.

The collective narcissists were also prepared to fast-track their country’s vaccine without sufficient testing – despite the obvious dangers this would have entailed. “We explicitly told them that this might hurt people, but they were still willing to support these policies,” says Cichocka. “As long as it made their country look better, they would be willing to sacrifice the wellbeing of their fellow citizens.”

Collective unity

Needless to say, the researchers studying collective narcissism are now paying attention to Putin’s rhetoric and the invasion of Ukraine. “Part of the way that Putin has conceived of the country and his role is to regain Russia's glory and image in the world and dominance,” says Van Bavel.

“Russians have been fed this narrative for years that Russia is a great nation, that’s it’s not appreciated enough,” agrees Cichocka.

She emphasises that we don’t yet have good data on the way that Russian citizens are responding to this message, and whether it has increased their support of the invasion of Ukraine.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyi on a screen at a solidarity rally in Trafalgar Square, 26 March 2022

"He’s appealing to the best of human nature"

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Santo Basone/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The study of Russian attitudes could be fertile ground for further studies. But it may be even more illuminating to see how Ukrainians are responding. Clearly, the war could have provoked the population’s collective narcissism. So far, however, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has avoided the hate-fuelled rhetoric that would normally appeal to threatened narcissists. Instead, he seems to be pushing a sense of unity. “He has rallied them around a shared identity and shared purpose,” Van Bavel says.

It is striking that Zelenskyy has emphasised Ukraine’s kinship with the rest of the world, and has even made direct appeals to Russian citizens, in their own language. In general, collective narcissists do not encourage dialogue with their enemies.

“Zelenskyy could be doing the same as Putin,” says Golec de Zavala. “He could spin a story that is only about the threat. But he is proposing something else. ‘We are about solidarity. We are about standing for each other’… He’s appealing to the best of human nature.”

In war and peace, Zelenskyy’s rhetoric might be a lesson for many other leaders, who could aim to build mutual respect and pride in place of a fragile narcissism.

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